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Four weeks before
the tip-off of the FIBA World Championship, the 14 members of France's team
shuffled out of their stately hotel in Divonne-les-Bains, a sleepy resort town
at the foot of the Alps, and boarded a bus bound for the abyss. Specifically,
they were to ride for an hour on winding roads to a lush canyon near Saint
Cloud, where each player would leap 20 feet from a rock outcropping into a pool
of chilly mountain water. Apparently this is the French way of fostering team
While Parker teased his teammates from the water below, Diaw whispered words of encouragement. One by one--with varying levels of apprehension--the players took the plunge until it was Diaw's turn. The son of a Senegalese high jump champion, Diaw then launched himself from the rocks with an abandon to match Parker's and cannonballed into the water.
Days later their teammates were still shaking their heads over the antics of their 24-year-old leaders. "They are just crazy," says 7'2" center Fr�d�ric Weis. "In everything we do, they try to see who is crazier. They bring out the craziness in each other."
Tony and Boris's excellent adventure will continue when the world championships begin in Japan on Aug. 19. Best friends since their early teens, Parker and Diaw are the primary reasons that France is a medal contender at the worlds (page 56), even though this is only the second time since 1963 that Les Bleus have qualified for the tournament. The team's freewheeling and fun style is a reflection of its two leaders: Whenever Parker and Diaw are on the court, they seem to be trying to outdo each other as playmakers, with one pass more outrageous than the next. That they're often dishing to each other only makes France more dangerous. "We always find each other--always have," says Parker. "It just came naturally from the first time we played together."
"What they have is more than chemistry--it is complicity," says France's coach, Claude Bergeaud. "Each wants the other to be the best player on the court. They are so close as friends, there are times they seem to play only for each other."
How far can its two stars take France at the worlds? "[The competition is] pretty much the same players we were beating six years ago," says Diaw, who teamed with Parker to lead the French under-18 team to the 2000 European junior championships. "Why not beat them again right now?"
That same year France shocked the world at the Sydney Olympics with a run to the gold medal game, giving the U.S. all it could handle until the final four minutes. Weis and two other contributors from the silver medal squad remain, joined by Parker, Diaw and a pair of NBA up-and-comers: Ronny Turiaf, 23, a power forward with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Micka�l Pietrus, 24, a swingman for the Golden State Warriors. This remade national team has a tender average age of 25, but it has already tasted success by winning a bronze medal at the 2005 European championships.
"This is the best team France has ever had," says Weis, 29, a member of the national team since 1996. "We can run, jump, play defense, crash the boards. We have scorers, creators; we have depth. We have no weakness. Yes, we are very young, but that means we can still improve a lot."
They will need to if their high expectations for the worlds are to be realized. Last week the team lost tune-up games to Italy and Turkey, and there will be no time to grope for form in Japan; the French have a tough Group A draw that begins with games against 2004 Olympic gold medalist Argentina and a strong squad from Serbia and Montenegro.
France began preparing for the worlds in early July, with two-a-day practices in a mod glass-and-concrete gym. While 50 French reporters will travel to Japan for the worlds, a reflection of the nation's surging interest in all things hoops, that passion apparently did not reach Divonne. Practices drew no more than a handful of curious locals, who stopped by to watch through the open doors, which were used to ventilate a building that was sans air conditioning. As the boys in blue trained, two things stood out: the fluidity of their play--both Parker and Diaw use the word correct when describing the other's style--and their joie de vivre. "We love to play together; we love to spend time together," says Diaw. "We have grown up as brothers, and coming together for the national team is like our family reunion."