What year did you start following US basketball?
I started to follow the NBA on Canal + in 1988. Right away, I noticed there was a connection with hip hop, of which I was already a huge fan. I quickly started hanging out on playgrounds and playing with my buddies. In 1988, the Lakers became champions, then it was the Pistons’ turn, but Jordan was already there, and he was the one I was fascinated with. I think it was watching the 1988 Dunk Contest that really got me, I was 14 years old. I was able to tape the All Star Game thanks to my parents’ VCR, it was insane. Then in 1992, I turned 18, it was the year of the Barcelona Olympics and the Dream Team: for the first time, we didn’t have to get up at three in the morning or tape anything. They were here: Magic, Barkley, Jordan. They were playing in our time zone. For a long time I thought about doing a documentary explaining how the Dream Team coming to Europe impacted young people. I started to work on it with a guy from L’Equipe (Translator’s note: L’Equipe is a French sports publication), but I regretfully didn’t end up finishing the project.
Do you remember the name of the rookie who was picked for the Dream Team in the place of Shaquille O’Neal, who everybody expected?
Of course I do! Christian Laettner! That guy must have had one of the most mind-blowing experiences in sports history. He was the team’s punching bag and that’s why I really liked him. Poor Laettner, it must have been nuts for him to show up, fresh out of Duke, and to find himself playing with the likes of Magic, Bird and Jordan. You play on a team of superheroes, who are going up against teams that don’t stand a chance. I talked with Chris Mullin about this when I interviewed him for the documentary project on the Dream Team. We also talked about Barkley who was my role model. I loved his game, his image, his size. He was the bad guy, the guy who elbowed people under baskets. I loved Barkley, even if Jordan was the key figure… The late eighties and early nineties was also when I heard about Mars Blackmon, the main character played by Spike Lee in She’s Gotta Have It. Mars Blackmon was also in Air Jordan ads, which were directed by Spike Lee himself. I was really into it. The Mars character, who ultimately was better known for the Nike ads than for the movie, fascinated me. He was a really funny caricature of the Brooklyn B-Boy. He was such a great character, a small guy, nowhere near the domineering male physique that you usually find in hip-hop. He was skinny, had a huge chain around his neck, everything was too big for him, even his glasses. I think it’s great that Nike used him in their Jordan ads, seeking out Spike Lee and his Mars Blackmon character like that, betting the next 20 years on this guy. I don’t know that today you would do the same thing with LeBron or Kevin Durant, I’m actually pretty sure that you wouldn’t. It was genius to create the dynamics between these two characters who were so different from each other. The ad still serves as a reference today. And there’s the tone of it too: I was the first time a B-Boy was linked to a champion athlete and to the type of company that Nike was at the time – a company that had not at all pledged allegiance to rap, and even less to urban culture. At the time, Nike was a running brand, so they were trailblazers in doing this. In 1989, my ultimate dream was to wear Jordans and it came true in 1991, two years later.
We’ve been talking about Jordan, but you mentioned that you were just as fascinated with Charles Barkley at the time. What did you like about him?
Totally. He had a crazy way about him. He was also sponsored by Nike. He was kind of an extension of McEnroe, a rebel. Nike would bet on guys like him : guys who broke rackets, hit people with their trophies. Today it would be complicated for a brand to take that on: I imagine that of the 6 guys at the table who make the decisions, there has to be one who would advise against doing it. Barkley was comfortable with his « I am not a role model » statement. Nike used that to communicate, he was the anti-Jordan. Jordan represented, finesse, elegance, his airborne side. Barkley had a very tough side to him. In a Public Enemy song, Chuck D said : « I'll throw it down your throat like Barkley. » That’s his persona.
And besides Jordan and Barkley, who were you a fan of?
There was incredible competition at the time, which you kind of see today also. And great loyalty to the teams: Jordan was the Bulls. Isiah Thomas, the Pistons. Bird, the Celtics and Magic, the Lakers. Pretty much your whole career was with one team, there were transfers, but there was a real culture of belonging. I loved Drexler, he personified the Blazers at the time. I really liked Hakeen Olajuwon, he’s African and for me, being originally from Senegal, it was wonderful to see him play in the NBA. The African Dream! The early to mid-nineties were the foundation for me. The All Star Games were crazy, too. To me, these experiences were as pivotal as any literature, movies or music could have been.
And where does Kobe fit in all of this ?
He is an excellent athlete, but he was never quite able to resolve his relationship to the public. He was crazy, but he was also being measured up to the standard of Jordan, who was brilliant in storytelling and packaging. Besides, after Jordan retired, people actually stopped watching the NBA. Kobe found himself confronted with this exodus. Not easy. LeBron was luckier. He was on the cover of Time Magazine before playing his first game. The public awaited him. He just didn’t deal with the transition from Miami very well but his beginnings in Cleveland were amazing when you think about it. He was managed by his buddies, who then became his Managers. He also managed to use sports to help those in need. And that, I really respect. I would have liked his bromance with Jay-Z to go a little further, to where he would have signed with the Nets, but I think the stakes were too high both for him and for Jay-Z.
What did you think about Drake’s presence on the court with the Raptors?
Everybody made fun of it. When he started to massage the players and to pat the Coach on the back, people couldn’t believe it. What right did he have to do that? But if you look a little closer, you realize that this guy has done a ton for the Raptors. He’s the one who financed their training center, it’s called the OVO center, which is the name of his label. He therefore is entitled to slap one or two players on the butt. Regardless, I love the NBA and hip-hop so much that I think it’s great. I remember that the NBA was against it for a while, they went against a guy like Iverson, who personified streetball and the ghetto. When I went to an All Star game and I saw Drake, 2 Chainz, Rich Rosso and Jay-Z in the front row, I dug it.
You started Quai 54 with Hammadoun Sidibé right at the time where the NBA saw a huge influx of
I worked a lot in records with French rap, and one of the limitations of the job is the comparison with American rap. It was really hard to get French rap up to par with US rap. In basketball, however, it seemed possible, in the wake of a guy like Tony Parker. Getting a guy from Atlanta to listen to a French rap record is a challenge. But seeing a French player play on the Atlanta court, that seemed possible. That’s why I dove into the Quai 54 project. I don’t come from the projects, but street culture is my thing. I knew that I could do something in that area. Initially, it was Hammadoun Sidibé’s project, like you said. He was a friend of Mafia K’1 Fry and at the time, I was working with Le 113, Kery James and Rohff (Translator’s note: all French rap artists). We would run into each other in the 94 (Translator’s note: French suburban area) and in the 19th district with Oxmo (Translator’s note: French rap artist). I worked for Nike in 1998 and at the same time I was working in music. In 2003, Nike offered me a job working with Hammadoun on a Battle Ground brought over by the US and the figure head was Tony Parker! And when I started to work on it, the idea was to bring a real street feel to the event. I remember running into Hammadoun in New York in the summers, because I have family there. I would go to the Rucker Park tournaments and I knew he loved going too. But he really played basketball over there. He and his buddies would go in the summers and play pickup games in the neighborhoods, with their French accents. Then they would take on bigger players for money and they would beat them, big time. They would clean them out and go shopping and go home with a brand new look. Hammadoun and I shared the same culture, we listened to the same music. We knew the power of New York “basket street culture” and the impact it had on pop culture. I saw Madonna and De Niro show up at Rucker Park and that’s when I figured it out. I’m pretty sure that’s what we wanted to emulate with Quai 54.
So what did the first edition in 2003 look like?
The idea was to mix pros and amateurs from the Paris region. There were guys from the suburbs who were playing in Spain, Russia and Greece and this was an opportunity to get them and their friends together in the summer. The first edition was a return to the images from our childhood. We pretended we were Americans, in Levallois, on the Seine river banks, with perfect weather, the above-ground train running behind us. The Slow Club (Translator’s note: a local night club) guys had let us borrow their sound system, which we plugged into the generator from City Hall. There were DJs. Mokobe, a childhood friend of Hammadoun’s came. We had a barbeque, we had a blast in the sunshine, watching these guys , for the most part, were pros. There was an incredible dunk contest. When I think back, it was really amazing. And of course, when it was over, we agreed that we would have to do it again. In 2004, we got rappers to sponsor the teams: Kery James, Mac Tyer, Booba. Booba was on the bench doing what Drake had done in the NBA and people could come and see him. Booba was our role model at the time, a real competitor. He loves basketball and he’s actually a pretty good player. Booba took on a very American aesthetic early on, and the guys who had more of a “ghetto” style thought that only morons dressed like that. We were on Booba’s side of course, we dug that American style. And we dug his music too, it was a public projection of what we believed. I knew him from a distance from his Time Bomb days (Translator’s note: Time Bomb was a rap collective), but it’s Hammadoun who was good friends with him and who got him involved. He loved Quai 54: I think that if we had asked him to carry boxes for the tournament, he would have done it (laughs). There was both a do-it-yourself side to the event and also guys like him who attended, that’s what was so great about it. It was completely free of charge, there were no VIPs and quickly lots of young people started coming. Girls too, lots. One could have feared that it would be an insider or a guys’ only event, but not at all, it turned into an event that was bigger than basketball.
How did Jordan end up endorsing the tournament?
Nike provided the equipment for the 2004 edition, and I talked to them about it. In 2005, we met with some of the Jordan people. Then they got back to us a few years later. They understood that we were the equivalent of Rucker Park. In 2005, we invited the Terror Squad, a team from the New York playgrounds, we were the first to take them out of the US. It was very symbolic of what was happening in Europe. I think Jordan was looking for that when they came to us. And it helped us to make basketball a little more popular, because it’s still not very widespread in France. We offer a special backdrop: guys play under the Eiffel Tower, in front of Spike Lee and Russell Westbrook. We help some guys to become known. There are people who follow Pro A (translator’s note: division 1) players after having seen them at Quai 54. Some players can’t believe it, they have fans who come and see them play in their “Poulet de Loué” jerseys (Translator’s note: a French poultry brand) in clubs all over France because they found them to be real entertainers, who dunk and do all kinds of crazy stuff. Yeah, entertainers who wear “Poulet de Loué » jerseys do exist!