Au revoir, Paris: What Victor Wembanyama is leaving behind for the NBA

Sam BordenESPN Senior WriterMay 24, 2023, 07:49 AM ET12 Minute Read

Before he makes his much-anticipated move to the NBA, Victor Wembanyama is saying goodbye to the people and the place that made him.Panoramic via ZUMA Press

Victor Wembanyama runs toward the bleachers. His team has just won its latest French league game in the Paris suburbs, but as his teammates fist-bump one another and amble in the direction of the locker room, Wembanyama goes the other way. He literally sprints toward the stands.

When he arrives in front of the hundred or so most passionate supporters of Nanterre (who, to be clear, root for the team Wembanyama has just beaten), the gangly, 7-foot-4 teenager doesn’t preen in front of them or woof about having put up 25 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks. He doesn’t wave his arms or sneer. He doesn’t do, really, any of the things that young (and not so young) athletes do when they’re looking to strut a little.

Instead, Wembanyama bows his head. He tilts his body forward. He drops his shoulders.

He leans into the crowd of people and lets them wrap him in a group hug.

Over the next few weeks and months, Wembanyama’s life is going to be unceasingly about what comes next: How he handles (almost surely) being drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. What his transition to the NBA is like. Where he ends up standing in relation to great French players, like Tony Parker, and just greats, like LeBron James.

It will be relentless, and there are few weights quite so heavy as that of the future laying on the back of a young person’s neck. Wembanyama has no illusions: He knows what lies ahead.

But he also knows there needs to be a goodbye.

Long before the word « Wemby » was part of the global basketball zeitgeist, Wembanyama was a big kid from a small village who made good. A kid who was proud to be French, who was determined to rise up through the French sports system, who has a connection to places and people and memories in France that are — NBA or not — very hard to leave.

That is why, on this Tuesday night in Nanterre, Wembanyama’s eyes are wet when he finally emerges from the mass of fans. Nanterre, despite being dominated by Wembanyama on this particular evening, will always be the club where he played as a boy, the club that made him. It will always feel like a home. And this is a farewell.

Wembanyama steps back and waves. He makes the shape of a heart with his hands. He smiles and nods as the fans begin to chant, « Il est d’ici! Il est d’ici!« 

He’s from here, they say over and over. He’s from here.

Against his childhood team Nanterre, Wembanyama put up 25 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks.Julie Glassberg for ESPN

TWO DAYS BEFORE the game in Nanterre’s tiny gymnasium, Wembanyama plays the Accor Arena, Paris’ biggest indoor venue. Wembanyama’s team, Metropolitans 92, known colloquially as the Mets, typically hold their home games in a small arena in Levallois-Perret, on the outskirts of the city. A full crowd there might be 2,800. This game has been moved, though, to give more people the opportunity to see Wembanyama up close before he leaves.

Nearly 16,000 fans jam inside. Tickets sell on the secondary market for several hundred dollars. Some things about the atmosphere — like the depths to which otherwise-normal people will debase themselves to get a T-shirt shot at them from an oversized gun — are the same as on a random night anywhere in professional sports. Other aspects, like the singular focus on Wembanyama (Wemby running, Wemby stealing, Wemby blocking, Wemby dunking), feel unique.

The crowd erupts when Wembanyama steals the ball in the first quarter and goes coast-to-coast for a dunk. The crowd erupts when Wembanyama makes an authoritative block. The crowd erupts — in anger — when Wembanyama is called for a questionable offensive foul and then gestures at the fans, encouraging them to boo the referee even more.

« I’m here for Victor, » says Paulo Lopes, who is wearing a Wembanyama jersey and buying a soda on the concourse.

« I’m here to see Victor, » says Sylvain Mousseau, who is sitting in the upper deck with his family.

« I’m here because my son told me we have to see Victor, » says Anne-gael Salaun, whose 8-year-old, Carl, has already begun negotiating screen time rules with his mother so he can watch Wembanyama’s NBA games next season.

It doesn’t matter that many (if not most) of the people at the game are not regular followers of French basketball. The vast majority of people at the Louvre on any given day aren’t art connoisseurs; they just want to see the Mona Lisa, to see something truly beautiful with their own eyes.

It is the same with Wembanyama, a giant who plays like a guard. He is angular and spindly, but also powerful and fierce when he gets near the basket. His ability to shoot from distance is that of a man half his height. He is the kind of player who can (and does) win the French league’s MVP, best young player, best defender, best shot-blocker and top scorer awards all in the same season. LeBron James called Wembanyama a basketball alien. And who doesn’t want to see such an extraordinary player?

« I felt so much emotion seeing the number of people who had come, » Wembanyama says. « I sometimes see dads or moms who absolutely want a photo [with me], not even for their children. Just for them. It’s funny and it’s fun. »

At 7-foot-4, Wembanyama is a big man who plays like a guard. He is widely expected to be the No. 1 NBA draft pick.EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

Understanding what Wembanyama means in the context of French culture is tricky. Basketball is still something of a niche sport in France, at least in comparison to soccer, and Wembanyama plays in a region that features Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbapp as sporting contemporaries, not to mention a slew of other incredible art and film and culinary cultural touchstones.

Yet there is something about Wembanyama that is captivating. Part of it is simply the moment — Wembanyama is big around the world, so he is big in France — but Pascal Gibern, a French writer and broadcaster, says there is also something about the way Wembanyama carries himself that resonates deeply with French people.

Wembanyama’s lack of interest, at least so far, in publicizing himself or making himself into anything beyond a talented young basketball player has given him an ethereal, almost mythical quality in France.

« Usually French people don’t like it when you are too confident — we don’t have here what you’d call ‘cockiness’ in the United States; it’s just arrogance, » Gibern says. « Victor isn’t any of this. People are just captivated by him. He is cultivating this mystique and people are more attracted by this.

« They are proud that he is French, because he is proud that he is French and he acts that way, » Gibern says.

There is also a theory being bandied about among sports journalists and fans that Wembanyama could be the face of a larger shift toward basketball in France. The sport’s popularity has surged with younger fans around the world over the past decade, and if Tony Parker and Boris Diaw were among the initial generation of French stars to inspire interest in basketball in France, then Wembanyama — if he really does reach the heights that have been speculated — could push the swing even farther.

Maxime Raynaud, who played with Wembanyama in Nanterre’s youth system and is now a sophomore at Stanford, says the timing for this turn is ideal.

« We’ve had this traditional setup in France — you are going to play the sport your dad played, or the sport he watches, » Raynaud says. « And so for the past 100 years, everyone just picked up a soccer ball. Now, we have access to basketball. We have role models for basketball. And Victor is going to be the face of that.

« Some people might be sad that Victor is leaving France, » Raynaud continues. « But I think most people, especially young people, are happy that he is going to the United States — to show the strength of what can come from France. »

Wembanyama is not actually from Paris. He grew up in a small suburb about 10 miles from the city, and currently lives in Ile de la Jatte, an island in the River Seine that was a favorite subject of French impressionists.AP Photo/Christophe Ena

FOR THE LAST YEAR, Wembanyama has lived on Ile de la Jatte, a long, skinny island in the River Seine to the west of Paris. In addition to being picturesque and private (Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, is among its past and current residents), Ile de la Jatte is removed, both literally and figuratively, from the thrum of the city.

Wembanyama’s connection to France isn’t through the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, in the same way no New Yorker’s bond with their city has anything to do with the Empire State Building. It is the people — the neighbors, the shop owners, the regulars in a person’s life — that stick.

Over the footbridge connecting Ile de la Jatte to the commune of Neuilly is Wembanyama’s regular market where Rose, the woman who works there, knows to take out mangos and grapes and clementines when she sees Wembanyama approaching (« I always put the best mangos up front, » she says). A few doors up is the grocer where Max, the man who stocks the shelves and worries about Wembanyama hitting his head on the pendant lights that hang above the aisles. On the corner is the butcher, where Wembanyama — who has always been interested in cuisine — will stop for a roast chicken and potatoes, and chatter with Imad or Nicolas in their aprons, or Brigitte behind the register, about how much fat went into their preparation or what type of heat they used to cook the meat.

« I think the notion of family has always been really important to Victor, » Raynaud says. « And that doesn’t just mean his biological family. It’s everyone in his life. He has this feeling for them that is very strong and he will not hide it. »

Wembanyama has always been this way. There is a softness to him, a candor and earnestness that makes it impossible for those around him not to feel kinship. Amine El Hajraoui, a longtime administrator and youth coach at Nanterre, recalls a weekend tournament years ago when Wembanyama, no more than 13, showed up for a morning game carrying a plastic bag full of precooked, vacuum-sealed drumsticks. Wembanyama, who was already well over 6 feet tall, did not understand why everyone was looking at him quizzically. « What? » he said sincerely. « I need these. I’m still growing! »

Wembanyama is widely expected to be drafted by Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs, who also picked French star Tony Parker in 2001.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

El Hajraoui remembers the chicken, but also the conversations they would have about life and family and the TV show « Rick & Morty. » (« He loved that show, » El Hajraoui says.) Bryan George, who coached at Nanterre, remembers playing board games with Wembanyama — on the bus, in the dorms, wherever. They both loved Risk, a game which was originally invented in France.

Raynaud thinks of Wembanyama at Big Time, the fast-food restaurant in Place de la Boulle, a short walk from the dorms, where Nanterre players would go after big wins. Or Wembanyama reading books in the extra-long bed the club had specially made for him. Or Wembanyama talking about manga. Or Wembanyama showing him, every once in a while, the sketchbook where he does his own drawings.

« My best memories of basketball are in these places, » Raynaud says. « We were just there, together. We were ourselves. However big a player he was, Victor was always just himself. »

Nanterre officials have put nameplates above dorm rooms where certain players stayed to commemorate what they accomplished. Typically, those nameplates go up many years after the athlete is gone — once they’ve had an impressive career or succeeded with the national team.

Wembanyama left Nanterre in 2021. There is already a nameplate above his old room.

« Victor is special, » El Hajraoui says. « Anyone who stays here now can feel his aura. »

« However big a player he was, Victor was always just himself, » former teammate Maxime Raynaud says.Glenn Gervot/Icon Sportswire

WHEN WEMBANYAMA WAS 14, he spent a summer playing with Barcelona’s basketball club. The Spanish team was interested in bringing him to their program full time, and the offer was intriguing: Barcelona is a much bigger club than Nanterre. A bigger city. A bigger stage.

Wembanyama said no. As appealing as it was to have Barcelona try to woo him, Wembanyama was concerned that Barcelona’s coaches wouldn’t be critical enough. Wouldn’t push him hard enough to make every facet of his game be the best.

In Nanterre — with the French coaches he trusted and the life he knew — he felt safe, even if it would be harder. It was better for him to stay in France, he thought.

« He wasn’t trying to be something he wasn’t, » Raynaud says. « He didn’t want to go to Spain. He didn’t want to move around. He is a French guy. He’s French. It’s clear. »

Back then, the time wasn’t right for Wembanyama to say goodbye. Now it is. Other than perhaps Imad, the butcher, who is concerned about the quality of the food Wembanyama will get in the United States (« I worry it won’t be as good as he gets here! »), no one questions the notion that Wembanyama, with Gregg Popovich and San Antonio awaiting, has to go.

There has been plenty of flash to his farewell — the French rapper Orelsan was at a game recently, as well as Mbappe and the actor Omar Sy — and there has been plenty of emotion, too, moments of genuine reflection and wistfulness from Wembanyama as he prepares to leave home.

Before the game against the Mets, Nanterre officials give him a series of gifts, including a jersey, which he holds close, and after his group embrace with the fans, he runs a slow ring around the entire gymnasium, touching hands with as many people as he can and giving his game-worn elbow sleeve to a little boy wearing sensory headphones and sitting on his father’s shoulders. These are his people, and when Wembanyama and Nanterre’s president, Frederic Donnadieu, have a private moment, it becomes a shared opportunity for gratitude: Wembanyama thanks Donnadieu for bringing him to Nanterre, and Donnadieu thanks Wembanyama for all that he brought.

Now the United States beckons, and soon Wembanyama will be gone, ensconced in the churn of the NBA — new practices and new systems and new teammates, new SUVs to drive and new Texas barbecue joints to try. Yet even as Wembanyama goes out from France, even as he leaves his old life behind, he is already thinking about how he might return to France with joy because this place — his place — will always be in him.

Gibern, the writer and broadcaster, recalls a conversation he had with Wembanyama last fall, when the two discussed how difficult it will be to win an NBA championship in his first season.

It will be so challenging, Gibern says, and Wembanyama agrees. But then his eyes flicker.

« You know the Olympics are in Paris in 2024, » Wembanyama tells Gibern. « And there could be no more perfect occasion for me to win my first title with the French national team. »

Wembanyama smiles.

« My goal, » he says, « is to beat Team USA in the final. »

Additional reporting by Tom Nouvian
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