A Trip to France: Basketball, Culture and History
Owner and founder of Babcock Hoops, Matt Babcock, shares about his journey through France as he evaluated some of the top international prospects for the NBA Draft.
Although I am nearly 15,000 miles from home, I have somehow found myself in a familiar place, doing familiar things. I’m at Starbucks drinking a grande blonde americano and switching back and forth between writing this article and watching video breakdowns on InStat of the top players for this year’s upcoming NBA draft. This Starbucks, however, is a little more unique than the ones I frequently visit at home in Denver, Colorado. First of all, I am in the remarkable city of Paris, France and I am within steps of the Paris Opera which was founded in 1669 by Louis XIV and is commonly referred to as the most famous opera house in the world; it was the home for the original production of Phantom of the Opera. Secondly, the interior of this Starbucks looks more like a room from the Palace of Versailles than a coffee house. There are six chandeliers, grand oversized mirrors, gold custom molding and a spectacular mural on the ceiling — this place is fancy!
As I sit here, on the last day of my trip that has taken me through several different cities in France, I’d like to tell you about everything I have seen and done the last few days... a trip filled with basketball, culture, and history.
The first stop on my trip was Paris. I arrived at the Charles de Gaulle Airport at 9:40 AM, waiting for me was a colleague of mine, Luca Desta. From there, we taxied into town, checked into our hotel and had lunch. The night ahead would be filled with history so after the long travel day, some rest was necessary. Now, you are now probably thinking I’m going to tell you about touring Paris and everything I learned about Napoleon and the French Revolution, but it wasn’t that kind of history, it was personal history.
Let me explain. I went to a professional basketball game that night, Paris versus Denain. One of the top players for Paris is Daniel Dillon, my former teammate at the University of Arizona and my good friend. I had not seen Daniel in person in over a decade! Upon entering the gym, I took my seat and as team warm-ups started, Daniel gave me a wave; a little surreal seeing a good friend in that context after so much time had passed. The last time I had seen him he was a young guy, fresh out of college and just beginning his professional playing career.
Now, in his 30s, he is the clear cut leader of his team and an established veteran professional basketball player. The last time he had seen me I was a young, single guy that had just started working in the agency business. A lot has changed during that time span: I no longer work as an agent, I’m now married with a family of my own and I hardly have any hair left on my head. Regardless of the many life changes and the years that have gone by, Daniel will always be my teammate and my friend for life. After his game, we had a late dinner and we were able to catch up. Undoubtedly, a great start to my trip!
The next day, I had time to walk around Paris a bit. I have been to Paris before but they were always quick in-and-out type work trips and I never had the opportunity to really see the city properly. So I set out to do it right this time. I wasn’t the cliche tourist with a Rick Steve’s book in hand, however, I wasn’t too far off either. My wife prepared a detailed email for me outlining all of the must-see spots and even diagramed an impressively sophisticated walking map. Since the fitness rooms in European hotels are generally not the greatest, I figured I could get a good amount of steps in by conquering Paris on foot. I was able to see all of the main historical landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, La Madeleine, the Paris Opera, and the Eiffel Tower, among others. The architecture in Paris is second to none but just as amusing as the sights, to me, were the people and the culture. ‘Chic’, fashionable Parisian men and women can be seen walking around the city at all hours with a distinct, confident intent and usually with a cigarette in hand. I walked the streets until late that night, trying to emulate Owen Wilson in the movie, Midnight in Paris, I suppose. On that particular day, I became very fond of “The City of Lights”.
After a nice time in Paris, we set off to a town named Cholet to evaluate some NBA prospects. We rented a car in Paris and hit the open road. Most cars in Europe are stick shift, and since I don’t drive a stick shift, Luca got stuck at the helm — sorry Luca. Anyway, three and half hours later we pulled into the relatively small town of Cholet.
After checking into our hotel, we arrived at the arena, named La Meilleraie, and looking around I saw banners highlighting some of the team’s former players that would go on to play in the NBA, including Rodrigue Beaubois, Nando de Colo, Mickael Gelabale, Kevin Seraphin and NBA star, Rudy Gobert. Three players looking to add their names on similar banners in the future were the reason we were there: Abdoulaye N’Doye, Karlton Dimanche and Killian Hayes.
The first two players are possible draft picks in this year’s NBA draft: guards, Abdoulaye N’Doye and Karlton Dimanche. N’Doye, a big point guard at 6’6” or so, showed his ability to handle the ball and make point guard-type plays effectively for a player his size. Dimanche who played off the ball during this practice showed promise as an athlete and defender. The third player, Killian Hayes, is a young prospect and probable high draft pick in next year’s draft. Hayes’ combination of size and smoothness for a guard, showed promise for him to potentially be Europe’s next big prospect. We watched the practice and we were able to get a good feel for all three kids. We also had the opportunity to speak with the head coach, Erman Kunter, following the practice about his young prospects. We left Cholet with a much better understanding of each one of these players. Our goal was certainly met that day... now onto the next stop.
That next morning we hit the road — another three and a half-hour drive. We were off to a town named Limoges which my wife let me know is famous for their fine porcelain china (definitely not our reason for going there). Anyway, to get to Limoges we had a nice drive through the countryside of France. Once we arrived we had our most important part of the trip. On the Limoges team is a player by the name of Sekou Doumbouya, the top-rated international prospect for the 2019 NBA Draft.
Upon pulling up to the arena for the practice, the first face I saw was a familiar one, Jordan Taylor, who played college basketball at the University of Wisconsin. A player I had recruited when I was an agent. Jordan actually was the first formal meeting I took with a player once I had broken off from bigger agencies and started on my own. Although he decided to sign with a different agency, we remained friendly throughout the years. The second person I saw was another familiar face, my former client, Samardo Samuels. My former business partner and I had represented Samardo following his college career at the University of Louisville. To our surprise, Samardo went undrafted in the 2010 NBA Draft but we were able to secure him a 3-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, nonetheless. That contract paid him more than most of the 2nd round picks in that year’s draft, which was undeniably a great success. Also at this practice was a third familiar face, former Milwaukee Bucks’ player, Damien Inglis. My dad was part of the Bucks’ front office that had selected Inglis in the 2014 NBA Draft and they became pretty close during the years Damien was on the team. I was very far from home and yet there were so many recognizable people from my life and career, it was pretty incredible.
As I mentioned before, Sekou Doumbouya was the main reason we were in town, however, he had broken his thumb recently and was not participating in the practice. Now, you are probably wondering why we would go so far out of our way to go to a practice to see a player sit on the sidelines. Well, as my colleague, Matt McKay, recently outlined in an article he wrote for Babcock Hoops — one word: intel. During practice, we had the opportunity to meet Sekou and talk with him. Following practice, we were able to speak with the ‘familiar faces’ I mentioned to ask their opinions of Sekou as a teammate and as a person. The Limoges staff, including head coach, Francois Peronnet, was very helpful in providing a lot of valuable information, as well. A projected lottery pick, Sekou, is well-known to be a good kid and just because we were hunting for intel doesn’t mean we needed negative information about him in order to make the trip worthwhile. It is important to get the lay of the land on each and every prospect in the NBA Draft each year. Regardless if it is positive or negative, the more information, the better. We were able to leave this practice with a better understanding of who Sekou is as a player and as a person, which will allow us to more accurately determine how he will fit in the NBA.
To top off the productive trip to the practice, I went to dinner with Jordan and Samardo as Luca went to dinner with Sekou and his trainer. Sekou’s first language is French and Luca is fluent in the language so I figured they would all have a more enjoyable conversation at dinner speaking French. And of course, I was able to catch up further with my friends, Jordan and Samardo.
All in all, a great trip to Limoges.
Now, back in Paris, ahead of my flight home to the United States, my quick trip to Europe has proved to be rewarding. I will be heading home equipped with new, valuable information on a handful of young NBA prospects, allowing me to cover the draft more effectively.
The best part — while I collected this information I had the opportunity to see and experience some of the best our world has to offer in culture and history and I was able to catch up with some old friends. Basketball has taken me to interesting places and given me incredible experiences and this trip is certainly a reminder that I am lucky to be doing what I’m doing. Until next time France — ‘au revoir’