On this particular morning, the Orgues de Flandre projects are flowing through the blue sky. Bakary Sakho and Paul Odonnat are childhood friends and were both born here, “in the youngest and most crime-ridden district in the city.” To each his own neighborhood, and theirs is the 19th district, which they love. For twenty years now, they’ve worked together to “reconcile action and social prosperity,” providing both “practical solutions to the issues people in the neighborhood face” and “cookouts featuring merguez sausages.” “We don’t want to just put out fires. Everything we do is designed for the long-term, to bring young people together who in turn will promote the work. The question of passing things on is at the heart of everything we do” says Bakary, a great speaker and activist who, ever since Braves Garçons d’Afrique (Translator’s note: The Brave Boys of Africa), the first organization he founded in 2000, has never stopped stepping up to the plate.
Today, these two basketball fans serve as consultants for the French Basketball Federation, as well as for the Youth and Sports department at for the city of Paris. Their roles are adding up and they’re handling them as perfect entrepreneurs: from Faces Cachées, their publishing house, to VM1, their web radio station featuring Boucan Media, a collective of journalists, they are putting great effort into pushing boundaries. The Meltin’Club Paris organization was created in 2010 to “render the culture and practice of basketball more accessible” and overcome “the lack of political vision” in a country where, paradoxically, basketball is the second most popular team sport, with more than 600 000 members. In the wake of Meltin’Club Paris, several other projects with a similar purpose have popped up, such as Sport en Scène, a sports film and documentary festival, which “uses film as a tool to tell the stories of men and women through sports” through free viewings and discussions. There is also Oasis Sporting, which was created as “a program of international solidarity, actively participating in the co-development of the north-south.”
The clear goal here is to rehabilitate and bring to life basketball courts, from Paris to Dakar. The first exploit was the renovation of the Jean Jaurès gymnasium, which was inaugurated by Lakers legend Kobe Bryant on October 22nd, 2017, “our first year sponsored by Nike,” the two friends explain. In 2019, it was the Cité Curial playground’s turn for a makeover, before it was christened on June 21st by Jayson Tatum, the Boston Celtics’ star forward. Three months later, the ultimate dedication took place when the legendary Stalingrad playground reopened, right under the above-ground subway. This streetball mecca had turned into a hideout for dealers, before refugees began living there and ultimately closed its gates in 2016 for public disorder. “It was important for us to defend this heritage before the city, who ended up awarding us 500 000 euros from their participative budget” Paul and Bakary proudly explain. When they were younger, they too hung out in this “cage”, as did Olympic silver medal winner Moustapha Sonko. Today, they manage the space: it hosts school groups during the day, opens to the public at 5:00 pm and saves one of its two courts for girls to play on. In the center is a “space for expression” which houses exhibits, concerts, debates, pop-up stores and garage sales. This is how past and present are reconciled. A counterexample of this would be the Jordan Legacy Court, on rue des Haies in the 20th district, which was inaugurated by Michael Jordan and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo: “What should have been a national event didn’t end up taking, because the court had no historic link with the basketball community.”
What this duo is most proud of however, are the All Parisian Games: “It’s our only elitist project, it’s an annual event that we branded and that focuses on highlighting youth.” The idea, taken from the All-Star Games model, is simple: 48 out of 500 players are chosen to form 4 teams of 12. Right bank and left bank, blue and red, boys and girls, the duel is everywhere. “The goal was to bring together the basketball community by supporting under 20 talent from the Paris region. Ranked by age, they are the best of their generations. We are not a training center: some players are already on the Agents’ radars and are about to play in the big leagues. There aren’t enough spots for everyone” the two Associates explain, using Allan Dokossi and Helena Ciak as examples. “We will never charge to get in, we’ll never have music during our games, or VIP sections. Our stars are the players, they are the ones who deserve all the honors, endowments, photo shoots, street parades. This is not the “All Paul and Bakary Game”, here there are no issues with ego.”
Because they don’t have delusions of grandeur, Paul and Bakary can focus on what’s really important, the game: “The boys’ game may be spectacular, but the girls’, at 3:45, is just as great. If the public comes in at 3:00, it won’t get to watch any of it. We don’t let anyone in after that time, they don’t get to pick and choose.” And this method works. With zero communication until only a week before the day of the event, the All Parisian Games pack a full house: “Nike approached us after 4 years, once the event had already acquired a solid reputation. It brought people together way before it was able to bring in Jayson Tatum.” Guest stars are always a major element of surprise: “In 2019, when Lebron James showed up, the public had come in on a Friday, August 31st at 2:00 pm to watch a girls’ game. Even our staff was kept in the dark. When you get to watch your youngest members find themselves face to face with their favorite players, who represent success and who have an influence on their game every single day, you know you’ve done something right.” With its logo designed by Maison Chateau Rouge, “friends of ours”, the All Parisian Games is a looking like a real brand, but with a kind heart.
“They say girls don’t want to play sports, but no one ever seeks them out.” When it comes to women’s basketball, Agnès Sylvestre tells it like it is. In the rue Madeleine Rebérioux space, she tells us the story of the Paris Basket 18 club, the first women’s club in the city of Paris, founded in 2001 by two phys ed teachers who taught at Gérard Philippe middle school, on rue des Amiraux in the 18th district. Since 2004, she has had pretty much every job, from Coach to President. She is both the soul of the club and a real jack of all trades.
“Thanks to regular quality practice, we got results very quickly.” With four French championship titles under its belt, PB18 can brag about having flair when it comes to detecting talent. The club has seen past pro players come through like Olivia Epoupa, Kadidia Minte, Touty Gandega ou Awa Sissoko. It currently has 80 licensed members from under 13 to under 17, and it definitely spares no effort: “Four to five times a week, we offer free introduction to basketball to 5th graders in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th districts, with the goal of finding talent: tall girls, with unusual athletic ability, who like basketball enough for us to be able to push them.” The objective of these recruiting sessions is to increase the numbers in middle school sports. “We seek out girls who are for the most part in REP schools (Translator’s note: REP is a program that channels additional resources to schools in disadvantaged areas and encourages the development of new teaching projects), who are enrolled in schools that are as bad as Gérard Philippe (laughs). What we sell to them is academic support and daily personalized coaching.” This kind of support is at the heart of the club’s mission, it even helps with the cost of transportation and uniforms for its new recruits : “The idea is to eliminate, as much as possible, any obstacles that would get in the way of playing.”
For Agnès, the investment is not one-sided: “We give these girls everything, but we also expect a lot from them in return: no failing grades, no tardiness or absences!” Though demanding, PB18 does not rely strictly on performance: “Today, we are known for our high standards, but basketball remains a tool” Agnès points out, as she is persuaded that what sets the club apart is that it sticks to its beliefs. It offers free basketball for girls in 3rd to 5th grades, discussion groups led by Psychologists and workshops introducing the game to kids with special needs. The PB18 project is limitless. Well, almost: “We are missing long-term support: even if the Olympics coming up are giving us a boost, public funding depends on the good will of politicians. Only private funders would guarantee continuous financial stability for our projects, Nike showing up was something we never even dreamed of.”
PB18’s future is in safe hands since, as a Russian doll would, it is hiding other initiatives like the PB18 Girls Squad, designed to initiate 16-18 year old girls to the sport : “They either don’t or at least no longer play, so the point is for them to start again in order to let off steam” explains Rama, the 17-year old brains behind the project. Four centers in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th districts and one in the city of Stains, north of Paris, offer weekly basketball courses as well as dance, handball, soccer and double dutch. All are free of charge and taught by an all-female staff: “At this age, we need to confide in someone, and we are here for that too” adds Rama. You’ll find the same kind of sincerity at Crossover, a youth non-profit that organizes co-ed inner-city basketball tournaments in order to fight against biases which, in sports can sometimes be more prevalent: “When we play street ball, we hear comments like “she can’t run, she can’t shoot, etc.” Stereotypes get old fast, that’s why we created Crossover” Rama points out.
PB18 is not a club, it’s a community. “The goal is to bring as many people together as possible and to encourage them to be proactive. We don’t trust young people enough” Agnès notes with regret. Right now, she is involved in several projects: the opening of a new gymnasium at the end of the street in September of 2020, whose construction was requested by City Hall and is supposed to mirror the Stade Français of basketball in the 16th district. To Agnès, though, the project doesn’t make much sense. She feels differently, however, about the 2023 inauguration of the Porte de la Chappelle Arena 2, which will include two gyms with the best equipment. Agnès hopes that “there might actually be something to build on there.” She is also working hard on starting an Academy, “the equivalent of a sports study program, privately managed right here.” The desire to build this project stems from the latent frustration that female athletes feel regarding the quality of the academics offered to them: “We don’t bring out the best in each girl. If the math Teacher is out for 6 weeks, it’s not a big deal. If the French teacher is just starting out and isn’t teaching much or anything, it’s not a big deal. It’s never a big deal.” As far as Agnès is concerned, she won’t stand for any of it.
He asks us to meet him at 25 boulevard du Temple, just up the road from Place de la République. The storefront reads “Hair Corner For Men,” seemingly poles apart from a basketball court. While I wait for “Big Doun”, I watch a ballet of Barbers wearing aprons that say “235th Barber Street.” The hip-hop playlist is a must, the customers are dressed to the nines and impeccably shaven and the décor is straight out of a scene from The Wire. Here lies the enigma that is Quai 54, right in the middle of a piece of American culture. The place’s Owner, Hammadoun Sidibé, shows up an hour later, friendly and starving: between two bites of Chinese takeout, he tells his story, which is, one must admit, a whole saga. The eldest of five kids, he grew up in the town of Choisy-le-Roi, in the Henri Barbusse projects. In the summer of ’91, while visiting his Aunt in New York, he found himself mesmerized by a rebroadcast of a basketball game: the NBA finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. Once he was back in Paris, he signed up to play at the Choisy basketball club. Four years later, a senior in high school, he did a report on the development of the Jordan brand. In college, he sold clothes he had bargain-hunted in Manhattan to his classmates, clothes that you couldn’t get in France at the time. “At the time, we swore by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it was a good business plan.”
Hammadoun dreams big and he dreams American. Neither bank tellers nor Paris exhibit halls impress him much. “I’ve always had an issue with subordination.” He was also part of Mafia K’1 Fry’s beginnings (editorial note: the award for best rap album won by the group at the Victoires de la Musique in 2000 is displayed here). The game of basketball, which he plays at la Halle Carpentier or on the Tolbiac court, takes up all of his attention. In 2003, when social networks did not yet exist, he organized a game on a playground that had caught his eye at 54 Quai Michelet. Despite the heatwave, the event attracted more than a thousand. The space gained notoriety and now, 16 years later, Quai 54 is among the most famous streetball tournaments in the world. This success story owes a lot to its team: Hammadoun, who’s a smart businessman, surrounded himself with the right people early on. His inner circle includes Thibaut de Longeville, Almamy Soumah and Hugues Lawson-Body. Worker bees who work hard and who, event after event, manage to combine both the game and the show. Modeled after the legendary Rucker Park in Harlem, the event which has proclaimed itself “where basketball, hip-hop and urban culture officially get together”, brings together 160 players ever summer: over a single weekend, 16 teams representing at least ten countries play fifteen games on a glistening temporary playground, set up in turn at Trocadero, the Champ-de-Mars and Place de la Concorde. “We’ve always gotten support from the city of Paris’ and we return the favor: the Quai spreads a positive image of the neighborhoods, of their diversity and by extension, of the city.” On the court and all around, the party is in full swing with dunk contests, a sound system, a list of guest stars and a collection of Jordan items. Hammadoun goes all out: “I am not here to have a showcase of amateurs or a laid-back tournament. I made the decision to choose the elite. For many the Quai is a textbook case.” The event was a well-oiled machine that suddenly got jammed in 2015 when, it was a victim of its own success and experienced riots on Place de la Concorde. A highly anticipated Michael Jordan never showed up. It was a wakeup call: “After that fail, we focused on what was important. Before that, we never revealed the program, because everything was free. Since then, we’ve clearly announced any surprises we may have in store.” And it works: “Last summer we were sold out a month before the event. The public needs to be educated. The Quai regulars knows what work goes into it and when you look at how much tickets cost, we pretty much almost give them away (editor’s note: between 30 and 50 euros).” Hammandoun refuses to say anything about the next event. He’s barely even including the girls in the program in order for them “to be as exposed as the guys are.” We’ll see you on July 4th and 5th for “the biggest block party of the year.”
It’s September 29th in Drancy, at Eugène Delacroix High School. It’s Sunday, yet laughter is pouring out of the gym. About a hundred teenage girls in Nike gear will spend the day here to play, listen and learn. This is Take Your Shot’s promise, an initiative started by Diandra Tchatchouang, a forward on the French National team, who plays for Lattes-Montpellier: “I was wondering what I could do to help these girls who simply reminded me of myself when I was their age.” Outside of Study Hall, an organization that offers personal academic support that she started for athletes in her hometown of La Courneuve, she pays special attention to the under 13 and under 15 female basketball players who are members of clubs in Seine-Saint-Denis (translator’s note: the county or “département” that La Courneuve is located in) : “When I was younger, school was not my cup of tea. I met the right people at the right time, which enabled me to get to where I am today. I wanted to pay it forward, put the girls on the right track.”
The event, in partnership with the Ligue Féminine de Basket (Translator’s note: the Women’s Basketball League) and the Comité Départemental de Basket de Seine-Saint-Denis (Translator’s note: the Seine-Saint-Denis county committee), encourages teenage girls to play basketball: “Because it costs an average of 100 euros for a club membership, our partner Nike offered discounts to about a hundred participants.” But that’s not all: “Even if basketball is the main argument to get a hundred participants together for a day, the underlying message is an educational one.” In order to encourage them to take their destiny into their own hands, the French national team player invites “inspirational celebrities” to come and talk about their “path to excellence.” After Journalist and Activist Rokhaya Diallo’s participation in 2017 and Rapper and Teacher Amy Sidibé in 2018, four influential women agreed to participate last September : Laura Georges, former soccer player and Secretary General for the Fédération Française de Football (Translator’s note: the French Soccer Federation), sports Journalist and Anchor for “NBA Magazine” on the BeIN Sports Channel Mary Patrux, founder of the non-profit Ghett’up Inès Seddikki, and Dietician and Nutritionist Joanne Dominique. “Joanne was there to answer the kind of questions that girls that age usually wonder about, when they are learning about their bodies and a lot of changes are happening. It doesn’t feel natural for a 12-year old girl to put on shorts in front a boys’ team! They are very modest and that’s also why the event is exclusively female.”
Because “fashion speaks to them”, Diandra is thinking about inviting a former Miss France to the next event which will take place in Montpellier this spring. It seems obvious that Take Your Shot does not chase after performance: “The goal is clearly not detecting talent. When I watch the girls play and one of them has above-average skills, I do notice. But that’s not the goal. Regardless of their level, all of the girls are welcome. All they have to do is sign up. Through Take Your Shot, I try to let them know that they belong everywhere.”
“ I started going there when I was 8 years old. When I came back in 2012, nothing had changed, it was still the same little neighborhood club where not much happened.” Arthur Oriol had grown tired of the lack of momentum of the Jeunesse Athlétique de Montrouge or JAM, a 100-year old sports club in southwest Paris, so he decided to do something about it. “We longed for trips, tournaments, new jerseys, we wanted to shake things up.” With the help of Zoubir Ghanem, he pretty much almost went back to square one by founding Basket Paris 14, his own organization in 2015, as well as the club by the same name: “We were able to keep the same coaches, the sports rights and get all the same time slots through the 14th district City Hall.” Designed as a “one big family,” Basket Paris 14 plans to up its game: “Every time we got a good player, he would leave to go to Charenton, Levallois or Nanterre. We made it a point to offer quality training in order to keep our talent. We restructured from the bottom, by providing our youngest with the best coaches.” These standards did keep a sense of proportion, however: “With Michael Alard, our Technical Director, we don’t recruit right and left, only when there is a need for it, that way we build real continuity with our players. We don’t want to sell our soul in exchange for performance.”
Arthur Oriol applies these same beliefs to defending refereeing, a discipline that the profession often shows little interest in: “On some weekends, 20 to 30 games were not covered by official referees. We needed to react.” In addition to introduction workshops or open houses for small kids and their parents, Basket Paris 14 decided to take a leap in 2016 and opened its own referee school: it offers certifying training and highlights a profession that is as vital as it is unpopular. According to Arthur Oriol, the momentum is also due to the involvement of Alicia Hilaire, Secretary General and a member of the girls’ senior team as well as Marie Giard-Yenga, a member of the steering committee and Mom to two players. “As demand grew and more girls came in, the club drastically changed: try asking a 14-year-old boy to run the drinks stand during a game! It’s no secret, girls are much more willing. They have earned their right to be here and are no longer considered to be here by default. This commitment happened naturally, there was no obligation and it wasn’t forced. We don’t want to be political in any way, and that’s why we are not developing a wheelchair basketball program: without demand or a specialist, we do not want to do things just to obtain funding.”
Basket 14 applies these ethics and civic mindset to urban spaces: in order to “reinforce organizations working together and neighborhood life,” the club submits a project proposal for a vote every season, to receive funding from the city of Paris. Two spaces have already been renovated: the playground on rue Paturle, close to Porte de Vanves, and the Cange gymnasium between the Plaisance and Pernety subway stations, which got a brand-new floor which now displays the hyperactive club’s colors. What’s coming up next? The renovation of the Didot and Jules Noël gyms this summer. This many high-end facilities should enable the BP14 and its 700 members to enter the big leagues.