Joakim Noah takes seconds to rewind his mind and recalls the first time he saw an NBA team. It was 1997 and the Chicago Bulls were in Paris for the McDonald’s Championship, a tournament that pitted the best teams from different parts of the world against each other. The tickets had been bought by his father, Yannick, a French tennis hero who, just over 10 years earlier, had become the first Frenchman to win the French Open in Roland Garros in 37 years. What the Noahs didn’t know was that they were witnessing the beginning of what would become “The Last Dance” and the most famous season in Bulls history.
At just 12 years old, Joakim saw it live and up close: Jordan’s 27 points against Olympiakos in the final as he was crowned MVP in front of over 1,000 reporters from over 50 countries. It was here that Noah’s NBA dreams began, a journey that saw him become a first-round draft pick for the Bulls in 2007, a two-time All Star in 2014, and an All-NBA First Team Selection.
“Every time Michael Jordan steps into a seat, it’s inspiring,” Noah recalls now speaking to ESPN. Noah is back in Paris as an ambassador for the Bulls, who are in town for Thursday’s regular-season game against the Detroit Pistons. The hope for the NBA and teams is that they will inspire more Joakims of the future and make more fans fall in love with the game.
Noah recalls being asked a question at the end of 1997. His family wanted to know: did he want to be like his father, the French tennis icon, or Michael Jordan – the guy who seemed like he brought Paris to life? stand still.
He can also remember his answer: “I wanna be like Mike!”
The NBA has long strived to popularize the game outside of North America. It has hosted over 200 events in more than 20 countries. There have been more exhibition matches in more countries than you can remember – the first took place in Israel in 1978 and has since continued in a number of countries from Beijing to South Africa. Pre-season games have taken place on four different continents and Africa is getting closer to hosting one in the years to come. And there were also regular season games with regular season games in London between 2011 and 2019.
A second regular-season game will be played in the French capital on Thursday, and the NBA’s first since the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the world shut down in February and March 2020, so did the NBA. For Ralph Rivera, editor-in-chief of NBA Europe and Middle East, it was a problem.
“Back then, when we actually played our last game in Paris, we announced that we would come back the following year. That was in January 2020 and obviously we couldn’t bring games because of COVID-19,” says Rivera. “It has also had an impact on our other activities on the pitch during this time.
“So this is the first opportunity for us to bring the game back to Europe, back to Paris, and we couldn’t be more excited.”
Fan interest in tickets to Thursday’s Bull Pistons game has lasted since the league’s last game in Paris three years ago. Much of the interest is constantly fueled by the NBA’s current European stars, two of whom – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic – have won back-to-back MVP honors in the last four years.
“There’s never been a better time to be a fan of the NBA in Europe than now, and part of that is being able to spread the games and our stories both on broadcast and online,” Rivera added. “There is so much content that is available, but in particular the fact that there are so many successful and MVP-able players from Europe in the NBA obviously increases interest.
The NBA’s first regular-season landing ground in Europe was London. The league played one game per season in the English capital for eight years before making a surprise move to Paris. Rivera says the move happened because it was time for a change.
“We only have one game in Europe each year and we consider it our European All-Star game. So it made sense to postpone this game a bit after being in London for a few years in a row. It made sense to move somewhere else in Europe.”
There is no lack of interest from countries to host NBA games – the league recently hosted two preseason games in Abu Dhabi and will move further south once it begins talks to host a preseason game in Africa. But Paris remains his European home.
Would we ever see an expansion of the regular season the way London and now Germany have become home stadiums for multiple NFL games per season over the past 10 years? “We have no plans to do more than hosting at the moment [the] a game that we make,” says Rivera.
“Part of it is just the logistics around it. We usually play every other day, so a team could play three times in a week. It’s a bit different than, say, the NFL, where they play once a week, so part of that is the challenge there [for the NBA] is the journey, the customization, and then playing the game and doing the same on the way back. That’s why we limited it. Never say never but right now there are no plans to have more than the one game we have.”
The NBA has yet to finalize the international schedule for the 2023-24 season, although Paris will likely again be a leading contender for hosting.
Why Bulls Pistons?
The history of the Bulls in Paris began in 1997 with the game that took Noah and the rest of Europe by storm. It was literally the beginning of The Last Dance.
Adam Silver, then President of NBA Entertainment, came to Paris for those games in 1997 with a plan to convince Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan to let the camera in the dressing room and record everything unfiltered. If you look closely, you can see Silver and Jackson in Paris in Episode 1, talking on the steps of the Bulls’ team hotel.
Almost 26 years later, this gathering has proven to attract a whole new wave of fans from around the world.
“If you are also considering, in terms of the programming available at this time, not having live sport available and letting The Last Dance come during this time and helping to satisfy people’s hunger after the game,” says Rivera.
“It was extremely well done and it was a global phenomenon – it’s ESPN’s most-watched documentary of all time. So it had a huge impact around the world and it just reminded everyone of that time, the game at that point, the Bulls, Michael Jordan, all the other legendary teams and players at that time.”
The Bulls are – since Jordan – one of the most supported NBA teams in Europe, regardless of how they perform. Thursday’s game brings all of these worlds together: the Bulls-Pistons rivalry for the living to watch in real-time and those who only know it from The Last Dance.
“A lot of it is about logistics and planning – when was the last time the teams traveled to find out if there are specific ties or interests that the teams have in a particular market – and in this particular case there was interest to come from the Bulls and the Pistons to Paris,” Rivera added.
“Again, it’s great that the Bulls and the Pistons have that classic rivalry and then we also have European players on those two teams and they’re popular teams.”
What does it mean for players?
For all the accomplishments of Joakim Noah — an NBA Defensive Player of the Year, a France international — he has never played an NBA game in his home country. This is the first time the Bulls have returned to Paris since that tournament in 1997.
“It comes full circle for me and my family when the Bulls play Paris,” says Noah. “It’s surreal to finish playing and have a moment like this to share with my family and friends. It’s something special.
“A lot of family members couldn’t see my games just to give them a moment: this is how it is, this is how the competition is. Even though I’m done playing, I’ve always felt proud to wear this [Bulls] jersey, and it represents a lot. It’s the greatest thing ever played.”
The NBA continues to grow around the world, with its overseas games offering opportunities to inspire more talent. Noah learned this when he was 12. He still believes it today.
“I think it gives the next generation a chance to dream and believe,” says Noah. “We’re here. The structures are there, just look at the facilities. Basketball is growing and getting better.”