As we settle in for the NBA’s All-Star weekend, I’m reminded that history has a funny way of repeating itself.
The annual extravaganza kicks-off tonight with the Rising Stars Challenge where New York Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina will make his debut with Team World. It’s yet another ‘first’ for the 19-year old rookie Frenchman, who is starting to settle in to the league—helped possibly by the echoes of French in the locker room (teammates Joakim Noah and Emmanuel Mudiay are both fluent). Like generations of other ‘Frenchies’ in the NBA (who have similarly arrived more or less fluent in English), Ntilikina still has an aura of starry-eyed optimism surrounding his desire to succeed.
He’s only the third French cager to play in the All-Star Weekend’s rookie game. The Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert was selected to play for Team World in 2015, and of course San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker played as a rookie All-Star in 2002 and 2003. And like Ntilikina, Parker was only 19-years old when he made his NBA and All-Star weekend debut.
French cagers in the NBA—the ‘Frenchies’ as they’re called on both sides of the Atlantic—are one of the largest contingents of non-U.S. players in the league, both this season (2nd largest behind Canada) as well as all-time. It’s a stat that startles many, for most people don’t think of France as a major basketball producer. But they're wrong. The world's elite championship sports a surprisingly zesty French accent. And that’s why I’m working on this larger, exciting story.
While French cagers may be a phenomenon of the past 20 years, there’s a longer history of young Frenchmen coming to ‘America’ to prove themselves and ‘compete’ with the best. For such long-term roots, look no further than Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roche-Gilbert du Motier, more commonly known as the Marquis de Lafayette, who set sail for the North American colonies in 1777 (you read his letters of that trip here). The 19-year old French aristocrat arrived that Summer and received his first commission to test his abilities that fall. The rest, as we know, is history.