Nov 29th, 2019, 02:06 PM

Basketball's Surprisingly French Connections

By Mercedes Ohlen
The founder of basketball, James Naismith. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons
A dimly lit piece of sports history in the “City of Lights.”

My worn Adidas Superstars are not the most idyllic basketball shoes. Their grip is subpar, the ankle support is non-existent. But “ball is life,” as the kids say, so they will have to do. My destination is a Paris YMCA, nestled snugly in the 9th arrondissement, which boasts a sports fanatic’s ultimate fantasy: the world’s oldest surviving basketball court.

The YMCA is a 33-minute journey on metro line 8, which I use to play Kurtis Blow’s 1984 hit "Basketball" approximately 6 times - for reference, it’s six minutes and 24 seconds. I approach the building as I would approach for a lay-up: I open the door, going in for the shot. My entry is savagely denied, the ball being smacked out of mid-air from its mathematically perfect trajectory towards the hoop. 

Basketball then spread like wildfire, and just a few years later the Paris court I stand in front of today opened to the public. 

My urge to “ball” is cut short as a middle-aged man tells me in annoyed English that I must reserve the court in order to see it. My metaphorical coach has benched me. I am again reminded of Kurtis Blow and realize he’s right, Bill Russell didn't take no junk and neither should I. Then again, Russell wasn’t trying to navigate how to convince someone to let him play in an esteemed historical place while speaking broken French.

Considered one of America’s greatest exports, basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, one of the founding members of a Massachusetts YMCA. The sport was conceived as a way to occupy young people who missed playing sports during the winter months. On one fateful day in 1891, Naismith attached two peach baskets about three meters off the ground and introduced basketball to the citizens of Springfield, Massachusetts. Basketball then spread like wildfire, and just a few years later the Paris court I stand in front of today opened to the public. 

The French basketball court is not the first ever built: that title belongs to the Massachusetts YMCA. But the Parisian court is the first built in France and the oldest still in use all while being impressively original. From the flooring to the two large support beams that players must avoid unless they want a concussion of Looney Tunes proportions, (yes, that was a Space Jam reference), the court certainly has the charm of a late 1800s building. Unfortunately, the court has started to fall into disarray but still stays available to rent out for certain events throughout the year. 


[ARCHIVES] Une des premières images du terrain de basket du #14ruedeTrevise prise en 1902. Depuis 1893, l’UCJG de Paris, en appui sur sa pédagogie d’un développement harmonieux des individus sur le plan intellectuel, physique et spirituel, propose des espaces dédiés à la culture, la formation et le sport. To support us : #basketball #Paris @ymcaucjgdeparis #picoftheday #happy #YMCA #ymcabasketball #ymcabasketball🏀 #ymcaparis #photooftheday #instagood #picoftheday #instacool #instadaily #YMCA #ymcabasketball #ymcabasketball🏀 #ymcaparis #ucjg #georgewilliams #14ruedetrévise #basketball #basket #histoire #nba #gofundme #paris #history #paris9 #trevise #ffib #springfield #massachusetts #patrimoine #ffbb

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Archived images of the court. Image credit: Instagram/ ymcaucjgdeparis

In order to clean, sand, and refasten all the wooden floorboards as well as repair and detail other parts of the court, it would cost an estimated €80,000. The goal is not to replace history, but to restore it so future generations may be able to enjoy it as well. Though the price tag is high, and fundraising may seem difficult if not impossible, a number of sources are now working to get to that goal. 

In 2018 Nike released their Dunk Low PRM QS Paris sneakers, inspired by the court. All proceeds from the limited edition sneakers went towards the court’s renovation costs. A public GoFundMe has also been organized by the Paris YMCA themselves as a way to raise the funds needed. 

As it stands now, the court has only raised around €7,039 through the crowdfunding website. But with high profile players such as Steph Curry coming to visit and appealing to the younger NBA demographics, as well as the aforementioned Nike shoes appealing to "sneakerheads," the exposure has grown astronomically. 

Image credit: Instagram/ ymcaucjgdeparis

The days of letting historically significant places fall into obscurity are over. The ability for anyone, anywhere in the world to learn about this significant landmark is upon us and, pardon my French, it would be a damn shame to see the world’s oldest basketball court lose the game of time.