Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Winning Hearts And Minds At EuroBasket
It’s still well over two months before the start of EuroBasket and Nicolas Batum is thinking of the little things as he sits behind a desk at his agent’s offices in Paris. He’s thinking about the wedding he’s going to be late for and the hellacious traffic in downtown Paris; the difficultly of finding a parking spot in the city; whether he’s close enough to make a quick trip on foot to the Champs-Élysées.
But while flipping through basketball magazines with covers adorned by his fellow countrymen, Batum starts to consider the big picture. He’s pondering the future of basketball in France, a future he thinks could be much brighter depending on the outcome of EuroBasket 2009. The way he sees it, if the French senior national team, a squad thick with talent but thin on prior success, could come together just once, it could greatly enhance the popularity of a sport still considered niche by most in the land of the Franks.
“If we do something great with the national team, I think basketball will be great in France,” said Batum, “because now it’s just soccer and rugby. Basketball is not very popular in France, not very famous. But we’re going to make it great.”
Batum’s quest for greatness with Les Bleus isn’t just about winning medals or qualifying for future tournaments. Those outcomes are simply means to an end. He’s doing it for the good of the sport, a sport his father died while playing when he was just a young boy. And he’s out for respect, not only for himself, but for all of the other French ballers toiling away in relative anonymity in Le Mans and Cholet and Villeurbanne while their soccer-playing contemporaries dominate the headlines.
The French have been slow to pick up on hoops despite the growing number of NBA players hailing from within the country, but Batum is adamant about changing that, and he’s putting the onus on himself and his teammates.
“We don’t have a good record with our national team,” said Batum. “And that’s why this year is very important for us, because we have to do something. We have a great team.”
Keep in mind that Batum made these statements even before France had qualified for EuroBasket, before they advanced to the quarterfinals of the tournament with a perfect 6-0 record. While observers were waiting for the French to self-destruct like they had done many times before, Batum was declaring his team contenders.
“We have a great team because everybody is motivated. I think this is the first year where everybody comes. Tony is maybe one of the best point guards in the world right now. Boris Diaw had a great season. Turiaf did great. Me, I did great. Nico De Colo -- he just got drafted by the Spurs -- he had a great season. We really want to do something.”
Simply making it to he knockout round isn’t Batum’s idea of “something.” After all, no one will remember what France did in the preliminary and qualifying stages of EuroBasket if they end up flaming out in the quarterfinals. It’s going to take more than that for the French to plant their flag as one of the forces to be reckoned with in international basketball. Batum has an idea of what that something could be.
“We want to beat Spain in the finals.”
Les Bleus might not have to wait that long. France could face off against Spain as soon as their next game depending on the outcomes of the Spain/Poland, Serbia/Lithuania and Turkey/Slovenia games. Upsetting the defending World Champions (though it probably wouldn’t be considered an “upset” at this point) would qualify as a potentially transformative moment for French basketball. Should the opportunity arise, Batum’s high hopes for hoops in his homeland could be greatly aided by taking down their southern neighbors.
He’d also have something to hold over Rudy Fernandez’s head in the Trail Blazers locker room. And you can’t underestimate the value of that.