What Wembanyama is leaving behind for the NBA


What Wembanyama is leaving behind for the NBA

Victor Wembanyama runs toward the bleachers. His team has just won its latest French league game in the Paris suburbs, but as his teammates fist-bump one another and amble in the direction of the locker room, Wembanyama goes the other way. He literally sprints toward the stands.

When he arrives in front of the hundred or so most passionate supporters of Nanterre (who, to be clear, root for the team Wembanyama has just beaten), the gangly, 7-foot-4 teenager doesn't preen in front of them or woof about having put up 25 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks. He doesn't wave his arms or sneer. He doesn't do, really, any of the things that young (and not so young) athletes do when they're looking to strut a little.

Instead, Wembanyama bows his head. He tilts his body forward. He drops his shoulders.

He leans into the crowd of people and lets them wrap him in a group hug.

Over the next few weeks and months, Wembanyama's life is going to be unceasingly about what comes next: How he handles (almost surely) being drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. What his transition to the NBA is like. Where he ends up standing in relation to great French players, like Tony Parker, and just greats, like LeBron James.

It will be relentless, and there are few weights quite so heavy as that of the future laying on the back of a young person's neck. Wembanyama has no illusions: He knows what lies ahead.

But he also knows there needs to be a goodbye.

Long before the word "Wemby" was part of the global basketball zeitgeist, Wembanyama was a big kid from a small village who made good. A kid who was proud to be French, who was determined to rise up through the French sports system, who has a connection to places and people and memories in France that are -- NBA or not -- very hard to leave.

That is why, on this Tuesday night in Nanterre, Wembanyama's eyes are wet when he finally emerges from the mass of fans. Nanterre, despite being dominated by Wembanyama on this particular evening, will always be the club where he played as a boy, the club that made him. It will always feel like a home. And this is a farewell.

Wembanyama steps back and waves. He makes the shape of a heart with his hands. He smiles and nods as the fans begin to chant, "Il est d'ici! Il est d'ici!"

He's from here, they say over and over. He's from here.

TWO DAYS BEFORE the game in Nanterre's tiny gymnasium, Wembanyama plays the Accor Arena, Paris' biggest indoor venue. Wembanyama's team, Metropolitans 92, known colloquially as the Mets, typically hold their home games in a small arena in Levallois-Perret, on the outskirts of the city. A full crowd there might be 2,800. This game has been moved, though, to give more people the opportunity to see Wembanyama up close before he leaves.

Nearly 16,000 fans jam inside. Tickets sell on the secondary market for several hundred dollars. Some things about the atmosphere -- like the depths to which otherwise-normal people will debase themselves to get a T-shirt shot at them from an oversized gun -- are the same as on a random night anywhere in professional sports. Other aspects, like the singular focus on Wembanyama (Wemby running, Wemby stealing, Wemby blocking, Wemby dunking), feel unique.

The crowd erupts when Wembanyama steals the ball in the first quarter and goes coast-to-coast for a dunk. The crowd erupts when Wembanyama makes an authoritative block. The crowd erupts -- in anger -- when Wembanyama is called for a questionable offensive foul and then gestures at the fans, encouraging them to boo the referee even more.

"I'm here for Victor," says Paulo Lopes, who is wearing a Wembanyama jersey and buying a soda on the concourse.

"I'm here to see Victor," says Sylvain Mousseau, who is sitting in the upper deck with his family.

"I'm here because my son told me we have to see Victor," says Anne-gael Salaun, whose 8-year-old, Carl, has already begun negotiating screen time rules with his mother so he can watch Wembanyama's NBA games next season.

It doesn't matter that many (if not most) of the people at the game are not regular followers of French basketball. The vast majority of people at the Louvre on any given day aren't art connoisseurs; they just want to see the Mona Lisa, to see something truly beautiful with their own eyes.

It is the same with Wembanyama, a giant who plays like a guard. He is angular and spindly, but also powerful and fierce when he gets near the basket. His ability to shoot from distance is that of a man half his height. He is the kind of player who can (and does) win the French league's MVP, best young player, best defender, best shot-blocker and top scorer awards all in the same season. LeBron James called Wembanyama a basketball alien. And who doesn't want to see such an extraordinary player?

"I felt so much emotion seeing the number of people who had come," Wembanyama says. "I sometimes see dads or moms who absolutely want a photo [with me], not even for their children. Just for them. It's funny and it's fun."

Understanding what Wembanyama means in the context of French culture is tricky. Basketball is still something of a niche sport in France, at least in comparison to soccer, and Wembanyama plays in a region that features Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé as sporting contemporaries, not to mention a slew of other incredible art and film and culinary cultural touchstones.

Yet there is something about Wembanyama that is captivating. Part of it is simply the moment -- Wembanyama is big around the world, so he is big in France -- but Pascal Giberné, a French writer and broadcaster, says there is also something about the way Wembanyama carries himself that resonates deeply with French people.

Wembanyama's lack of interest, at least so far, in publicizing himself or making himself into anything beyond a talented young basketball player has given him an ethereal, almost mythical quality in France.

"Usually French people don't like it when you are too confident -- we don't have here what you'd call 'cockiness' in the United States; it's just arrogance," Giberné says. "Victor isn't any of this. People are just captivated by him. He is cultivating this mystique and people are more attracted by this.

"They are proud that he is French, because he is proud that he is French and he acts that way," Giberné says.

All eyes are on 7-foot-5 French prospect Victor Wembanyama, the 2023 projected top pick. We'll have complete coverage leading up to the June 22 draft on ESPN.

• What Victor is leaving behind for the NBA• Spurs win lottery, right to draft Victor• Givony's mock draft: Victor at No. 1• How would Wemby fit on the Spurs?• Inside Wemby's decade-long NBA plan• Snapshot into life of likely No. 1 pick• How to watch Victor Wembanyama

There is also a theory being bandied about among sports journalists and fans that Wembanyama could be the face of a larger shift toward basketball in France. The sport's popularity has surged with younger fans around the world over the past decade, and if Tony Parker and Boris Diaw were among the initial generation of French stars to inspire interest in basketball in France, then Wembanyama -- if he really does reach the heights that have been speculated -- could push the swing even farther.

Maxime Raynaud, who played with Wembanyama in Nanterre's youth system and is now a sophomore at Stanford, says the timing for this turn is ideal.

"We've had this traditional setup in France -- you are going to play the sport your dad played, or the sport he watches," Raynaud says. "And so for the past 100 years, everyone just picked up a soccer ball. Now, we have access to basketball. We have role models for basketball. And Victor is going to be the face of that.

"Some people might be sad that Victor is leaving France," Raynaud continues. "But I think most people, especially young people, are happy that he is going to the United States -- to show the strength of what can come from France."

FOR THE LAST YEAR, Wembanyama has lived on Ile de la Jatte, a long, skinny island in the River Seine to the west of Paris. In addition to being picturesque and private (Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, is among its past and current residents), Ile de la Jatte is removed, both literally and figuratively, from the thrum of the city.

Wembanyama's connection to France isn't through the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, in the same way no New Yorker's bond with their city has anything to do with the Empire State Building. It is the people -- the neighbors, the shop owners, the regulars in a person's life -- that stick.

Over the footbridge connecting Ile de la Jatte to the commune of Neuilly is Wembanyama's regular market where Rose, the woman who works there, knows to take out mangos and grapes and clementines when she sees Wembanyama approaching ("I always put the best mangos up front," she says). A few doors up is the grocer where Max, the man who stocks the shelves and worries about Wembanyama hitting his head on the pendant lights that hang above the aisles. On the corner is the butcher, where Wembanyama -- who has always been interested in cuisine -- will stop for a roast chicken and potatoes, and chatter with Imad or Nicolas in their aprons, or Brigitte behind the register, about how much fat went into their preparation or what type of heat they used to cook the meat.

"I think the notion of family has always been really important to Victor," Raynaud says. "And that doesn't just mean his biological family. It's everyone in his life. He has this feeling for them that is very strong and he will not hide it."

Wembanyama has always been this way. There is a softness to him, a candor and earnestness that makes it impossible for those around him not to feel kinship. Amine El Hajraoui, a longtime administrator and youth coach at Nanterre, recalls a weekend tournament years ago when Wembanyama, no more than 13, showed up for a morning game carrying a plastic bag full of precooked, vacuum-sealed drumsticks. Wembanyam

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6 of June 2023