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"Bleu, Blanc, Rouge...France!"

Aug. 14, 2006
Aug. 14, 2006

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Aug. 14, 2006

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"Bleu, Blanc, Rouge...France!"

Led by longtime pals Boris Diaw and Tony Parker, a young and colorful French team could deliver a surprise at next week's world championships

Four weeks beforethe tip-off of the FIBA World Championship, the 14 members of France's teamshuffled out of their stately hotel in Divonne-les-Bains, a sleepy resort townat the foot of the Alps, and boarded a bus bound for the abyss. Specifically,they were to ride for an hour on winding roads to a lush canyon near SaintCloud, where each player would leap 20 feet from a rock outcropping into a poolof chilly mountain water. Apparently this is the French way of fostering teamunity.

Upon reaching Saint Cloud, the players followed guides up the canyon, hoistingthemselves with ropes and wading through water that was often waist-deep. Whenthey arrived at the jumping-off point, Tony Parker insisted on going first,hurling himself from the rocks with the same bravado he displays in his dayjob, driving the lane as the San Antonio Spurs' point guard. Much hooting andhollering ensued, but who would go next? Boris Diaw, the do-it-all powerforward for the Phoenix Suns, declared that he would jump last; just daysearlier he had been named France's captain, and he felt it was his duty tostick around and prop up the troops, some of whom had fear in their eyes.

This is an article from the Aug. 14, 2006 issue Original Layout

While Parkerteased his teammates from the water below, Diaw whispered words ofencouragement. One by one--with varying levels of apprehension--the playerstook the plunge until it was Diaw's turn. The son of a Senegalese high jumpchampion, Diaw then launched himself from the rocks with an abandon to matchParker's and cannonballed into the water.

Days later theirteammates were still shaking their heads over the antics of their 24-year-oldleaders. "They are just crazy," says 7'2" center Frédéric Weis."In everything we do, they try to see who is crazier. They bring out thecraziness in each other."

Tony and Boris'sexcellent adventure will continue when the world championships begin in Japanon Aug. 19. Best friends since their early teens, Parker and Diaw are theprimary reasons that France is a medal contender at the worlds (page 56), eventhough this is only the second time since 1963 that Les Bleus have qualifiedfor the tournament. The team's freewheeling and fun style is a reflection ofits two leaders: Whenever Parker and Diaw are on the court, they seem to betrying to outdo each other as playmakers, with one pass more outrageous thanthe next. That they're often dishing to each other only makes France moredangerous. "We always find each other--always have," says Parker."It just came naturally from the first time we played together."

"What theyhave is more than chemistry--it is complicity," says France's coach, ClaudeBergeaud. "Each wants the other to be the best player on the court. Theyare so close as friends, there are times they seem to play only for eachother."

How far can itstwo stars take France at the worlds? "[The competition is] pretty much thesame players we were beating six years ago," says Diaw, who teamed withParker to lead the French under-18 team to the 2000 European juniorchampionships. "Why not beat them again right now?"

That same yearFrance shocked the world at the Sydney Olympics with a run to the gold medalgame, giving the U.S. all it could handle until the final four minutes. Weisand two other contributors from the silver medal squad remain, joined byParker, Diaw and a pair of NBA up-and-comers: Ronny Turiaf, 23, a power forwardwith the Los Angeles Lakers, and Mickaël Pietrus, 24, a swingman for the GoldenState Warriors. This remade national team has a tender average age of 25, butit has already tasted success by winning a bronze medal at the 2005 Europeanchampionships.

"This is thebest team France has ever had," says Weis, 29, a member of the nationalteam since 1996. "We can run, jump, play defense, crash the boards. We havescorers, creators; we have depth. We have no weakness. Yes, we are very young,but that means we can still improve a lot."

They will need toif their high expectations for the worlds are to be realized. Last week theteam lost tune-up games to Italy and Turkey, and there will be no time to gropefor form in Japan; the French have a tough Group A draw that begins with gamesagainst 2004 Olympic gold medalist Argentina and a strong squad from Serbia andMontenegro.

France beganpreparing for the worlds in early July, with two-a-day practices in a modglass-and-concrete gym. While 50 French reporters will travel to Japan for theworlds, a reflection of the nation's surging interest in all things hoops, thatpassion apparently did not reach Divonne. Practices drew no more than a handfulof curious locals, who stopped by to watch through the open doors, which wereused to ventilate a building that was sans air conditioning. As the boys inblue trained, two things stood out: the fluidity of their play--both Parker andDiaw use the word correct when describing the other's style--and their joie devivre. "We love to play together; we love to spend time together," saysDiaw. "We have grown up as brothers, and coming together for the nationalteam is like our family reunion."

In addition tojumping off rocks, this group of old friends spent its downtime lounging at thehotel pool and playing Texas hold 'em in games organized by Parker. (Explainingthe modest $100 buy-in, Parker says, "It only seems like all of us are inthe NBA.") The team's two leaders carried the friendly competition over tothe court. Whenever Parker and Diaw were on opposing teams during scrimmages,one would reflexively throw an elbow at the other, just for kicks. They alsodiscreetly pinched each other, tugged at each other's shorts and stepped oneach other's shoes--anything to gain an advantage. But when practice ended,they always presented a united front by gathering the team at half-court fortheir chant: "Bleu ... blanc ... rouge ... France!"

Parker and Diawhave been the backbone of assorted French teams since they were 15. That's howold they were when they were assigned to the same room at Institut National duSport et de l'Education Physique (INSEP), a sporting academy in Paris for thecountry's best athletes. Turiaf lived just down the hall, and the three of themspent as much time running around Paris as they did running the fast break."Picture three teenagers in the big city, with no parents," saysTuriaf. "There are many, many stories to tell, but none for your magazine.What I can say is that those were the three best years of my life."

Even then theultraquick, Belgian-born Parker was the most advanced player, having beennurtured from an early age by his father, Tony Sr., an American who had a15-year professional basketball career in Europe. Diaw was a late bloomer eventhough he had even more impressive bloodlines--in addition to his high-jumpingfather, Issa, his 6'2" mother, Elisabeth Riffiod, anchored the Frenchbasketball team for 13 years. During the last week of July she came to Divonneas part of another bonding experience, "family week," to watch her sonpractice. (While Parker's Desperate Housewives girlfriend, Eva Longoria, missedthe event, she did pay him a visit last week.)

Riffiod hasblonde hair and piercing blue eyes, and her flowing summer dress accentuatedher height. "When Boris was a boy," she says, "I encouraged him toplay every sport but basketball." One of the country's most popularathletes in her day, Riffiod feared her son would face too much pressure if hetook up hoops. Diaw didn't begin to play in earnest until he was 11 or 12, andas he tried to find a role on junior teams, he says he became "theorganizer. I was the balance between the shooters and the team play."

It took Diaw awhile to establish himself as a pro, too. At 18 the 6'2" Parker was the28th pick of the 2001 NBA draft, and after helping lead the Spurs tochampionships in 2003 and '05, he became the most celebrated French export thisside of Brigitte Bardot. Diaw, meanwhile, had stayed behind, enjoying modestsuccess in the French pro leagues until 2003, when he was chosen 21st by theAtlanta Hawks. He spent two seasons struggling to find a niche on one of theleague's most hapless franchises, averaging only 4.6 points, and Parker'salmost-daily phone calls did little to cheer him up.

Last August theHawks dealt the 6'8", 203-pound Diaw to Phoenix (along with two first-rounddraft choices) for guard Joe Johnson, and in the Suns' Eurocentric systemDiaw's all-around game flourished. He racked up four triple doubles on the wayto scoring 13.3 points per game on 52.6% shooting (eighth in the NBA), with 6.9rebounds and 6.2 assists (17th). After being named the league's Most ImprovedPlayer in the middle of the postseason, he showed he was capable of even more:In the Western Conference finals, against the Dallas Mavericks, he averaged24.2 points, including a career-high 34 in Game 1, which he won at the buzzerwith a short baseline jumper.

Watching withapproval was Parker, who was in Phoenix during the series to support hisfriend. (The Suns, like the Spurs, would fall to the Mavs.) "I was so happyfor Boris's success," Parker says. "I knew he could do it, it was justa matter of having the opportunity. He's always been a force for the nationalteam. Now he's just doing in the NBA what he's always done for us."

Four monthsearlier Diaw had traveled to Houston to savor Parker's All-Star Game debut.That sort of moral support is common among the French players in the NBA. Whenthe Suns and the Lakers squared off in the first round of the playoffs lastApril, "Boris and I spent every minute together, up until right before gametime," says Turiaf. "Phil [Jackson, the Lakers' coach] gave me a hardtime about it, but I told him we can't help it, that's just the way weare."

With his sweetdisposition and easy smile, Diaw always seems to be in the middle of the fun.(On the bus ride to Saint Cloud he organized a noisy game of tarot.) It is areflection of his standing within the national team that Diaw, not Parker, wasnamed captain. "Boris is charismatic, a person who has value in basketballand in human relations," says Bergeaud. "He can marry the differentcultures of our team; he can marry the two generations between the guys who wonmedals in Sydney and the guys he played with as a junior."

Parker welcomesDiaw's new leadership role. "I'm the point guard, so people are going tolisten to me regardless if I'm captain," he says. "I'm glad Boris willbe speaking up a little bit more and we can share the responsibilities oftaking this team where we want to go."

The synergybetween Parker and Diaw was evident during a warmup game against China in lateJuly, when they pulled off a play that wowed even teammates who had long agogrown accustomed to their theatrics. Streaking down the court on a fast break,Parker threw a no-look alley-oop to Diaw, who never broke stride in throwingdown a ferocious dunk.

Weis'splay-by-play: "Nobody sees Boris. Nobody. Then Tony throws an alley-oopand--voila!--there is Boris, soaring through the air."

How high Francewill fly at the worlds depends largely on these two fast friends. "I don'twant to let Tony down, and he doesn't want to let me down," says Diaw."When you look at it like that, how can we not succeed?"

Complete Coverage

For more on Team USA's run to the world championshipsin Japan, go to SI.com/nba.

"WE HAVE GROWN UP AS BROTHERS," says Diaw,"and coming together for the national team is like our familyreunion."
PHOTOPhotograph by Catherine Steenkeste/FFBBFIGURES MERGED BY SI IMAGINGPHOTOBARRY GOSSAGE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES BLEUSBLOODED
Though Parker (with ball) and Diaw have to battle in NBA arenas, they have beenbest of friends since they were 15.
PHOTOGOUHIER-HAHN-ORBAN/ABACAUSA.COM BONVOYAGE
Frequent travel companions, Diaw and Parker journeyed to Germany in July tocheer on France's World Cup team.