Early August 2013 in a Café in the Center of Paris, France
It's one of those Paris days that makes it easy to understand why it has a permanent place on every list of the world's most visited cities. I am enjoying my coffee and interacting with the locals when the following exchange occurs.
Me: San Antonio Spurs? Do you know who they are? (Pointing to Spur logo on my cap)
Parisian: No, am sorre.
Me: Tony Parker?
Parisian: Oui, Tonee Parrkier! Baisketboll.
Me: That's right, Tony Parker. Do you know which NBA team he plays for?
Parisian: Ooh (thinking hard) .... the Lakiers?
Approximately 20 players either born or raised in France have played in the NBA. Twenty per cent of them currently play, or recently suited up for, the San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker (2001-present) Boris Diaw (2012-present), Nando De Colo (2012 to present) and Ian Mahinmi (2007 to 2010). Yet while enjoying my morning café latte, none of Frenchmen sitting around the bar knew the name of the NBA team with the greatest number of French players currently on its roster. Which also happens to be a team that just played for the NBA title.
During my family's recent European trip the French National team featuring Parker, Diaw and De Colo, engaged in friendlies against other European National squads in preparation for September's EuroBasket 2013. Now I didn't think Tony would invite us to dinner if he'd spotted us wearing our Spurs gear on the Champs Elyse, but thought at least one or two folks would show at least a hint of recognition. Instead, with irony as thick as Marcel Marceau's one speaking line in Mel Brook's Silent Movie, no one said a word. Not in Paris. Not Ian Mahinmi's birthplace, Rouen. Not in Parker's birth county, Belgium, nor the country of his mother's origin, The Netherlands.
A Nigerian taxi driver did express familiarity with both Parker and the Spurs, but quickly digressed into asking if I was from Texas, the home of Beyoncé. I was so taken aback, I embellished my response by insisting that I often visit Beyoncé's family home, House of Dereon, which impressed him greatly. All in all, a pretty good conversation considering he spent the first 3 minutes deriding the description of the destination as Louvre Carousel instead of Carousel du Louvre thus obliterating the notion that immigrants are not adequately embracing their Frenchness.
Back at the café, I know many of you might have been inclined to throw the latte at the Laker-loving Frenchman. This crossed my mind, but I exercised by self-control for two compelling reasons. First, that latte was really good. Second, my previous experience with throwing things in a French restaurant did not end well. The lack of recognition, however, got me thinking, but it wasn't until I'd finished a couple more lattes that I felt I'd somewhat sorted things out.
Number one, the Frenchmen could have been lying; they were indeed familiar with the San Antonio Spurs, but as part of some unspoken code refused to acknowledge anything positive about the United States; an explanation applicable as well to French foreign policy. My own thorough, albeit unscientific, research finds France as the least literate in English of all the major European countries. Making no excuse for the U.S. or my foreign language deficiencies, English remains the predominate language of business, diplomacy and international communication. However, the number of French without even remedial English proficiency in Paris alone was pretty surprising. But poor education or a backlash against US global dominance cannot explain it all in light of Le Grand Jerry Lewis, and the popularity of Hollywood le film d'action blockbusters playing at every corner Cinéma.
French obliviousness towards the Spurs necessarily requires additional explanation. Consider a June 2013 article posted on the Spurs official website about the team's Global Popularity. Of the Spurs 1.66 million Facebook friends, 160,000 live in Manu's Argentina while just 53,000 reside in the home country of Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Nando De Colo. More to the point, while the article mentions broadcasters from China and Greece, nothing was mentioned of the French, who could have been unavailable for comment or just took in the games from the lobby of the nearest Sofitel.
Surely the French knew that Zinedine Zidane played for Real Madrid after leaving France's Ligue 1 -- and though futball always outranks basketball, Parker has won three NBA titles and one Finals MVP award.
So are the French just unwilling to acknowledge anything U.S., or is it the same old story of a great, "under-the-radar" team that's not the Lakers, Celtics or Lebron-led Heat? Best guess? It's all of the above. Good news was we could wear our Spurs gear without being accosted by uncontrollable French Spurs fans. Maybe next trip we'll wear our Beyoncé concert t-shirts. Till then, c'est la vie.
[Editor's note: The story originally stated that Parker had won four NBA Championships. He has only won three.]