Some American basketball players from the Bob Cousy-George Mikan-Bob Pettit era have been immortalized in a French church—and they aren't even aware of it. Neither, as far as I know, is anyone else.
In 1957 I was with a group of travel writers touring the south of France. Among our stops was the newly redecorated Chapelle Saint-Pierre in the fishing village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean near Nice. Jean Cocteau, the artist who had planned and executed the project, conducted us through the chapel. Not long before, Henri Matisse had designed the interior of the famous Chapelle du Rosaire at nearby Vence, and Cocteau—who had dabbled in films, painting, poetry, ballet, theater, costume design, ceramics, sculpture and other aspects of the arts—was out to show us that anything any other artist could do, he could do, too.
The 14th-century chapel, which backs on the waters of the beautiful little harbor, had been used for decades as a storehouse for fishing gear. By promising the locals to make their village a tourist attraction, Cocteau had been given a free hand, and he had covered the interior walls and ceilings with murals: bold drawings with faint pastel shadings. St. Peter, the fisherman, a prominent character in these tableaux, walks on water in one panel. In another, Mary and the infant Jesus are serenaded by a dapper guitarist. In a third, pretty Villefranche maidens load a basket with fish.
The most prominent figures in the murals, however, are the angels painted on the chapel's walls and vaulted ceiling. They are tall and slender with big white wings, and they appear to be leaping. After the tour of the chapel, Cocteau and our party of journalists moved across the way to eat one of those lunches that one gets only in France.
The small restaurant had windows facing the sea. Tables had been pushed together into one long banquet board. Wild flowers were strewn along the center of the table, and there was much red wine, white wine and champagne, of course.
Cocteau took the seat at the head of the table. One of the well-seasoned writers proposed a toast. It was effusive. Everyone drank. Cocteau was delighted. The waiters poured more champagne. Cocteau responded with a salute to the group. Although there was a translator, Cocteau's English was perfectly adequate. The most memorable thing about him was his desire to please, to entertain and delight us. His eyes, piercingly bright in his hawklike face, shifted constantly and quickly. He had a ravaged look, the result, I decided as I stared at him, of his notorious opium addiction, which he had reportedly brought under control.
The meal was memorable, too. The marvelous fish, Cocteau explained, had come from the sea that morning. We were at the table so long that by the time the six or seven courses had been served, all the flowers had wilted.
After cheeses and fruit and coffee, most of the journalists wandered off to the docks, but I stayed behind for a moment with Cocteau. "Where did you get the idea that angels look like leaping men?" I asked him. "Why don't your angels look like babies, like cupids?"
"I had that idea a long time," he said, clapping his hands in pleasure. He was delighted that someone had noticed. "My friends in the States send me newspapers with photographs of your basketball players, and I save them because they are so beautiful. Angels are exactly like these men, like these basketball men leaping into the air. I know this. And so I have sports players on the walls and ceiling of my chapel. Can you see this idea now?"
Thus, while the conventional thinking is that the chapel in Villefranche was decorated for the greater glory of St. Peter and the tourist business, the artist also celebrated the unmatched beauty, as he saw it, of American basketball players in action.
Come to think of it, the peculiar gesture of the big angel just under the sun (which looks like a basketball) seems to be that of a player delivering a hook shot, while the little angel to his left is clearly bringing the ball down the court.