|Tony Parker (middle) and Boris Diaw (right) have been playing together since their INSEP days|
By Mark Woods
Students together in their teens at the famed INSEP Academy near Paris, Boris Diaw and Tony Parker would wander down the street together, before class or after practice, without attracting even the slightest look from passers-by.
"We still don't," declares France's captain, before breaking into a huge smile. "It hasn't changed that much. You get recognised a little more especially from the people who follow basketball. But that's not the case with everyone in France because soccer is still the number one sport. That's something we've always dreamt of changing by having a competition at home."
Now, finally, they get their opportunity. EuroBasket 2015 tips off on Saturday with Diaw and his compatriots acting as the hosts for Group A of the Preliminary Round, and then for the Final Round in Lille.
I remember, the San Antonio Spurs forward says, when football's World Cup came here in 1998, when the nation united behind both a sport and a team, when memories were created that endure even today. "Now the scale's different," he adds. "But that's what you dream of."
Of course, history will recount that the French were triumphant then. No host has won EuroBasket since Germany lifted the trophy in 1993. And for Vincent Collet's side, there is the additional weight of being the defending champions - and the clear favourites to repeat.
"Of course it's there," Diaw acknowledges. "But we know from the get-go. That's what we want. So we're not going to complain about it."
Nothing, in basketball, lasts forever. Even great sides, and players, come and go. No country, not even the mighty United States, has had a monopoly on success. In 2000, France went to the Olympic Games in Sydney and took silver. Fast forward to Athens four years later, and then to Beijing, and they were absent. Times change. When you are up, there is only one way to go.
|Florent Pietrus (left) still rules the roost in the French locker room, ahead of established players such as Diaw (right), Gelabale and Parker|
It needed a new generation to emerge and re-assert itself. "When we first came in ten years ago, the goal was to just be present at every competition and championship," Diaw recounts. "Qualify for the World Cup. Qualify for the Olympics. Without thinking about medals. It's got better and better and now the hunger has grown. We just want to get medals now in every competition and the more gold and silver we get, the better."
A tradition has been formed, fellow senior team-mate Mickael Gelabale confirms. Not just of excellence but of respecting what has gone before and aiming to go above and beyond.
"There's a seniority here," the Limoges swingman reveals. "It starts with Florent Pietrus, then Boris Diaw. Then after it's Tony and me. So if Flo asks me to do something, or Boris, then I do. And anyone who comes in learns that." He laughs. "But Tony never asks me to do anything. We have the rookies for that."
Together, the cabal of veterans has attempted to integrate the latest arrivals, with Mouhammadou Jaiteh and Leo Westermann the newest running mates for 2015. "Whether that's a small or a positive word or doing something together outside of basketball to make them feel comfortable," Gelabale observes.
"We've never had to take one of the younger guys aside because at the start of the each year, we have a players-only meeting to discuss things."
If Parker leads by example, then it is Diaw who sets the tone. A relaxed presence, he is the ideal ambassador for le basket francais as it enters perhaps the most important 15 days in its recent history.
It all starts with the captain. "It's a simple job," states Diaw. "You make sure everything is going smoothly on and off the court. There's no traditions but on a daily basis, with the way we operate, I'm the one handing out the fines when people are late or wearing the wrong t-shirts. That's part of the job off the court. Nothing too crazy."
He can't keep a poker face. Big Boris breaks into a grin. "But I've fined myself a lot."