French President Emmanuel Macron’s official state visit this week, the first of the Trump administration, shines a spotlight on the 240-year-old Franco-American relationship, with the two leaders’ personal interactions taking center stage. We’re scrutinizing every bit of the interplay between Macron and Trump, looking for signs of how Trump handles the diplomatic relationship with our oldest ally. Yet, under the radar, Franco-American diplomacy is actually carried out every day. And not where you’d expect it.
It’s happening on basketball courts across the United States.
That may sound strange to Americans who think of French cultural exchange in terms of haute couture and croque-monsieurs. Few parts of French culture have become indispensable to American culture, instead relegated to the arena of the posh and the glamorous. (Think of the way French restaurants retain an air of exclusivity, while Italy’s pasta and pizza are everyday fare.) But basketball diplomacy helps solve this problem, providing a cross-cultural exchange on a more even playing field.
Americans don’t identify their oldest ally as a sporting nation. What images, if any, come to mind usually involve the grueling terrains of the annual Tour de France cycling race, the frenzied festival of the 24 Hours of Le Mans — the sports-car race immortalized by Steve McQueen’s 1971 film “Le Mans” — or the red clay tennis courts of Roland Garros. Yet for more than 100 years, the French and Americans have conducted a form of informal diplomacy in sports arenas, where personal relationships and athletic skills foster familiarity and build bonds over shared love of the game.
The groundwork was laid in the early 1900s through one of the more memorable Franco-American friendships of the century. In 1903, Jean-Jules (J.J.) Jusserand was accredited as French ambassador to the United States and quickly became a close confident of Theodore Roosevelt. The president, a champion of vigorous activity and athleticism, especially among young men, enlisted Jusserand as a partner for tennis as well as long, rambling walks in Rock Creek Park.
While we might not think of the tennis court as the arena for diplomacy, Roosevelt expertly blended the two — mingling serves and volleys with communication and negotiations — in an early example of what is today identified as sports diplomacy. Jusserand’s close friendship with Roosevelt, forged on the tennis court, helped him better understand the American people (as did his American wife). The ambassador remained close to subsequent U.S. administrations, particularly during World War I, when his personal friendships played a pivotal role in facilitating close cooperation between the Allied nations.
But sports diplomacy isn’t limited to presidents, ambassadors and Cabinet members. Athletes and coaches conduct it each time they interact on the court, in the locker room or with local communities. In fact, few forms of Franco-American amities sportives have had more of an impact on today’s U.S. sports scene than those in basketball.
Since the Jusserand-Roosevelt era, the majority of Franco-American basketball diplomacy occurred on French soil. The “round ball” was introduced to France in 1893 by American Melvin Rideout, one of James Naismith’s original students, and the first game played on European soil occurred in Paris that December, two years after the sport’s invention.
Basketball didn’t take off in France immediately. Hoops-swishing U.S. doughboys revitalized the sport’s image in France a century ago, as did American GIs in 1944-1945. But despite these on-court exchanges, the French game lacked the tempo and dynamism of its American counterpart. It took a young man from Cleveland to change this and lay the foundation for the sport to grow.
Martin Feinberg, one of the first Americans to play basketball in post-1945 France, organized the initial trip by a French basketball team to the United States. From December 1955 into January 1956, he and his Paris Université Club (PUC) teammates, the best French team of the era, barnstormed their way through the Midwest. They played university and Amateur Athletic Union teams, treated Chicago’s famed Pump Room to an impromptu stand-up comedy act and experienced firsthand what everyday Americans were like. These people-to-people exchanges, the heart of sports diplomacy, helped the French players to better understand what their teammate’s homeland was really like — achieving Feinberg’s goal for the trip. The trip also informed PUC about U.S.-style hoops, and the techniques and tactics they learned began to revitalize, albeit slowly, the sport back home, as did the generations of American players who went to play ball in France after 1968.
Today, French basketballers arrive regularly on U.S. soil to play in the NCAA and the National Basketball Association, and while we don’t think about it, each one conducts acts of diplomacy that help reinforce the Franco-American bond. This year’s NCAA tournaments featured several French players, including one playing for the Gonzaga University men’s team, which reached the Sweet 16. But none are as high profile as the NBA’s Frenchies, as they’re known back home.
Today’s NBA sports a surprisingly zesty French accent. Macron’s countrymen constituted the league’s second-largest international cohort this season, and France is tied with Australia as the most represented foreign country in this year’s playoffs (seven players each).
The San Antonio Spurs, with future Hall of Famer Tony Parker and Joffrey Lauvergne, are a franchise long known for having an international flavor. Teammates and locals alike have learned much about France since Parker’s rookie season in 2001-2002, including its food. Discussions about government, politics and culture are the norm among the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom Cannes native Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot is part of one of the league’s more global lineups. Countless other conversations occur inside and outside of the locker rooms of the Utah Jazz (Rudy Gobert), Washington Wizards (Ian Mahinmi), New Orleans Pelicans (Alexis Ajinça) and Boston Celtics (Guerschon Yabusele).
Today, French basketball diplomacy plays out countrywide in communities where basketteurs live and play, whether on prep high school, NCAA or NBA teams. While the Frenchies may be more famous, French players in prep schools and colleges expose young Americans — some of whom have little exposure to life beyond their home towns or cities — to their culture, political beliefs and governing system.
This regularity helps breed familiarity and works in both directions: Today’s French media covers the Frenchies’ exploits daily as part of their sports coverage, normalizing life in the United States to a certain degree for readers at home. The Internet and social media also deepen Franco-American understandings, as citizens on both sides of the Atlantic learn about one another through the statements and exploits of basketball, making one another less “foreign” than in earlier eras.
While just one small piece of the ties that bind their countries together, French and American basketball players have helped foster ties between the nations for more than 100 years. Even though sports isn’t on Macron’s official Washington agenda, he might have had an opportunity to sneak glimpses of some of his countrymen on television as they squared off in NBA playoff games Tuesday night.