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We love France, or “Est-ce que vous jouez à basket?”

June 5, 2011

Today, as Rafael Nadal celebrates his record-equalling sixth French Open title—Michael Jordan fans take note of the significance of six—we pause to take note of the great contributions the French have made to le basketball, loosely translated here as “basketball.”  Unfortunately, French-bashing is a prevalent part of Anglo-American popular humor (or humour).  Several great players have emerged from France or from francophone countries, and we salute their efforts.

"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix

Allons-y à basket!

Olden Polynice (Haiti):  Polynice spent his time in the NBA providing a strong presence in the paint and averaged a double-double in points and rebounds in 1993-94.  According to Sports Illustrated, though, Polynice’s past was dogged by allegations of plagiarism and a near-scandal during his time at the University of Virginia.  Fortunately for the Bulls, who selected him 8th overall in the 1987 NBA draft, Polynice was acquitted and continued to hone his skills.  If anything, the Seattle Supersonics were the ones to feel cheated after swapping their draft pick for Polynice.  Who was said pick?  None other than Scottie Pippen.

Samuel Dalembert (Haiti):  Dalembert reminds one eerily of Polynice:  the Haitian connection, same height (6’ 11” / 2.11m), and time spent playing with the Sacramento Kings.  Like Polynice, Dalembert offers a strong interior presence.  Dalembert recently attained Canadian citizenship (awesome, eh?) and ensures that a strong francophone presence remains on the national team.

(Jacques) Dominique Wilkins (France):  Purists may scream that Wilkins should not be included on this list, but the fact remains that “The Human Highlight Film” was born in Paris (yes, Paris, France, not Paris, NY).  While Wilkins serves as an interesting segue in French nationality law—how far to apply jus soli? what does it mean to be French?† how to combat le franglais?—his career statistics and his names (seriously, is there a more French name than “Jacques Dominique”?) surely make him an honorary Frenchman.

Tony Parker (France):  Ahh, bonjour, Monsieur Parker.  As perhaps the most recognizable Frenchman currently in the NBA, Parker has gleaned major awards:  three-time All-Star, three NBA championships, and NBA Finals MVP (2007). He has also represented France internationally.  Parker’s talents extend beyond the basketball court:  he has recorded a hip-hop CD and shows cheeky wit in interviews.  However, the Spurs’ recent first-round exit at the hands of the Grizzlies raises unpleasant parallels to Les Bleus’ ignominious performance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Jacque Vaughn (not really):  Vaughn is actually from Los Angeles County and, for all intents and purposes, is not French.  However, his name is frolicsomely French and thus he appears on the list.

DeSagana Diop (Senegal):  Diop brings a strong package to the NBA with his international experience and large frame.  Interestingly, he played on the Dallas Mavericks with none other than Erick Dampier (see the previous post on Monsieur Dampier).  Unlike Dampier, though, Diop can block shots and rattle the boards.  Unfortunately for Diop, his move to Charlotte may place him in the dustbin of the NBA.

Boris Diaw (France):  Diaw came to the NBA in the early 2000s after spending time in the French leagues, where he honed his skills and even won a slam-dunk contest.  His production in Phoenix was admirable before the arrival of Amar’e Stoudemire.  Curiously, Diaw ended up in Charlotte, too.  He and Diop may join French-speaking forces there to turn around the benighted club.

Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo (former Zaire):  Mutombo is in a class by himself.  Phenomenal shot-blocker. Steady rock inside the paint.  A legal name so long that he inspired awe and confidence in all who heard it.  For years, he was the only hope for the anti-Shaq camp.  (Do you hear that, M. Dampier?)  Dikembe occupies a special place for all of us who remember the young, run-and-gun offense of the Denver Nuggets in the early 1990s.  Furthermore, Mutombo represents many positive aspects of the globalized world and works to transcend the Belgian colonial legacy left in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Dikembe Mutombo

Un citoyen du monde

We have heard much of French/francophone men; what about French women in the WNBA? reports that several French women are now in the WNBA, too, showing that there is a glimmer of egalité. (At least in notional terms of representation; would Simone de Beauvoir be proud? What does representation mean?  Ahh, but these are beyond the scope of your humble correspondent’s post).

France’s finishes at FIBA tournaments and the Summer Olympics have leave something to be desired.  A silver medal in the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics did highlight the potential of the national squad, but France has thus far failed to live up to its potential.  At least Georges Frêche has not commented on the basketball team.

Of course, no Frenchman is currently on the two squads that are battling for the NBA championship title. The polyglot, cosmopolitan Parker was the last Frenchman to participate in the Finals.  After the 2001 NBA Draft in which Dalembert, Diop, and Parker were all selected, the inflow of solid francophone players has slowed.  This overall dry spell may reflect larger geopolitical issues currently facing the EU.  Dominique Strauss Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, has been arrested on charges of sexual assault.  Nicholas Sarkozy faces tough questions regarding the future of the Republic.  Fittingly, Dirk Nowitzki, the leader of the Mavericks is not a Frenchman—instead, he plays for Deutschland.  Shall we say “C’est passé; adieu, l’ancien régime français?”

†See, for example, Todd Shepard’s The Invention of Decolonization for an insightful view of the legal and cultural definition of “French” in the Fourth and Fifth Republics.

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