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The U.S. and France might be the next big Olympic basketball rivalry. Here’s why.

How basketball diplomacy has imperiled American basketball dominance, while fostering cultural benefits

Kevin Durant shoots a free throw during the men’s preliminary round Group A basketball match between France and the United States at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, the world’s top-ranked women’s basketball team, the United States, will play its first Olympic group phase game in Tokyo. But the team’s toughest group phase game is likely to come Aug. 2 against fifth-ranked France.

The French team, Les Bleues, is intimately acquainted with the style, tactics and hoops culture of the Americans thanks to nearly half of the Olympic team having played in the United States. And the men’s Olympic competition already proved how dangerous the French can be to the Americans. On Sunday, a Les Bleus team full of NBA players upset Coach Gregg Popovich’s U.S. team, 83-76.

France’s ability to challenge the United States in men’s and women’s basketball in Tokyo (and women’s 3x3 basketball; the American men did not qualify) stems in large part from the long history of basketball diplomacy between the two countries, one that reveals the power of sports for cultural exchange.

Sports diplomacy is everywhere during the Tokyo Games. The Japanese hosts are using the Olympics to project their culture, ideals and values while providing ways for visitors — this year, just Olympic delegations, media and limited VIPs, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — to learn more about the country and its people. Athletes from different countries mix and engage with each other in the Olympic Village, in the process learning about other sports, cultures and peoples.

This international exchange has long extended to Olympic basketball. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the men’s gold medal games were about much more than basketball, as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for bragging rights. Victory on the court burnished the credentials of their respective ideological systems for the worldwide audience. The same was true in 1976 when women’s basketball debuted, as the Soviets won the first women’s basketball gold medal while the United States settled for silver.

Perhaps the best known of these Cold War clashes was the 1972 men’s gold medal game. when U.S. guard Doug Collins seemed to give his team a one point victory with two foul shots in the game’s waning seconds. But the referees had the teams replay the last three seconds, allowing the Soviets to hit a controversial buzzer beater for a 51-50 win. The U.S. team refused to accept their silver medals and the game exposed how the sporting terrain could be used to broadcast geopolitical interests.

U.S.-French Olympic basketball games have never had the same ideological stakes. Instead, they’ve displayed the ties binding the two allies — a byproduct of person-to-person informal sports diplomacy, which has allowed for cultural, technical and knowledge exchanges.

This hidden history traces its roots to 1893, when France became the first country outside of North America to start playing basketball. Two years after James Naismith invented the sport at Springfield College (then known as the International YMCA Training School), the YMCA sent recent graduate Melvin Rideout, a Naismith student, to Paris to help launch its new outpost and teach the game. The organization hosted the first basketball game on European soil on Dec. 27, 1893. Rideout remained in the French capital for five years, spreading basketball’s gospel.

Although U.S. servicemen stationed in France helped stoke the sport’s popularity during World War I, the Gallic game remained divorced from its American cousin until after World War II. That’s when a new generation of adherents adopted basketball and new seeds of cross-fertilization were sown, as U.S. players started playing in France.

In 1946, Chicago-born American Lithuanian Michael Ruzgis introduced U.S.-style tactics, techniques and basketball culture during a training camp at the French National Institute of Sport. Ruzgis was hired as head coach of the French men’s national team — the first, and only foreigner to ever hold the position — though his tenure proved brief, thanks to a lackluster fifth-place finish at the 1947 European Championship.

But Ruzgis had inspired two young Frenchmen, future men’s and women’s national team coaches Joë Jaunay and Robert Busnel. And in 1948, Busnel competed for the French at the London Olympics. The gold medal game pitted Les Tricolores (as the men’s team was then known) against the United States in a David vs. Goliath match. While the United States won going away, 65-21, just reaching the finals illustrated how know-how of the American game had allowed the French team to win an Olympic basketball medal for the first time. Moreover, Busnel went on to significantly influence the sport, including serving as International Basketball Federation (FIBA) president from 1984 until 1990, one example of how long-lasting cross-cultural exchanges flourished.

Over the next decades, the global success of the National Basketball Association (NBA) revolutionized the game, and eventually, in 1992, Olympic basketball. That year, the dazzling “Dream Team” full of future basketball Hall of Famers represented the United States in Barcelona (previously amateurs had represented the United States).

The French first tested the Olympic mettle of the American pros in Sydney in 2000, and again, Les Bleus profited from informal sports diplomacy. One of their players, Crawford Palmer, had grown up in the United States and played NCAA basketball at Duke and Dartmouth, while his brother played in the NBA. Palmer brought the American style and mentality with him to France when he embarked on a professional career in the mid-1990s. Palmer’s knowledge further strengthened a French side familiar with American players, thanks to generations of young men who came to play semiprofessional and professionally with American players, and increasingly in the NBA. While the United States beat France, 85-75, the game was much closer than the final score. With a little more than four minutes to play, Les Bleus trailed by just four points.

The last time the United States and France played each other for an Olympic gold medal was at the London Games, this time on the women’s side. While the game was a blowout, 86-50, it marked a new, second phase of Franco-American basketball relations that is still ongoing. In the 21st century, basketball knowledge and players aren’t just flowing from the United States to France; now, French players come to the United States as well. It’s a trend that began with the first Frenchwomen and men to play NCAA basketball in the mid-1980s, then took on a new dimension when Tariq Abdul Wahad (1997) and Isabelle Fijalkowski and Laure Savasta (1997) entered the NBA and WNBA, respectively.

The 2012 French silver medal-winning team boasted three players who had already tasted WNBA action, plus several others who joined the league in subsequent years. The French WNBA players weren’t just among the best in the world — they also knew U.S. basketball culture, tactics and techniques thanks to their professional careers.

The Tokyo Games continue to highlight this new phase. Playing Tuesday against the Americans are no less than four WNBA veterans, including 2016 WNBA Champion Sandrine Gruda, two recent WNBA draft picks and a former NCAA Division 1 player. Similarly, on the men’s side, the French team sports numerous players with NBA experience, including three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz) and captain Nicolas Batum, who just completed his 13th NBA season. Helping to shepherd the team is assistant general manager, former captain and NBA champion Boris Diaw.

Basketball diplomacy at the Olympics exposes the hidden ties that bind the United States and France together. It helps to explain one reason France is as competitive on the court as it is. And while this has important present-day implications for which teams reach the medal stand, the deeper history of Franco-American sports relations has a greater lesson: it shows the promise of sports to bring people together and influence their respective cultures.