Thursday night, five days after France’s Eurobasket ended in a nightmare loss and a few hours before Slovenia replaced France as the up-and-coming team with the power to make Spain look ridiculous, David Cozette, basically the immemorial voice of French Pro A on TV, unleashed the Adrian Wojnarowski in him and tweeted what can arguably described as a #CozBomb:
Gros scoop basket de la rentrée: Boris Diaw d'accord avec Levallois. Il sera un joueur des Metropolitans dès que la DNCG dira ok. @RMCsport
— David Cozette (@DavidCozette) September 14, 2017
What happened next was a struggle for understanding from International Basketball Twitter, while French Basketball Twitter was, let’s say, trying to understand something likely not understandable. Here is our modest take on how such a thing could happen.
Who Boris Diaw is
The coolest basketball player on Earth? That may very well be the case. Easygoing, laid back, fun as can be, a coffee and wine enthusiast,a nature lover — Boris Diaw never really lived his life as your typical NBAer. He was (and is) focused on bringing with him the best aspects of French art de vivre. Knowing ups (the D’Antoni Suns using him as point-center and creating a triple-double threat, the Spurs having him toy los tres amigos with behind the back assists) and downs (Paul Silas refusing to let him play with the forgettable Bobcats); his career was always on the verge of marginality — physically gifted, seeing basketball in a completely different manner than everybody else, capable of playing 1 through 5 (well, until he became too old to follow guards around on defense). Diaw was the most obvious example of a FIBA player (in the good sense of the word) lost and found in the NBA…for better or worse, but in the hearts of all French fans, for (mostly) better.
Because there is the “other” Boris Diaw, the “French” one. First, Boris, as the son of Élisabeth Riffiod, long-time record holder of the most caps in the French basketball women’s team, may have been transmitted in his blood the idea of giving everything for Les Bleus. So Boris answered the national team’s calls — every summer except 2008 (if memory serves, because of the Phoenix Suns; it led to Diaw paying part of his insurance to be able to play for France in the subsequent summers). Thus, as infuriating as he was every time he passed the ball instead of taking an open shot, he became the most popular player in the country among basketball fans, if not for the general public (Tony Parker obviously has another level of media reverberation). Add to this a few entertaining pre-NBA years in Pau; the fact that he welcomes Team France in an hotel he owns every summer for the beginning of the preparation in Pau; an amusing stint with JSA Bordeaux during the 2011 lockout while being the President of the club (a position he left in 2017 after investing in vain) — you have someone that, to be honest, is just as nice and cool as one can be in French Basketball.
The moment : Babac at the crossroads
This 2017 summer was, indeed, a bit strange for Boris Diaw. Having been sent by the Spurs (the most welcoming culture in the league for a player and a person like him) to the Jazz the summer before (in a move intended to create enough cap space to sign Pau Gasol), Diaw never completely fit with the Jazz project. He was kept to a 15 to 20 minutes role that certainly suited him at this point of his career, but also prevented him from showing much of his game. With a non-guaranteed contract and a salary too high for what he brings now, he was cut by the Jazz at the beginning of July. In typical Boris Diaw fashion, he never seemed to worry much, and had his routine Team France summer without any contract and, more importantly, without any sense of emergency about signing one.
Why Levallois, then?
And so here comes the announcement of the Levallois signing. This one is puzzling, at best. Levallois, a solid team in the French championship, isn’t especially high profile — never a champion since merging with Paris Basket Racing in 2007, they only won a French Cup, and played just two Eurocup quarterfinals in the last ten years. To be honest, there is nothing much to see here (besides the fact that they signed Klemen Prepelič who is playing out of his mind in the current Eurobasket). To add to this, the team that was once called “Paris-Levallois” just changed name to Levallois Metropolitans … because the city of Paris has decided to stop subsidising the team, with another project basketball team in Paris looming (with David Kahn of Timberwolves infamy involved, believe it or not).
So how to understand that choice? Well, in fact, listening to Diaw himself gives you an explanation of the whole picture (with English subtitles):
Basically, Diaw explains that:
- Good, old friends are important and Freddy Fauthoux coaching at Levallois made the whole process really easy. Both were teammates on the French national team and, more importantly, in Pau before Diaw crossed the ocean; plus they have a few French and European memories in common (warning: these links contain monster dunks from young Diaw; Fauthoux wears his iconic #4; the Pietrus brothers also appear).
- Paris, Bordeaux, TGV … Boris is still a family guy and a tourist at the same time, and he wants to enjoy his life, and how could we not understand that?
- The Levallois season to come seems interesting enough — the ProA is what it is, a second or third-tier type of league in Europe, but the team will also participate in Eurocup, facing good enough teams for the season to be challenging, at least until the beginning of 2018.
- The project itself convinced Diaw that he could teach youngsters some of his genius in a team that gives young guys playing time: Poirier and Labeyrie, as he mentions, played big minutes last year and their progress was impressive enough for them to go to bigger teams. But next season’s roster also has kids to help grow — Cyrille Eliezer-Vanerot played 20+ minutes per game last season, but joining are also Petr Cornelie, lost in the shuffle (and by that I mean being compared to the Titanic) after being drafted by the Denver Nuggets, and Ivan Février, a promising French prospect, finally able to train after having been diagnosed with heart problems at the beginning of training camp. Diaw could possibly be a wonderful teacher to them, and in general he’ll be a fantastic ambassador for the French league during this period.
- Diaw never mentions it, but the move to France makes him available for the first FIBA World Cup window; afterthought or real factor, who knows?
How is it possible?
For such a high profile player (even in the back end of his career) to come back to French Pro A leads to an open question about the financial side of things. Diaw says in his video that money wasn’t much of a problem. And, in fact, looking closely at how things were organized, it better not be a problem. Most of the non-French observers will look at the announcement made by David Cozette without noticing that the DNCG has to allow the move. To cut a long story short, DNCG is an authority responsible for monitoring and controlling team budgets. The process is not exactly intended to create some kind of financial fair-play; it’s a way to make sure that team budgets are real, reliable, and sustainable — to avoid teams going bankrupt in the middle of the season or not paying players and staff, If there is a real doubt about financial solvency, DNCG can punish the team in question with relegation before the season starts. What about the permission for the Diaw move? DNCG is responsible for allowing Diaw registration with Levallois, and consequently approving the post-move team budget. But what does it say about the Diaw signing?
Well, even as a non-expert of public relations, making the news available certainly was a signal that the move would be allowed, or at least that the team was very confident it would be (even if, as a precaution, they sent a letter to the French league asking for tolerance and arguing about the general interests of French basketball). And for the move to be allowed while team budgets can not easily be expanded in a realistic manner late-September, it meant that Boris Diaw probably took a huge paycut. An intuition that has since been confirmed by the main French sports newspaper L’équipe, that mentioned on Friday the fact that Diaw could simply earn the minimum salary allowed by the French league CBA for a player in his situation: 3.200€/month (update: L’équipe now reports that Diaw is going to be making 5.000€/month) . On the other hand, the main agreement (that is in fact a mutual understanding since it’s illegal to put it in the contract itself) between him and the team is that he is free to join any bigger European team or, obviously, NBA team during the season, even if we have to think that such a move is supposed to happen at a specific moment (the NBA is full of deadlines, Euroleague also has specific moments to register players). But whatever happens to Diaw this season, one thing is sure from our perspective: not only are his personality and his game one of a kind, his career arc now is as well.