Joakim Noah takes just seconds to cast his mind back and remembers his first time seeing an NBA team. It was 1997, and the Chicago Bulls were in Paris for the McDonald’s Championship, a tournament that brought together the best teams from various parts of the world to face off against each other. The tickets had been bought by his dad, Yannick, a French tennis hero who little over 10 years earlier had become the first French men’s singles player in 37 years to win the French Open at Roland Garros. What the Noahs did not realise was 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 got to see it live and up close: Jordan’s 27 points against Olympiacos in the final, seeing him crowned MVP in front of over 1,000 reporters from over 50 countries. It was where Noah’s NBA dreams began, a path that took him to being a first-round draft pick for the Bulls in 2007, a two-time All-Star and an All-NBA first team selection in 2014.
“Every time Michael Jordan steps on to a court it’s inspiring,” Noah recalls now in conversation with ESPN. Noah is back in Paris as an ambassador for the Bulls, who are in town for Thursday’s regular-season matchup against the Detroit Pistons. The hope, for the NBA and the teams, is that they inspire more Joakims of the future as well as get more fans to fall in love with the game.
Noah remembers being asked a question at the end of that 1997 game. His family wanted to know: Did he want to be like his dad, the French tennis icon, or Michael Jordan — the guy who seemed like he’d brought Paris to a standstill.
He can recall his answer, too: “I want to be like Mike!”
The NBA has long strived to grow the game outside North America. It has hosted over 200 events in more than 20 countries. There have been more exhibition games in more countries than you could remember — the first happening in Israel in 1978, and from then on continuing in a range of countries, from Beijing to South Africa. There have been preseason games in four different continents, with Africa edging closer to holding one in the years ahead. And there have been regular-season games, too, including games in London between 2011 and 2019.
Thursday sees a second regular-season game in the French capital, and the NBA’s first since the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the world shut down in February and March 2020, so did the NBA. For Ralph Rivera, managing editor of NBA Europe and Middle East, it was a problem.
“When we actually did our last game in Paris at that time we announced that we were coming back the following year. That was in January 2020, and obviously because of COVID-19 we weren’t able to bring games,” Rivera says. “It also impacted our other on-court activities through that time.
“So this is the first opportunity for us to bring the game back to Europe, back to Paris, and we could not be more excited.”
Fan interest for tickets for Thursday’s Bull-Pistons game has maintained from the league’s last Paris game three years ago. A lot of the interest is continually driven by the NBA’s current European stars. Two of them — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic — have won back-to-back MVP awards in the last four years.
“There has never been a better time to be a fan of the NBA in Europe than right now, and part of it is that we are able to distribute the games and our stories, both via broadcast and online,” Rivera adds. “There is so much content that is available, but in particular, the fact there are so many successful and MVP-caliber players from Europe in the NBA obviously increases the interest.
The NBA’s first landing spot for regular-season games in Europe was London. The league played one game per season for eight years in the English capital 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 to be our European All-Star game. And so, it made sense to move that game around a bit having been in London for a number of years consecutively. It made sense to move to another place in Europe.”
There is no shortage of interest from countries in hosting NBA games — the league recently hosted two preseason games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and will move further south soon as it begins talks over hosting a preseason game in Africa. But Paris remains its European home.
Will we ever see an expansion of the regular-season footprint, much as London and now Germany have become homes for multiple NFL games per season in the past 10 years? “We don’t have plans right now to host more than [the] one game that we’re doing,” Rivera says.
“A part of that is just the logistics around it. We usually play every other day, so a team could be playing three times in a week. That’s a bit different than say the NFL, where they play once a week, so a part of the challenge there [for the NBA] is the travel, the adjustment, and then playing the game and doing the same thing on the way back. That’s why we’ve limited it. Never say never, but right now there are no plans to have more than the one game that we’re having.”
The NBA is yet to determine the international schedule for the 2023-24 season, though Paris is likely to be a leading contender to host once again.
The Bulls’ story in Paris began in 1997 with the game that captured Noah and the rest of Europe. It was, quite literally, where The Last Dance began.
Adam Silver, then president of NBA Entertainment, arrived in Paris for those 1997 games with a plan to convince Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan to allow the camera into the locker room and capture everything unfiltered. If you look closely, in Episode 1, you can see Silver and Jackson in Paris talking on the steps of the Bulls’ team hotel.
Almost 26 years later, that meeting has led to a whole new wave of fans from across the world.
“If you think about it too, in terms of the available programming at that time, not having live sport available and to have ‘The Last Dance’ coming during the period and help satisfy people’s hunger for the game,” Rivera says.
“It was extremely well-done, and it’s been a global phenomenon — on ESPN it’s their most watched documentary ever. So all around the world it had a tremendous impact, and it just reminded everybody of that time, the game at that point, the Bulls, Michael Jordan, all of the other iconic teams and players during that time.”
The Bulls — ever since Jordan — have been one of the most supported NBA teams in Europe, no matter how they perform. Thursday’s game brings all those worlds together: the Bulls-Pistons rivalry for those alive to see it in real time, and those who only know it from “The Last Dance.”
“A lot of is about logistics and scheduling — when is the last time teams have travelled, trying to identify if there are any particular ties or interests that teams have to a certain market — and in this particular case there was interest in coming to Paris from the Bulls and the Pistons,” Rivera adds.
“Again, having the Bulls and the Pistons having that classic rivalry is great, and then we also have European players on both those teams, and they’re popular teams.”
What does it mean to players?
For all of Joakim Noah’s achievements — an NBA defensive player of the year, a France international — he 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’s a full-circle moment for me and my family, just to have the Bulls playing in Paris,” Noah says. “It’s surreal to be done playing and having a moment like this to be able to share with my family and friends. It’s special.
“A lot of family weren’t able to come see my games, just to be able to give them a moment of: ‘This is what it looks like, this is the level of competition.’ Even though I’m done playing, I was always proud to wear that [Bulls] jersey, and it represents a lot. It represents the greatest to ever play the game.”
The NBA continues to grow around the world, with its overseas games a chance to inspire further talent. Noah learned that at 12 years old. He still believes it now.
“I think it’s giving the next generation a chance to dream and believe,” Noah says. “We are here. The structures are here; just look at the facilities. Basketball is growing, and it’s only getting better and better.”