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Marcel-Cerdan Sports Palace was not built for a player like Victor Wembanyama. Last season, when Wembanyama played his home games in Levallois-Perret, a northwestern suburb of Paris, he had to duck his head to get around. Reporters packed into a tiny press room. Tickets were virtually impossible to come by. A longtime employee snuck people in.

The arena is more than 30 years old and seats 2,800 people. "It looks more like a big gym than a true arena, to be honest," Yann Ohnona, a writer for French sports newspaper L'Equipe and the author of "Wembanyama: The making of an NBA star," said. Wembanyama's early-season games with Metropolitans 92 sold out, and, after the team returned home from a pair of exhibition games in Las Vegas, where the 7-foot-4 phenom dazzled against the G League Ignite, everybody wanted to be there.

"We were all shocked," Rémi Reverchon, an analyst for beIN Sports in France, said. "Like, what the f--- is Michael Douglas doing at a Metropolitans 92 game, you know?" 

Douglas went to watch Wembanyama more than once. Soccer superhero Kylian Mbappé sat courtside, too, as did octogenarian former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and actor Omar Sy, the star of Netflix's "Lupin." Reverchon found himself fielding about three phone calls a day from people hoping he could hook them up.

"Everything went crazy," Reverchon said.

The first phase of "Wembamania," as it is known in France, ended last June in front of more than 14,000 fans at the site of the French Open, Roland-Garros, where Game 3 of the Ligue Nationale de Basket (LNB) Pro A finals was relocated to accommodate massive demand. In the second phase, Wembanyama is an ocean away, losing games and dealing with a minutes restriction, fully aware that France has remained rapt.

As Wembanyama routinely puts up All-Star numbers stateside -- since Dec. 8, his first game starting at center, Wembanyama has averaged a downright preposterous 29.3 points, 13.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists and 5.0 blocks per 36 minutes -- he is not just doing everything he can to drag the San Antonio Spurs toward competence (and, eventually, greatness). He has made it his mission to also grow the game back home, where, less than two weeks into his NBA career, the league put his face on a more-than-1,700-square-foot billboard in Europe's busiest train station. Magnifique!

"I'm very happy to have the support of fans here in San Antonio. But seeing it come from France, it's even more incredible," Wembanyama said in October, via the San Antonio Express-News. "I sometimes see French flags in the stands. I always try to say hello or touch a hand. It's a real pleasure. It's my blood."

The day after Wembanyama's fifth game as a member of the Spurs, in which he lit up the Phoenix Suns for 38 points, beIN Sport announced that it would broadcast every Spurs game live for the rest of the season. Wembanyama's first game in what the NBA calls "European primetime," a 2:30 p.m. CT tip against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 5, is France's most watched game this season, both in linear viewership and on NBA League Pass. In France, the Spurs are the most watched team on League Pass and Wembanyama has the top-selling jersey. 

Four French journalists are living in San Antonio and covering Wembanyama. One of them, Olivier Pheulpin of RMC radio and Basket Le Mag, who initially moved there to cover Tony Parker in 2001, said, "It's the biggest thing that we've ever had, sports-wise, outside of the country. He's Mbappé. He's at that level right away." Another one, 23-year-old freelance writer Benjamin Moubèche, who followed the 2023 No. 1 pick to Texas and rented an AirBNB for the season, said he sees Wembanyama driving a "huge boom" for French basketball in the coming years. 

"It's going to be a complete revolution," Moubèche said. "People in France, they all know about Victor. Most of them don't know who Rudy Gobert is, for example. Or Evan Fournier. Those guys, they are known to basketball fans, but not the general public. But now if I ask my mother about Victor Wembanyama, she's going to be able to tell me who he is, who he's playing for, etc." 

In Paris, Reverchon has been doing the rounds on general-interest radio and television shows, including France 5's "C à vous," a popular, long-running talk show.

"It's a great audience, 2 million people watch it every night, and I've been asked to go out there," Reverchon said. "And while they usually talk these days about the war in Gaza or stuff like that, I'm going on this studio show with people who are like, 'What's the deal with this Victor guy? Is he good because he's so big?'"

Those questions don't speak well of the average viewer's basketball literacy. The important thing, though, is that basketball is being discussed on such a platform at all.

"I'm 100% confident in the fact that basketball is going to get much, much bigger in France thanks to Victor," Reverchon said. "He's going to change everything."

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors

Wembanyama isn't the first giant French prospect to generate hype. In 1957, Sports Illustrated quoted an enthusiastic coach saying Jean-Claude Lefebvre, who had just arrived at Gonzaga, "could be the greatest basketball player in the world." The New York Times described Lefebvre as a "rare commodity," since he stood taller than 7-foot-3 and could run, jump and shoot.

But Lefebvre, the first Frenchman to play NCAA basketball on a scholarship, didn't live up to it. He returned to France following his sophomore season having failed to dominate the competition. The Spokesman-Review even reported that he wasn't quite as tall as advertised. Lefebvre was selected in the NBA draft (No. 64 in 1960), but France did not actually produce an NBA player until Tariq Abdul-Wahad showed up in Sacramento almost four decades later. 

"When Lefebvre came over to Gonzaga, he was kind of like the oddity," Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, the author of "Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA" and an adjunct lecturer at the Tisch Institute for Global Sport, said. "There was nothing else in the pipeline."

France has now produced more NBA players than any country outside of the United States and Canada. Some, like Parker and Boris Diaw, came up through INSEP, the centralized training institute. Others, like Wembanyama and Nicolas Batum, through the youth academies of professional teams. Players of Parker's generation were inspired by the 1992 Dream Team, and players that followed have been inspired by Parker's generation. Wembanyama's mother played professionally in France; as a kid he tagged along to practice when she was coaching youth teams.

"Victor Wembanyama is the perfect representative of the culmination of all that groundwork," George Eddy, the Franco-American longtime voice of the NBA in France, said. "Now we've been able to produce the ultimate talent."

Wembanyama is not alone. Bilal Coulibaly, his teammate last season with Mets 92, has quietly impressed with the Washington Wizards. In ESPN's latest mock draft, French prospects account for three of the top six projected picks. Alex Sarr, No. 1, plays for the NBL's Perth Wildcats, while Nos. 2 and 6, Zaccharie Risacher and Tidjane Salaun, play in the LNB.

"We have a new wave of players coming up," Fournier, the New York Knicks veteran who first suited up for the French national team at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, said. "We have guys that are going to be drafted in the next three years that have real potential, and I think it's an exciting time to be a French fan, period. Because when you look at the cycle that we had, the last guy that got drafted that was playing, really, was Rudy. Frank [Ntilikina] has been unfortunately struggling, Killian Hayes is struggling, Sekou Doumbouya is struggling. So to have a young player that comes in and has an impact -- [Wembanyama] and Bilal -- it's great for France to have new faces."

"We definitely have a great future," Coulibaly said. "I know a lot of young guys are coming the next years. I'm talking with them and they're really determined to be the faces of the league."

Brooklyn Nets assistant coach Will Weaver remembers scouting French players when he was on the coaching staff of Australia's national team in 2014. "The youth and athleticism, particularly in their reservoir of basketball talent, was just outrageous," he said. This was only reinforced when Weaver spent the 2022-23 season as the head coach of Paris Basketball. 

"I think that is part of what made us all so amazed at what Wembanyama was doing," Weaver said. "It was on the backdrop of one of the most athletic leagues in the world. And a lot of the, I would say, smartest NBA scouts have thought of France as this incredible wellspring of talent that eventually was going to have a game-changer. Or maybe several game changers."

The talent is now undeniable. Fournier cautioned, though, that it's "hard for French people to really get into basketball" simply because NBA games air late at night. "It's still limited to a bunch of crazy basketball fans that have no life," Pheulpin said. "And I mean that with respect, if you want to write it this way, because I've been one of those guys." This is why the transcendent appeal of Wembanyama, a categorically unprecedented player, is so significant. When Batum, now a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, was with the Los Angeles Clippers, he told teammates and coaches about France's "new kid," a Gobert- or Anthony Davis-like defender but taller, with Kevin Durant's bag. "People were like, 'Yeah, right, Nico, you're on drugs. That can't happen,'" Batum said. Then they saw Wembanyama play in Vegas and came away from it just as high on him.

"We've never seen something like that in the sport, in basketball," he said. "When you're a French person, you're proud of it. Because you know this guy is going to put the country on the map for the next 15, 20 years-plus, maybe."

For George Aivazoglou, the NBA's head of fan engagement for Europe and the Middle East, the presence of Wembanyama has been more than a boon. "It's a godsent gift," Aivazoglou said. In France this season, the average television audience for regular-season NBA games is up 23%, League Pass subscriptions are up 25% and the NBA app's average weekly viewers are up 68%. Wembanyama's go-go-gadget dunk against the Boston Celtics on New Year's Eve is the most viewed video ever posted on the NBA's Instagram account. 

"I think momentum around basketball and the NBA specifically in France is absolutely at an all-time high," Aivazoglou said. "If you look at things like social media consumption, the growth there is in the triple digits, especially when it pertains to content around Victor."

Earlier this month, Paris hosted a regular-season NBA game for the third time. Just like when Mets 92 played against ASVEL, Wembanyama's previous team, last May, 15,000-plus people packed Accor Arena to watch the Brooklyn Nets take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Still, basketball "has long been what we call a closeted sport in France," Krasnoff said. Kids play it in phys ed, and it's the second-most played team sport in the country, but "it's not consumed or commercialized in the way that professional football, rugby and so many other sports are." Until recently, beIN Sport was broadcasting LNB games without paying anything for the rights.

Less than a month after Wembanyama's final game with Mets 92, Le Parisien reported that the team, which had already lost coach Vincent Collet and executive Alain Weisz, was 2 million euros short of its budget and facing an uncertain future. It ended up returning to the LNB, but, after starting this season 0-6, Le Parisien quoted the 19th-century Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine: "You miss a single person, and the whole world is empty."

Ohnona, however, said that there have "definitely" been lasting effects from Wembamania. Two weeks after last season ended, the LNB announced a seven-year TV deal worth around 2.5 million euros per year -- a fraction of the 113.6 million euros per year that the French rugby union got, but not nothing. Every Sunday afternoon during the regular season, L'Equipe's free-to-air television channel broadcasts a Pro A game, which is "exposure that the French national league didn't get in the last, I would say, 30 years," Ohnona said. He added that, post-Wembanyama, the league is marketing itself as a place to see young stars, spotlighting prospects like Salaun in a way that it didn't before.

"You have a whole ecosystem that is growing because of him, and everybody's talking about him still," Ohnona said.

Monaco, the LNB's top team, has the highest budget and payroll of any French team in history. ASVEL, owned by Parker, is right behind them in that respect. "There is optimism that some teams are doing better," Diaw, now the general manager of France's senior national team, said. "But it's not that many teams. That's the problem." Monaco's owner, Alexey Fedorychev, is "one guy that's very passionate about basketball for Monaco that just brings the team up to the level it is just because he's a hardcore fan."

Next month, though, Paris Basketball, the team run and co-founded by former Minnesota Timberwolves general manager David Kahn, will move into a new arena. In November, its women's team played its first game. "No one is as creative as my former colleagues in Paris," Weaver said. "They have been pushing and pushing and pushing to adapt and run the business of basketball as modernly and as aggressively as the sport of basketball is being played." Paris Basketball's budget this season is 9.25 million euros -- not on Monaco's or ASVEL's level, but bigger than any other French team's, and growing. 

The franchise's existence is a bet on the future of French basketball and the young people that connect with the sport now. "I think there's certainly a rising tide," Weaver said. "It might not be talked about at the dinner table, but people on Instagram and TikTok and people grabbing beers at 2:30 in the morning and smoking cigarettes are talking about basketball." 

And in six months, if some balls bounce France's way, the sport could be inescapable.

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Last June, on the plane to New York for the draft, Wembanyama told Ohnona that he wants a "French basketball reign," in which it is Team USA that enters a tournament telling themselves they must beat France, not the other way around. At the time, he was planning to participate in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, and he wanted to galvanize the country behind Les Bleus. 

A week later, Wembanyama said he would not play, instead using his summer to prepare for his rookie season in San Antonio. France fared shockingly poorly without him, crushed by Canada and eliminated by Latvia. Now, it will take its first steps toward the basketball world domination that Wembanyama envisions at the Paris Olympics.

"I expect it to be pretty crazy because it's going to be the Olympics and it's going to be in France. And us French, we are, um, crazy people," Diaw said, laughing.

Les Bleus will face stiff competition, including a Team USA roster that is expected to be more stacked than usual, with Joel Embiid choosing to represent the United States after flirting with France for years. There is a chance, though, for this summer to "be something special," Batum said. It will be Wembanyama's first Olympics with the senior national team -- "With Vic, you know the excitement's going to be there, the hype is going to be there," Batum said -- and it will be Batum's last. Both the 35-year-old forward and 36-year-old guard Nando De Colo will hang up their national team jerseys afterward.

"We just want to win, man," Fournier said. "Of course I'm close with Nando and Nico, so giving them an incredible way out, it would be legendary. It would be awesome. And I hope we're going to do it. For us, but also for them to end on a high note."

Fournier has been tuning in to San Antonio's games because he and Wembanyama are going to be teammates. "Like everyone, I'm curious," he said. "I'm watching the Spurs. I want to get familiar with his game." To Diaw, part of the challenge will be staying focused on hoops, not hoopla. "We have to be careful with that," he said. "But at the same time, if we do well, we know a lot of people are going to follow, all of France is going to be behind us and looking for us to go and try to get a medal. So we're going to ride with this, the pressure is good in that way."

It's difficult to overstate the opportunity they have. Krasnoff said that, throughout the French sports system, there is hope that the Paris Games will elevate sports as a whole, never mind just basketball. "I would argue it is changing in the past few years, but sports is still not viewed in the same regard as other cultural components, whether it's gastronomy, literature, whatnot," she said. The day after his last game with Mets 92, Wembanyama went to the Élysée Palace with his parents and spent an hour and a half with President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to him about the role he can play as an ambassador for France at the Olympics.

"It's a lot of pressure and you're being looked at, but the first thing is pride," Diaw said of the particular spotlight Wembanyama has found himself under. "And he's patriotic. He's proud to be French."

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As "the most visible and perhaps most high-impact French representative in the United States and possibly the world today," Wembanyama is already practicing informal sports diplomacy, Krasnoff said. When he's one of the faces of the Olympic Games, that will turn formal. It's a lot for someone who turned 20 less than three weeks ago, but good luck finding anyone who thinks he's unprepared for it.

Krasnoff said that the Fifth Republic could ask for no better representative of a modern, 21st-century, global France. "He's what the French call bien élevé: well raised, well educated, kind of in the larger sense," she said. He draws, he listens to classical music and the San Antonio Express-News recently published a feature on his love of fantasy novels.

Eddy said that "the most amazing thing about him" is how at ease he is with his position. "He seems to be ready for everything, that's what freaks me out a little bit," Pheulpin said, adding that "my European brain" also had trouble understanding the "almost too perfect" David Robinson when he first started covering the NBA. 

"I think he likes it," Batum said. "He endorses it. Because he knows who he is and what he's gonna be."

Eddy, the 67-year-old French basketball luminary whose extraordinary life is the subject of a recent documentary, has covered the Olympics since 1992 in Barcelona. He met Wembanyama's mother when she played for the French national team decades ago, and he played in an over-36 league on Sunday mornings with Wembanyama's father for eight years. "I've seen almost every game of his since I met him at the age of 15," Eddy said. In 2020-21, Wembanyama's final season with Nanterre, Eddy was the team's public address announcer. It was he who approached Nanterre about it because he just "wanted to see Victor play as much as possible up close," he said. 

Covering Wembanyama "is sort of the crowning moment of my career," Eddy said. "I could've retired already, and it really, honestly, pushed me to continue at least until the Olympics in Paris to see what Wembanyama could do."

To Eddy, Wembanyama is already "the best thing that ever happened to French basketball," even though he has yet to finish his first NBA season or play for France in a major tournament. If he stars at the Olympics and Les Bleus do well, Wembamania will reach an entirely new level. "That could be the ultimate stepping stone for basketball to become a mega-major sport in France," Eddy said.

Pheulpin went a few steps further: "I think if Victor wins the Olympics, wins the NBA title, he's going to end up being president of the country. Why not, someday?"