The NBA’s long and winding road back to Paris

Joakim Noah takes just seconds to retract his mind and remember the first time he saw an NBA team. It was 1997, and the Chicago Bulls were in Paris for the McDonald’s Championship, a tournament that brought together the best teams from around the world to face each other. The tickets were bought by his father, Yannick, a French tennis champion who just over 10 years ago became the first French men’s singles player in 37 years to win the French Open at Roland Garros. What Noah didn’t realize was that they were witnessing the beginning of what would become the Last Dance and the most famous season in Bulls history.

At just 12 years old, Joachim got to see it live and up close: Jordan got 27 points against Olympiacos in the final, where he was crowned MVP in front of more than 1,000 reporters from over 50 countries. This was where Noah’s NBA dreams began, a path that led him to a first-round draft pick for the Bulls in 2007, and a two-time All-Star and All-NBA Team selection in 2014.

“Every time Michael Jordan steps onto the court, it’s inspiring,” Noah recalls now in an interview with ESPN. Noah is back in Paris as an ambassador for the Bulls, who are in town on Thursday for their regular season game against the Detroit Pistons. The hope, for the NBA and the teams, is to inspire more Joakims in the future as well as get more fans to fall in love with the game.

Noah remembers being asked a question at the end of a match in 1997. His family wanted to know: Did he want to be like his father, the French tennis icon, or Michael Jordan – the man who seemed to have brought Paris to a halt.

He can also remember his answer: “I want to be like Mike!”

The NBA has long sought to grow the game outside of North America. It has hosted more than 200 events in more than 20 countries. There have been more exhibition games in more countries than you can remember – the first one took place in Israel in 1978, and has since continued in a range of countries, from Beijing to South Africa. There have been pre-season matches on four different continents, with Africa closing in on one decade in the coming years. And there have been regular season matches too, including matches in London between 2011 and 2019.

Thursday sees a second regular season game in the French capital, and the first in the NBA since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why go back?

As the world shut down in February and March 2020, so did the National Basketball Association. For Ralph Rivera, managing editor of NBA Europe and the Middle East, this was a problem.

“When we actually played our last game in Paris at that time, we announced that we would be back the following year. It was January 2020, and obviously we couldn’t bring the games because of COVID-19,” says Rivera. “It also affected our other activities on the court during that time.

“So this is our first chance to bring the game back to Europe, back to Paris, and we couldn’t be more excited.”

Fan interest in tickets to Thursday’s Bull-Pistons game continued from the last game in Paris three years ago. A lot of interest is constantly paid to the current European stars in the NBA. Two of them – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic – have won back-to-back Player of the Year awards in the past four years.

“There’s never been a better time to be an NBA fan in Europe, and part of it is that we’re able to distribute games and our stories, both via streaming and online,” Rivera adds. “There is a lot of content available, but in particular, the fact that there are so many successful players and MVP-caliber players from Europe in the NBA obviously increases interest.

Why Paris?

London was the NBA’s first landing spot for regular season games in Europe. The league played one game per season for eight years in the English capital before surprisingly moving to Paris. Rivera says the move happened because it was time for a change.

“We only have one game in Europe a year, and we consider it the European All-Star Game. And so, it made sense to move this game around a little bit after it had been in London for several years in a row. It made sense to move somewhere else in Europe.”

There’s no shortage of interest from countries in hosting NBA games — the league recently hosted two preseason games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and will soon head south when it begins talks about hosting a preseason game in Africa. But Paris remains its European home.

Are we going to see an expansion of the regular season footprint, just like London and now Germany has been home to many NFL games every season in the last 10 years? We have no plans now to host more than one [the] One game we play,” Rivera says.

“Part of it is just the logistics around it. We usually play every other day, so the team can play three times a week. That’s a little different than saying the NFL, where they play once a week, so part of the challenge there [for the NBA] It is to travel, edit, then play the game and do the same thing on the way back. That’s why we selected it. Never say no, but at the moment there are no plans to have more than one game we face.”

The NBA has yet to set the international schedule for the 2023-24 season, though Paris is likely to be the main contender to host again.

Why bulls pistons?

The story of The Bulls began in Paris in 1997 with the game that captured Noah and the rest of Europe. It was, quite literally, where the last dance began.

Adam Silver, then president of NBA Entertainment, arrived in Paris for the 1997 Games with a plan to convince Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan to let the camera into the locker room and capture everything unfiltered. If you look closely, in episode 1 you can see Silver and Jackson in Paris talking on the steps of the Bulls team hotel.

Almost 26 years later, this meeting has spawned a whole new wave of fans from around the world.

“If you also think about it, in terms of the programming available at the time, not having live sports and having the ‘last dance’ during this period and helping to satisfy people’s hunger for the game,” says Rivera.

“It was so good, and it was a global phenomenon — on ESPN it was the most watched documentary ever. So it had such a huge impact around the world, and it reminded everyone of that time, the game at the time, the Bulls, Michael Jordan, all the teams.” and other players during that time.”

The Bulls have been – since Jordan – one of the most supported NBA teams in Europe, regardless of their performance. Thursday’s game brings all of those worlds together: the Bulls-Pistons rivalry for those alive to watch in real time, and those who only know it from The Last Dance.

“A lot of it has to do with logistics and scheduling – when was the last time the teams traveled, trying to determine if there are any particular ties or interests the teams have with a particular market – and in this particular case there was interest in coming to Paris from the Bulls and Pistons area,” he adds. Rivera.

“Again, having this classic Bulls-Pistons rivalry is great, and then we have European players on both teams, and they’re popular teams.”

What does that mean for players?

For all of Joachim Noah’s accomplishments—NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and a French international—he never played an NBA game in his home country. This is the first time the Bulls have returned to Paris since that tournament in 1997.

“It’s a complete moment for me and my family, just to have the Bulls play in Paris,” Noah says. “It’s surreal to be playing and enjoying a moment like this to be able to share with my family and friends. It’s special.

“A lot of the family couldn’t come to watch my games, just to be able to give them a moment of: ‘This is what it’s like, that’s how competitive it is.’” Even though I finished playing, I was always proud to wear it. [Bulls] Jersey, it represents a lot. It represents the greatest game ever.”

The NBA continues to grow around the world, as its outdoor games provide an opportunity to inspire more talent. Noah learned this at the age of 12. He still thinks so now.

“I think it gives the next generation a chance to dream and believe,” says Noah. “We’re here. The structures are here; just look at the facilities. Basketball is growing, and it’s getting better and better.”

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