Team France has a tight schedule of preparation games these days: Belgium on Thursday, Belarus on Friday, and Spain tomorrow (Sunday). Meanwhile, the roster is shrinking.
On Thursday, my wife Hélène and I made the short drive from our home in Calais to the town of Gravelines, where there's a team that plays in the French league, for the game against Belgium. (Gravelines is a small town, and can't really support a pro team, so the club is gradually shifting to Dunkirk, a little further up the road. :-((( )
Apparently due to the change in his contract status, from free agent to signed Spur, Boris was again without insurance, so he didn't play. Nico Batum is still waiting... Ali is still in Russia...
So... we were really, really, REALLY hoping that Tony would strut some stuff... No joy. Once again, he played little, and poorly. No speed, and apparently no fire.
Coach Vincent Collet apparently decided that Boris's absence would be a good reason to see what his paint players could do without their captain. Ignoring all other possibilities, Les Bleus hammered the ball inside, to the point that more than two-thirds of their half-time score came from Turiaf/Seraphin/Vaty. Unfortunately, the team's half-time score was only 35. Up by only 4... against Belgium??
Belgium and Belarus (Friday's opponent) are third-tier teams, way behind nations like Italy, Israel, the Baltic states, the Yugos ... They are preparing for a qualifying tournament, hoping to win their way into the next Euro Championship, like the one where Spain and France went 1-2 in Lithuania last year. The last time Belgium beat France at home, James Naismith was still in diapers.
Oooops! Having played the first half without worrying about the final score, the French found themselves incapable of changing speeds. Nando de Colo continued to be solid, along with Mike Gelabale... but otherwise... nothing! Les Bleus were absent off the boards, made turnovers like popping popcorn, and generally were awful. Tony thrilled the crowd with one of his patented spin-moves... but also dribbled off his foot...
Final score 57 - 63. The Gravelines fans, who are pretty knowledgeable about basketball, loudly expressed their opinion!
Last night, Friday, it was pretty clear that Les Bleus, and Tony Parker in particular, were going to make up for the Belgium gaffe. Tony still isn't back in top physical form, but he definitely had that rage that he must have if France is to succeed. Playing only about half the game, he hit 17 points, dished 13 assists, provoked five fouls... Tony is back!
Another French player finally broke out. Voted "Most Valuable French Player" in the French league this last season, Fabien Causeur had shown nothing in the previous games. Against Belarus, he missed another two, and then as the 24-second clock was running out, hit a desperation floater. Click!! He then went on a 3-of-4 run at three-point range, blowing the game open. Fabien's "coming out" is important for Les Bleus. They need dependable outside shooting to free up their (normally) strong inside game.
Speaking of inside game... Belarus is not strong inside... and maybe the French bigs got something out of insisting against Belgium... Whatever. They owned the paint in this game. Boards and score. Without Ronny Turiaf, sidelined with a deep thigh bruise... In particular, Ludovic Vaty (6'10", 255 lbs), who hadn't even set foot on the court against Great Britain or Spain, played effectively, without mistakes. Kevin Seraphin is now clearly the top center, but Ronny could even slip to n° 3.
Final score 84 - 64.
Here and there on the 'Net, since Boris signed with the Spurs (YOUPEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), I've seen a lot of references to his going back a long way with Tony, in particular phrases mentioning high school, like "played high school basketball together". Not exactly.
Tony is from the outskirts of Paris - in north-central France. Boris is from Bordeaux, in southwestern France. Sports are very differently organized in Europe. High schools and universities have little importance. Almost everything happens in "clubs", which may be non-profit associations or for-profit companies. I say "almost" because several countries, including France, also have a training system run by the national basketball federation. France has many "regional centers", and a "national center" (INSEP) where (hopefully) the very best young players are gathered under the guidance of the best coaches. Both Tony and Boris were at INSEP in the late 1990s.
The efficacy of these centers -- and particularly their cost-effectiveness -- is a subject of vast debate. Other than TP and Boris, I don't think any of the current national squad went to INSEP. The others were all "club" products, sometimes with a few years in an American university.
Les Bleues (that's the women's team, as opposed to "Les Bleus", the men's team) played Australia last night. Australian superstar Lauren Jackson is getting to the end of her career. So of course, Australia has found a new dominatrix! Liz Cambage is 6'8". She scored 28 against France, with Australia taking the game 59 - 69.
Australia is a prime podium candidate for this summer.