Last week, on Thursday, February 19th, the NBA played a regular season game in France, the first on European soil since 2020. The game, between the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, was the culmination of a thoroughly integrated basketball week in Paris, with open practices and large media availability.
I made the flight from Copenhagen to be there, and these are my observations over the course of Wednesday and Thursday.
On Wednesday, both the Pistons and Bulls practiced at Palais des sports Marcel-Cerdan, the home court of Metropolitans 92 and, more importantly, Victor Wembanyama.
Media presence was immense, as the NBA Paris Game carried global appeal. It was practically impossible to not end up in media swarms when players got the chance to speak with media.
For the couple hundred of kids, who were seated in the stands above the court, away from journalists and broadcasters, there was constantly something to take note of.
When it wasn’t Andre Drummond and Tony Bradley going one-on-one for near 20 minutes, it was Zach LaVine and Ayo Dosunmu getting into a spontaneous half court shooting competition.
LaVine hit a casual attempt, which got the young crowd buzzing. Dosunmu decided to test his luck, hit it, and now kids were on their feet, screaming. LaVine, who had sat down after his make, wasn’t about to let Dosunmu get the better of him, and jumped up to get another shot up. The playfulness of the two Bulls hit home for the kids, and as it turned out, it was just a preview of what to come.
From a media perspective, you could tell the NBA had relaxed some rules. Bloggers and online influencers came in wearing team apparel and asked for selfies, a usual no-go from the league in regards to media members. It was quickly obvious that the protocols of the Paris Game differed greatly from regular games played in the United States, and that was probably a good thing for what the league aspired to do, in terms of generating fan interest, and getting the city interested.
Generally, just walking around Paris, the NBA’s presence was everywhere. You rarely walked more than three hundred feet without seeing physical posters or digital ads at bus stops for the upcoming game. Some local supermarkets even had posters near their cash registers.
Thursday, game day, unfortunately coincided with a strike, that severely limited both bus and metro access. Intense rain followed. One might fear that could have affected turnout, but there was no way that was going to happen.
While I was looking for the media entrance at Accor Arena, the venue of the game, I was waved over by six people asking if I had tickets. Usually, in the States, you’re asked if you’re in need of tickets. Not the other way around.
(Side note: It would be a good look for the NBA to include media access directions for the next game in Europe. Walking around in public, and having to flash a large media credential sign just to get directions to the right entrance was not exactly optimal.)
Before the game, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference, where he revealed that Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had personally asked him to bring the league to Greece for a game, which now seems to be in the cards for the near future. This, seemingly, was Silver’s way of teasing what could be a future announcement, given how tight-lipped he usually is on matters in the future.
The actual game itself was a captivating experience for fans. While the Bulls and Pistons may not exactly be elite teams, they put on a show. You could tell players were amped up to play in front of an international crowd.
Derrick Jones Jr and Zach LaVine both put extra emphasis on their dunks, and local kid Killian Hayes made several no-look passes. Both teams, as the kids say, understood the assignment.
Additionally, the league went all out by having Joakim Noah, Tony Parker, Magic Johnson, Ben Wallace, and a plethora of legends and former players take the floor during timeouts, much to the crowd’s delight.
One of the biggest roars of the evening was when the cameras caught Wembanyama, with a small section of scattered fans even standing up to celebrate the teenager.
By the end of the game, fans didn’t appear particularly interested in leaving. People just stood around, snapping pictures, talking, and overall enjoying the atmosphere that the NBA had brought to Paris.
It didn’t matter that the clock neared midnight, and plenty of young kids had school in the morning. This was clearly an experience where parents made an exception to let them soak in every ounce of the NBA experience.
I spent the better part of 90 minutes in the tunnel chatting with fellow media members and listening to players talk about their visit. I expected somewhat empty streets on my way out, but the party was still going as I left to return to my hotel.
On my 20-minute walk, fans with NBA jerseys were just hanging out, despite the late hour, mimicking dunks from the game and talking about how they got to see Magic Johnson.
There was certainly a buzz in the air about the NBA’s presence in Paris, which is undoubtedly what the league aimed for with this event.