Along the rue de Trévise in Paris’ 9th arrondisement, you’ll find a nondescript set of arched ironwork doors announcing your arrival at the YMCA (or, to go by the French version, UCJG Union Chrétienne des Jeunes Gens). But few passersby would guess that behind the recessed entryway is the world’s oldest original basketball court.
This grande dame of hoops courts hosted Europe’s first basketball game 125 years ago today, and remains an enduring symbol of both the game’s globalization and the Franco-American relationship., as I’ve written elsewhere And yes, the basketball book I’m working on takes this starting point, an early instigator of #hoopsdiplomacy, as a foundational step in how and why France became one of the largest all-time suppliers of international players to the NBA.
Construction on the building began in 1892 utilizing the designs of architect Emile Bénard, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, and was completed the following year. The structure’s basketball court was an exact replica of the game’s original terrain in Springfield, Massachusetts, constructed with wood imported directly from North America.
Once the court was in place, Melvin Rideout, one of James Naismith’s original basketball players who was sent to Paris by the YMCA to oversee the new foyer, provided instructions on how to play the new game. On December 27, 1893, the first hoops game was played, a competition that attracted an illustrious crowd that included Pierre de Coubertin.
Even Naismith himself likely played or watched hoops games on this court. The father of basketball traveled to France in 1917 to help organize YMCA leisure foyers and volunteer work with the Allied troops—restrictions on movement prohibited his travel to the Central Powers. Based out of Paris for 19 months, it’s hard to believe that Naismith wouldn’t have spent time at the rue de Trévise court (though I have yet to find detailed documentation of this).
In 2016, I had the privilege of visiting the rue de Trévise court, before it gained a modicum of U.S. fame through Andrew Keh’s excellent New York Times Magazine article, and it’s a compelling place. The wood slats, the metal bars, the spectator gallery from above—even the air had a certain je ne sais quoi scent that lent awe and age to the place. French speakers can read more about this special structure via the Paris YMCA-UCJG site here.
The court is open to the general public during the annual Journées du Patrimoine in September and should you find yourself in Paris, well worth your while.