French pair's long road to title shot
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia - Boris Diaw walked into the gym and saw a group of unknown faces. He was the new kid at school, awarded a place at INSEP, France's elite sports academy in Paris, where the best athletic prospects are brought together and given a pathway toward the top.
The future San Antonio Spurs forward, then age 15, surveyed the scene and assessed his fellow students, who would be both colleagues and competition. Tony Parker, as he always does, was conjuring tricks with the ball.
"I remember coming into practice," Diaw recounted. "He was already really good."They bonded quickly. Both had parents who had played professionally. Both had dreams of traveling down that path. Both eventually turned hopes into reality. Now, so many years later, they remain teammates for club and country. More importantly, Diaw added, "Tony's probably my best friend."
Which is why it will be all the more unique, and special, when they line up together Sunday night in Slovenia's capital of Ljubljana, chasing one shared ambition that has repeatedly proven elusive.
The French have never won any international title. Not ever.
Having slain their habitual nemesis Spain in the semifinal, they must now conquer Lithuania (ESPNews, WatchESPN, 2:50 p.m. ET) to become EuroBasket champions, and to complete a plan they drew up when they led a brash new generation who saw no reason why they should not go to the NBA and take on the best of the world.
It was not as if Les Bleus were so far off the international radar that they had never been seen. In 2000, 12 months before Parker was drafted by the Spurs, France had taken silver at the Olympic Games in Sydney, its first major medal in almost half a century.
It was the end of one era. A new guard, Parker included, was brought in for EuroBasket 2001. France fell out of contention. The case to put their trust in youth became stronger as a crop of future NBA players, including Diaw and Jerome Moiso, were added to the pack. They knew their own potential and wondered what could be achieved.
"We knew it was going to be a long work," Diaw said. "Since we started with the national team, we hadn't always been the best team in Europe. There were so many good teams doing great. We knew it would take years to be able to go up to other countries." Greece was the reigning power. Spain was emerging as a force. In 2005, in Belgrade, the French claimed bronze. Good, but not enough.
"We knew it would take time, a lot of work and sacrifice every summer. Being able to work with the team, getting experience at this level, to be able to win one day. That's what we all dreamt about," Diaw said.
Diaw followed his old friend to the United States. Others, like Mickael Pietrus and veteran Antoine Rigadeau, acquired working visas, too.
Yet, 82 games or more, they reunited every offseason, ready to fly the Tricolore, prepared to fight in unison. "We're like a brotherhood," said Mickael Gelabale, another Gallic NBA export. Championships came and went. The ultimate victory remained elusive. Even in 2011, when they reached the EuroBasket final in Lithuania, Spain blocked their way. Parker, despite fatigue and ignoring the Spurs' subtle pleas for him to rest, kept coming. He had faith in the fraternity.
"That's why you do sport," he said. "You have great teams and you try to get better. And then to beat them. I don't think you play sport and go, 'Oh, they're too good, I'll stop believing.' Nobody does that. You have to believe in yourself and in your team."
That commitment, France coach Vincent Collet said, is vital. Some sides have an almost complete turnover of their rosters from summer to summer, their federations never entirely certain until the opening day of training camp who will show up and who will withdraw. Parker, except for a finger injury that kept him out of the 2006 world championships, has been ever-present. Diaw has been, too, which is why together, they have represented their nation 350 times.
"In the national team, you don't have players for a long time each year," Collet said. "But when you have the chance to work with them for so many years, you don't change so many things from year to year. When we start every summer, we can work with habits."
There is always a new face or two to add. This summer, Joffrey Lauvergne, a second-round NBA draft pick, and Spain-based guard Thomas Heurtel came in. Only Timberwolves forward Ronny Turiaf from the old guard opted out.
If Parker, fresh from a punishing playoff run in San Antonio, could ignore his fatigue, then it was harder for others to find excuses. One comes, they all come. The 12 Musketeers. Now, for their greatest duel.
Lithuania will not be swayed by sentiment, by the respect in which Parker is held throughout Europe, by any sense that he is due this gold medal. When these teams met last week in the group stages, the NBA All-Star was harassed for the entire game, held to just eight field goal attempts and 11 points, and saw France crushed 76-62.
In the final, he cannot do it alone. The Lithuanians are too good and too deep.
"We're going to need everybody," Parker said. "If we're going to win, everybody needs to do their part if we want to win a European Championship."
Diaw knows the French have a tall order in front of them.
"They have a very complete team," Diaw said. "They have good guards, good forwards, good guys inside, great size. They have a complete team. It's going to be hard to play them. But we have to use our defense and our quickness."
It might be enough. It might not. Come Sunday night, when the curtain comes down on EuroBasket 2013, it will be either euphoria or another rush of deflation. Win or lose, Parker and Diaw will be side-by-side, bonded together for life.
"We know each other so well," Diaw said. "When we retire, we might still spend the summers hanging out. Invite each other out to the beach somewhere and spend time together."
Parker, son ami, will need little persuasion. Theirs, he said, has been an unbelievable journey.
"So many memories, so many ups and downs. I don't regret anything. If I can win, anything that happened before will be worth it," Parker said.
Inseparable, then and now. It will be one more recollection forever shared.