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
Upon reaching Saint Cloud, the players followed guides up the canyon, hoisting
themselves with ropes and wading through water that was often waist-deep. When
they arrived at the jumping-off point, Tony Parker insisted on going first,
hurling himself from the rocks with the same bravado he displays in his day
job, driving the lane as the San Antonio Spurs' point guard. Much hooting and
hollering ensued, but who would go next? Boris Diaw, the do-it-all power
forward for the Phoenix Suns, declared that he would jump last; just days
earlier he had been named France's captain, and he felt it was his duty to
stick around and prop up the troops, some of whom had fear in their eyes.
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."
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
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
"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
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."