By Samuél L. Barrantes

Thousands of people emerged from the holes leading to the underbelly of the city. They arrived at Paris’ Trocadero, ending their pilgrimage at Palais de Chaillot. Overlooking the Eiffel Tower and the pristine Champ de Mars, they descended the historic marble steps as a unified community. But on this weekend they weren’t here for the landmarks, but to bear witness to the Quai 54 World Streetball Championship.

The weather was hot for Parisian standards: close to eighty-degrees with clear blue skies. Wispy, translucent clouds provided fleeting protection from the heat; Nike caps and tee shirts shielded heads from the sun. The makeshift stadium was impressive, built around Quai 54’s center court. Two stands (nicknamed Nike and Jordan) towered behind each backboard, with a third stand (nicknamed Quai 54) along the western sideline. There was a forth section on the east side about five rows deep, much shorter than the other stands and cordoned off by white ropes. Everyone here wore yellow wristbands, along with diamond bracelets and made-up faces that melted in the sun.

Although it’s hard to imagine a Parisian event without a section for the V.I.P, Quai 54’s insistence on “bring your game, not your name” maintained a humble level of modesty throughout the weekend. Of course there were high-heels with tight dresses, large breasts and gold-hooped earrings. There were also plenty of cartoon muscles that seemed to be pumped full of air. But spectators who came primarily to be seen — including a fake gold chained, pinky-ringed narcissist who was soundly roasted by MC Mokobé — were conspicuously out of touch with the Quai 54 reality.

The tournament’s modest beginnings are the reason for the event, and it is a testament to founder Hammadoun Sidibé’s character that it remains free to the public. “We created our own thing without worrying about marketing and branding. The tournament grew organically, little by little. There was never anything false about it, we just let it become what it is today.” Due to its authenticity, the event has grown considerably. What started as a small tournament in a Parisian suburb has become an international Nike and Jordan Brand-sponsored event. Carmelo Anthony (only the second biggest NBA superstar in attendance this year) was as excited about his new line of Jordan Melo M10s as he was about the event: “The Rucker Park in New York changed the game for streetball. This is the new Rucker Park to the rest of the world.”

The Jumpman and Nike swoosh covered just about everything, which no doubt helped bring multiple stars to Trocadero. The American rapper Tyga delivered a crowd-thumping performance, and while most of the French fans didn’t know the lyrics they were happy to put their hands in the air just the same. French Montana also delivered an impressive performance after the final game, but the entertainment was secondary to the basketball on the blacktop.

The rubbery court might have helped with the hops, but the House of Hoops Dunk Contest remained the most entertaining event all weekend. The line-up included America’s Chris Staples and Porter “What’s Gravity” Mayberry; France’s own Guy “Fly Guy” Dupuy; Poland’s Rafael “Lipek” Lipinksi (2012 Nike World Basketball Dunk Contest champion), and Canada’s Justin “Jus Fly” Darlington (fun fact: he’s never sprained an ankle). All of these guys have verticals of somewhere between forty and fifty inches, and when you’re not particularly impressed by an off-the-bounce J.R. Ryder East Bay or a guy jumping over eight people, you know you’re what the French call an enfant gâté (spoiled child). Lipinski won the contest by jumping over the tallest people in attendance, culminating with a reverse two-handed slam over a player standing on a chair. . When asked about competing against NBA dunkers, “Jus Fly” Darlington confirmed there’s no competition. Simon Piechowski of PrimeStar Sports and Dunk Elite said, “These guys deserve more respect”; and just to show NBA stars how good these dunkers are, Darlington concluded, “[Against them] I don’t get dressed on purpose. I dunk in my jeans.”

Basketball has taken its time to come to France, which is part of the reason Sidibé started Quai 54 in the first place. “In France basketball is too often considered ‘niche,’ even though the sport and its culture can be attractive to a lot of people.” The musical guests certainly helped packed the stands, but basketball fans reserved their biggest cheers for Quai 54’s most legendary guest, Scottie Pippen. The screams could be heard from the Metro when Scottie and Carmelo arrived to the tune of Kanye & Jay-Z’s “Ni**as in Paris.” Pippen was as gracious as only a legend can be, taking time to answer questions about streetball versus the NBA. “The game is the game no matter what […] you’re just seeing different levels of players. Players who are getting coached compared to players who haven’t been coached.” When asked which current players he’d pick for a streetball team, Pippen said he’d go with Kobe and Tony Parker.

One thing was certain: players at Quai 54 had good coaches. “Bring your game not your name” was respected almost to a fault this weekend, the one-on-one streetball style being replaced by a more unified game (think Spurs versus Heat). In Pippen’s opinion this is due to the international factor, which favors cohesion over a more individualistic game. “International players are much more simple basketball players […] you don’t have a guy that’s so overwhelming and uses his athleticism all the time. Passing, moving — it simplifies the game.” So while Quai 54 didn’t hold a candle to moves in NBA Street (this author never saw an ankle-breaking crossover or someone get posterized), when it came to the blacktop the competition was fierce, albeit in a subtle, more Eurobasket kind of way.

For the most part the tournament felt more like a muscular version of the college game, screening for threes and iso post-ups being the preferred weapons of choice. Pros and former pros from sixteen countries showed up to play, wearing either black or white Quai 54 jerseys donned with their nicknames (Milosevic, Red Allert, Alpha Dog, and Macho da Flow were the most memorable, alongside more unassuming monikers like Pat, Jerome and Mr. Jones). After a tenacious fourteen-point comeback in the second half, Hood Mix (France) conquered the defending champs, La Relève (also France). As of now they hold the title of World Streetball Champion, and whether or not players from Doin’ It In the Park have something to say about it, neither Quai 54’s players nor the tournament should be taken lightly.

With the support of Nike, Jordan, and now Scottie and ‘Melo, Quai 54 has become a must-see cultural and basketball event. And still, it’s the tournament’s humility that remains front and center. Quai 54 — like the streetball game — has always been about respect and community. It is as much about the public as it is a basketball tournament. Vying for the spotlight came secondary to everything else, and because of its diversity Quai 54 exudes authenticity. In the wise words of Scottie Pippen after so many years in the limelight, “Know that people are always watching you, but be yourself. Just don’t try to do anything different.”

During the event’s most memorable moment, after two days of rap concerts, MC battles, dance competitions, celebrity appearances, gregarious hosting by MC Mokobé, African cuisine and American music, the crowd became silent as they watched the start of the championship game. For the first time all weekend, you could hear the stadium breathing — there was no fanfare, no hype, no music from the DJ. With the sky a bluish pink and the sun descending behind the Eiffel Tower, thousands of spectators united their gaze.  As dusk and blinding floodlights settled on the court, thousands of fans chose to be silent. And for the first time since the opening tip, the sounds of the game could finally be heard: squeaking sneakers, called-out picks, and the occasional thud on the blacktop. From North Carolina to Serbia to the French Antilles, people of all colors united in a moment of tranquility. Fittingly, in the end it was about shared experience: you could hear the players and the person next to you breathing, and that is why the Quai 54 World Streetball Championship is more than a name or even a game.

photos courtesy of 360 Creative