Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA [Print without images]

Thursday, September 5, 2013
France searching for elusive gold

By Mark Woods
Special to ESPN.com

Tony Parker
Tony Parker has won NBA titles, but getting his France team over the top remains a big challenge.
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- The heat was on France here on Thursday. One defeat, 12 players, a million questions.

This is still the first round of EuroBasket, a group phase, not one-and-done elimination. However, France's opening loss to unheralded Germany had made us wonder if, yet again, a golden generation is destined never to win a matching medal. Made us wonder if a group, including Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum and the absent Joakim Noah, who have found fame and fortune in the NBA, will not fulfill what is their undoubted potential.

Failure is not without precedent on the international stage. Two years ago, in Lithuania, Les Bleus claimed silver but failed to truly challenge the supremacy of Spain. Then they went to the Olympic Games and exited quietly in the quarterfinals. Before that, in one tournament after another, they started among the favorites but fell short of triumph.

And even last week, in an exhibition on home soil against the Spanish, they made us remember why the French are known as much for the victories lost as those taken, why we wonder if there is a streak running through them which is frail and fallible.

"Over the past, that's been one of our weaknesses, to stay focused and to apply whatever the coach asks us to do: Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't," Spurs forward Boris Diaw conceded about the historical flaws. "When we get results when we have a good Championships, that's when we do what he asks. And we do it consistently."

Focus was needed in France's second Group A game against Great Britain. Normally, this should have been a walkover. But GB had shocked Israel 24 hours before and their opponents been on the other end of a bad surprise.

Mickael Gelabale, who ended last season in Minnesota, capped an early 9-0 run. France, 15 points ahead. In complete control. Normal order restored.

Yet the British like to poke the eye of their cousins across The Channel. A 14-3 burst in the second reduced the gap to just three. There was a hint of panic among their traveling fans. Breakdowns and miscommunications on the court. A touch of nerves. A sense, perhaps, of déjà vu. That was not to be.

One-time Bobcats draftee Alexis Ajinca ignited a third-quarter acceleration and France was out of sight, and en route to an 88-65 victory. "It was a good win," said Parker, who had 16 points and five assists. "But we know it's going to be a long European Championships. It was a good win but there's a long way to go."

France, unquestionably, possesses the talent to survive to the finish -- more even perhaps than their old foe Spain, which, at the same time on Thursday, was being swiped aside by the hosts, Slovenia. Like the reigning EuroBasket champions, they have a thread of continuity that should be a huge advantage despite the absence of Noah, Ronny Turiaf and others.

"Even if we miss the big guys, we still have this same core," said Batum, the Portland Trail Blazers forward, who scored a game-high 17 points. "Our veteran players in Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Florent Pietrus, Nando de Colo, Johan Petro, too. We still have this core. We still have this experience. "We've played together for four or five years. We played badly [against Germany] but we had a good competition two years ago. At the Olympics last year, we played poorly. EuroBasket four years ago [when they came fifth] … we know what we can do. So we'll try to translate that, especially to the young guys who came in this year."

The new ones, like potential NBA center Joffrey Lauvergne or point guard prospect Thomas Heurtel, do not bear the scars of the past. But they are no different to the old-timers like Parker. On national duty, they have won precisely nothing.

"We are the only country missing this gold medal," Batum reflected. "Every big basketball country has won something. We have to get it. But it's going to be one game at a time."

Starting, on Friday, against an Israeli team which is on the verge of affirming its own exit. They will want to throw another curveball to the French. Giants are more fun to slay. Even if Israel is defeated, and Les Bleus make it safely through the group phase and into the elimination round, they are aware that the riches of the NBA cannot buy success. They will need to fight, maybe harder than ever, to take an elusive gold.

"France [has] never won," declared long-time head coach Vincent Collet. "For us, for sure, it's something we dream of. But it's not enough to dream. It's important to work to reach this goal.

"Talking is nothing. Everything happens no the court. If we have this desire, and I know this desire is every strong in our players and on our coaching staff, but we have to do everything to get it. "We know have a window to do it. But it's a little window."

If not in 2013, this generation might see it shut for good.