It's a breathtaking Saturday afternoon in Paris, not a cloud in the sky. Thousands of fans file into the stands erected around a makeshift basketball court sur L'esplanade du Trocadéro, just down from the Palais de Chaillot.
Beneath the not-so-distant shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the greatest streetballers in the world are preparing to do battle in the late-June heat. Their sneakers squeak on the blacktop, periodically piercing the din of the Parisian crowd, and their every move is charged with a theatrical flair; when the games begin, they will dribble dramatically, slash to the rim and rise from the cooked asphalt for gravity-defying dunks.
And the crowd will match them at every stutter-step, dancing and shouting, stirring up a timbre reminiscent of the fútbol fanatics gathered in Beira-Rio Stadium for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Their enthusiasm makes sense; after all, this is Quai 54, the top streetball tournament in the world.
Since its humble beginnings more than a decade ago, Quai 54 has become the City of Lights' version of NYC's Rucker Park…if the hallowed bastion of hoops was located in Times Square instead of Harlem. It's also established itself as the cultural intersection of basketball, fashion and hip-hop. The Jordan Brand's unmistakable logo is emblazoned on the court, hovering like a nimbus cloud. NBA stars and rappers routinely show up to mingle. And the fashion-conscious crowd is as exquisite as a 2005 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti bouteille de vin.
This year, 16 teams from 9 different countries will compete for the coveted tourney championship. By 4 p.m., the games are under way, and during a deluge of action (Quai 54 never really stops), there are several highlight-reel performances and at least one shocking result, when L.Y.T.E. Elite Ballers – a team made up of New York City talent – become the first U.S. squad in tournament history to bid adieu in the opening round.
By 6 p.m., everyone in the bleachers and surrounding walls of the Théâtre National de Chaillot is sweat-soaked from the baking sun. The energy levels remain high though, thanks to the work of tourney emcees Mokobé Traoré and Thomas N'Gijol, a comedian known as "the French Kevin Hart"...not to mention the arrival of NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony, who strolls onto center court with a mile-wide smile on his face.
"I didn't know what to expect before I came, I just kept hearing about it and once I got here, it reminds me of Rucker Park but on a much higher stage," Anthony says. "It's like taking Rucker Park and putting it in front of the Statue of Liberty, that's the feeling you get being here. When I first came in the league in 2003, you weren't seeing anything like this outside the U.S., so to see how much it's evolved, it's unbelievable."
Scottie Pippen shows up soon after, laconic as always, yet confident in the fact that he was at least partially responsible for all of this. Thanks to la légende des Chicago Bulls, and the play of the original Dream Team (where Pip won Olympic gold alongside Jordan, Magic, Sir Charles and Larry Legend), basketball truly became an international game, and at Quai 54, athletes from the U.S., Serbia, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK played streetball a stone's throw away from the Champ de Mars.
"It's a great feeling to see how big the game is here in Paris, and how much it's grown since I came over here with the '92 Dream Team," Pippen says. "People have really bought into the game and made it a lifestyle. The atmosphere here is amazing – the streetball, the culture, the music. The tournament has evolved but the spirit is still the same. Streetball is really what basketball is, because that's where everybody starts playing."
The genesis of the Quai 54 was a humble event created by Hammadoun Sidibé in 2003 at 54 Quai Michelet de Levallois in the 10th arrondissement, a trendy district known for the Canal Saint-Martin, which links the northeastern parts of Paris with the River Seine. Nike's involvement took the tournament to the next level, and Sidibé has no plans of slowing down any time soon.
"What's most important for us is we need to take Quai 54 around the world. We want to go to Brazil and the Philippines because basketball is growing in those countries," Sidibé says. "We are supposed to do qualification rounds there and Nigeria, too. They know hip-hop and basketball in Nigeria. We'll have qualification rounds in Brazil, the Philippines and Nigeria and the winners will come to Paris for Quai 54."
Day two of the tournament begins much like the previous one, except with the monumentality of a year's worth of bragging rights looming ahead. Teams play in sweltering heat, keen on advancing, pulling out staggering plays, and occasional defensive stops. There are breaks for a performance from Tyga and, of course, the Foot Locker/House of Hoops' Dunk Contest (Polish dunker Rafal "Lipek" Lipinski steals the show with a killer 360-degree, double-clutch hammer off the side of the backboard) then, at 9 p.m., this year's tournament comes down to two teams: Hood Mix and returning champions La Relève.
Both squads hail from France, so allegiances in the stands are divided, and led by players sporting nicknames like Merlin, Haiti and L'Animal, La Relève jumps out to an early 39-24 advantage. But Hood Mix comes roaring back in the second half, behind LK's big-time jumpers and Le Tsar's gritty play at the point, and steals the streetball crown from La Relève.
With less than five minutes to midnight, the aptly named (and slightly inebriated) rapper French Montana emerges to close out the event with a grand finale performance. Born in Morocco, raised in the Bronx, he provides not only soundtrack to the tournament, but a pretty apt metaphor for its global span. And as the glimmering lights from the Eiffel Tower sparkle like a beacon just across the Pont d'Iéna, the Excuse My French MC serves up a digestif cocktail of club anthems like "Ocho Cinco," "Pop That" and "Ain't Worried About Nothin'."
Another Quai 54 was in the books. Fin.