5th appearance after a 4 tournament absence Team videoNo more promisesWith a bronze medal at the 2005 EuroBasket, France finally found a true identity. It's now time to show it's there to stay.
Potential, potential… This had been the main word for every French team lined up for a major FIBA competition since 1999. More athletic than any nation in Europe, high on talent, a defensive force, the blue, white and red country had everything to be reckoned with for the next decade. It made it indeed to the 2000 Olympics final game - a major result since France hadn't won a medal in any major competition in 41 years. But still, it seemed that the French National Team wasn't maximizing its potential. That seemed clear after a disappointing elimination in the semi-final against Spain at the 1999 EuroBasket, and even more so after the terrible ending at the 2003 EuroBasket. In Stockholm, France was a possession away from making it to the finale.
But Les Bleus lost against Lithuania in the semis, which could have been considered as a fairly good performance. But then came a loss many in France call an absolute shame. The Italian National Team was battered with injuries after being beaten by 33 points against France in the first round. After an overwhelming domination in the first half, some of the players seemed un-interested in the game, arguing that "our team was set up for gold". That quote really got French fans upset since they had been waiting for the first EuroBasket medal since 1959! The comments also infuriated fans because the loss denied France a berth at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Year after year, it seemed no one was able to find the right mix to make this team the threat it was supposed to be. In 2004, celebrated French coach Claude Bergeaud took over and he first tried to change the atmosphere inside the team. It was about the end, but also about the means. Bergeaud wanted players who would respect a group philosophy, which had been the main issue on previous teams. Some players who had caused chemistry problems in the past, such as Tariq Abdul-Wahad, were not even called upon. But there was one thing that Bergeaud couldn't really change. Tony Parker would remain the leader of this team, which made sense considering his outstanding talent and his two NBA championship rings. But at the start of the 2005 EuroBasket, the worst happened. Parker, who was coming off an excruciating season with the Spurs, was lost. Unable to find his groove, he would struggle all the way to the end of the first round (he shot 20 percent from the field). This could have destroyed the young French bunch easily.
But what happened probably helped the team find its identity. Often valuable with the National Team, Boris Diaw stepped up and played the way everybody knew he was capable of. Already considered the most talented French player ever when he was only 18, "Babac" had always done it his way. Frustrating many in the French basketball world, Diaw was a reluctant scorer, who would try to find a team-mate in the corner when he was up in the air with the ball near the rim. Pressed to do more, Diaw became the player everybody has seen since then. He's a do-it-all forward, who can play five positions, pass, rebound, score, block shots, steal and everything else in the book. He's truly a "global" basketball player, a match-up nightmare with no limits to his game.
Diaw's outburst helped the team survive that first round and sparked two of the best games a French team has ever played at that level. First, they knocked out hosts Serbia & Montenegro, who was one of the favourites to claim the title. Then, France only allowed 47 points against Lithuania, one of the best offensive teams in the world. By the time Parker had returned to his old self, France were on their way to a 30-point win against powerhouses Spain to claim the bronze medal after a heart-breaking loss at the buzzer against eventual winner, Greece, in the semi-finals. A team was truly born after years of soul searching. Aside from Diaw, France had welcomed newcomer Mickaël Gelabale, a defensive stopper who had made it to the starting five although he had never played in any major tournament before. Bergeaud was also right to pick center Frédéric Weis, when Vincent Masingue got injured. With many thinking the 7-2 Bilbao player would never come back to play for France again, he did and found surprising confidence along the way.
Heading to Japan, Bergeaud knows he will get many of the EuroBasket players back. But one will be missing, Antoine Rigaudeau. "Le Roi" (The King, his nickname in Europe) had a very special role on the 2005 team. He was someone who could call on his overwhelming experience when times were tough - a positive presence that was pretty hard to find anywhere else. Bergeaud hopes that Diaw will be able to fill that major hole. What Diaw did with Phoenix during the playoffs this season should be reassuring for him. Aside from Diaw and the core that made it through the 2005 EuroBasket, the other reason for optimism for Bergeaud is the "paint issue". Never has France been so rich on size and talent inside the paint. For decades, it has been its major weakness. But with Weis back and so many others - including Petro and Turiaf -ready to contribute, France have found a new balance to their game. France used to be beatable when they were forced to play an up-tempo game and rely on their outside shooters. But France now has all the tools to beat pretty much anyone in this 2006 World Championship in Japan. Since the last EuroBasket, some have said that France is now potentially among the three or four top teams in the World. No more potential, no more promises. Now they have to show what they have.