Victor Wembanyama, ‘Wembamania’ sweep France with two years until Paris Olympics

Victor Wembanyama
Getty
0 Comments

France lost to the U.S. by five points in the Tokyo Olympic men’s basketball final. Could Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-3 18-year-old favored to be the 2023 NBA Draft No. 1 pick, help Les Bleus reverse that result at the 2024 Paris Games?

“Wembamania” is sweeping France, and everyone is trying to get a look at the “alien,” as LeBron James described his talent, likely to become an NBA star.

Even 85-year-old former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who called Wembanyama’s French club team’s president to ask for a ticket.

His wingspan is nearly 8 feet, and he can nearly grab the rim — 10 feet in the air — without jumping.

“My goal,” Wembanyama told The Associated Press, “is to be like something you’ve never seen.”

Vincent Collet, who coaches Wembanyama’s club team Metropolitans 92 near Paris and the French national team, said the hype is normal and great for the French game.

“It’s something you can’t really control, and it’s because of what happened two weeks ago in the U.S.,” he said, referring to Metropolitans 92’s two exhibition games against G League teams outside Las Vegas. “In general it’s a good thing for basketball, for our club and for the game. It shines a light on basketball, it attracts people.”

Collet thinks that Wembanyama has enough mental strength to cope with the demands of the NBA, despite his young age.

“There’s what the Americans call ‘skills’ — an ability that is out of the ordinary. But remember that he’s only 18 1/2. In basketball at the highest level, there are many things to deal with,” Collet said. “But he has an uncommon capacity for learning. You don’t need to keep teaching him as he learns very quickly. That’s a great asset, along with all the others he has. It’s very valuable, believe me, as it’s very rare.”

Victor’s father, Felix, was a triple jumper, but did not compete at the Olympics. Victor’s mother, Elodie de Fautereau, played pro basketball and also coached.

It was hard to ignore basketball growing up: sister Eve — who is 20 — is a pro with Monaco in the second-tier LF2 league.

Younger brother Oscar is 15, won a national junior title with Nanterre and, just like his brother, then moved to l’ASVEL — which is owned by Parker.

Wembanyama is considered a near-certainty to be the first top-five NBA Draft pick from France.

The most notable French NBA player was soon-to-be Hall of Famer Tony Parker, who was drafted in 2001, one year after not being on the French team at the 2000 Olympics that lost in the final 85-75 to the U.S. Parker was 18 at the time of the Sydney Games.

The most notable French Olympic basketball player was, like Wembanyama, a 7-footer. That’s Frederic Weis, arguably the most well known French Olympian across all sports to Americans after he was posterized by Vince Carter in group play at the Sydney Games.

Like Wembanyama will be, Weis was drafted in the first round the year before the Olympics. He was taken 15th overall by the New York Knicks in 1999, but never played an NBA regular season game, choosing to stay in France.

Come the Paris Games, Wembanyama will be 20 1/2 years old — one year older than soccer star Kylian Mbappé was when he starred for France in its 2018 World Cup win. Both prodigies grew up in the suburbs of Paris, where Wembanyama could take the baton from judo great Teddy Riner as France’s new Olympic star in 2024.

The hype surrounding Wembanyama is growing. National news channel France 2 aired a report on him after his jaw-dropping performances outside Vegas.

“It’s normal, no problem. At PSG people always talk about Mbappe,” Collet said. “We all enjoyed that time in Las Vegas, which would never have happened if Victor wasn’t in the team. He’s a good teammate, and you can’t look for problems that aren’t there.”

Metropolitans president Alain Weisz, the head coach when Parker made his senior French national team debut two months after the Sydney Games, said tickets for last Friday’s game sold out in two hours. The game at Le Mans the previous Saturday — Wembanyama’s first after his Las Vegas bonanza — saw that modest club sell all 6,000 tickets for the first time.

“What the lad’s doing is unheard of,” Weisz told France Info radio. “It’s not just young people here or rappers who identity with Victor. Even Lionel Jospin called me for a ticket. What happened in the United States created an interest level what was unimaginable.”

The club has already sold twice as many jerseys as last season in one month of competition — 85% with Wembanyama’s name. An average of six scouts come to each game and one from the Sacramento Kings even spent two days watching him train before attending the Le Mans game.

“Victor’s determination is extraordinary,” Weisz said. “He reminds me a lot of Tony Parker.”

Wemby, as he is already affectionately called, was lethal in Las Vegas. He finished two exhibition games with 73 points, nine 3-pointers, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots and an army of fans dreaming of what he might do in the NBA.

After the Vegas showcase, Wembanyama was named to the French roster for 2023 FIBA World Cup qualifiers taking place next month. They would mark his senior national team debut.

“We’ll try to help him as much as possible to stay focused because there’s a lot at stake. We need to help him in the best way possible,” Collet said. “He will have to get used to (the hype) because it’s not going to get any less.”

Wembanyama could be just what France’s national team needs to overtake the U.S. men’s basketball team, which won the last four Olympic titles. If the U.S. has any weakness, it is height. Anthony Davis, who skipped the Tokyo Olympics, is the lone U.S. center to make an All-NBA team in the last five seasons.

A wild card is Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid, who is Cameroonian. In the spring, French media reported that Embiid started the process to become eligible to represent France in international basketball, quoting national team general manager Boris Diaw.

Then Embiid said last month that he gained U.S. citizenship.

Embiid, who has never played in a major international tournament, could choose to represent Cameroon in Olympic qualifying. Cameroon has never qualified for an Olympic basketball tournament. Or he could look to the U.S. or France, his decision having a significant impact on the 2024 Olympic men’s tournament.

In announcing his U.S. citizenship last month, Embiid said it was way too early to think about his international status.

France’s national team is already led by yet another 7-footer, three-time NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert. Adding Embiid and Wembanyama could give Les Bleus a triple tower frontcourt.

France’s Olympic team last year had five NBA players to the U.S.’ 12: Nicolas BatumEvan FournierTimothe Luwawu-CabarrotFrank Ntilikina and Gobert.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Jessie Diggins ties U.S. record for World Cup cross-country skiing wins

0 Comments

Jessie Diggins tied Kikkan Randall‘s U.S. record with her 13th career individual cross-country skiing World Cup victory, taking a 10km freestyle in Lillehammer, Norway, on Friday.

Diggins, the most decorated U.S. Olympic cross-country skier with a medal of every color, prevailed by 3.8 seconds over German Katharina Hennig in the interval start event. Diggins trailed Hennig by one second at the 8.2-kilometer split, then made up 4.8 seconds over the final four minutes of the course.

“My fitness and brain were in a really good place,” Diggins said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “When I asked my body to go deep into the pain cave, it responded.”

Diggins tied the record of Randall, who in 2007 became the first U.S. woman to win a World Cup cross-country skiing race and ended her career by teaming with Diggins to win the first U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing title at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. (Another skier, Alison Owen-Spencer, won a race in 1978 that U.S. Ski and Snowboard counts as a World Cup, but the International Ski Federation does not.)

Diggins opened this World Cup season last weekend in Ruka, Finland, with a best finish of 10th among three races. She trended up each day, finishing that stop with the second-fastest time in last Sunday’s individual pursuit (where she started 19th).

Diggins, 31, has spread out her goals this season. One of the biggest is helping the U.S. win a relay medal for the first time at the world championships in three months. Diggins has been a part of relays that finished fourth at four different worlds.

She also eyes the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in the sport that goes to the best all-around skier for the season. In 2020-21, Diggins became the second American — and first American woman — to win the overall in a season where Norway’s top skiers, including superstar Therese Johaug, skipped early season races and chances to gain points for the overall title.

Johaug retired after winning three individual golds at last February’s Olympics. Diggins is the top returning skier given the absence of reigning overall champ Natalya Nepryayeva, who cannot compete due to the ban on Russian athletes for the war in Ukraine.

The World Cup season continues with a freestyle sprint on Saturday and a classic 20km mass start on Sunday in Lillehammer.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Katie Ledecky out-touches new rival at swimming’s U.S. Open, extends streak

0 Comments

It was a rare sight: Katie Ledecky being matched stroke for stroke in a distance race in an American pool. She was up for the challenge.

Ledecky out-touched emerging 16-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh by eight hundredths of a second in the 400m freestyle at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday night.

Ledecky and McIntosh were tied at the 300-meter mark. Ledecky ended up clocking 3:59.71 to McIntosh’s 3:59.79 to extend a decade-long win streak in freestyle races of 400 meters or longer in U.S. pools.

“I know we’ll have a lot more races ahead of us,” Ledecky said on Peacock. “We bring the best out of each other.”

The U.S. Open continues Friday with live finals coverage on Peacock at 6 p.m. ET.

U.S. OPEN SWIMMING: Full Results

At the Tokyo Olympics, McIntosh placed fourth in the 400m free at age 14.

She accelerated this year, taking silver behind Ledecky at the world championships and silver behind Tokyo gold medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia at the Commonwealth Games.

Then in October, McIntosh outdueled Ledecky in a 400m free — also by eight hundredths — in a short-course, 25-meter pool at a FINA World Cup meet in Toronto. Long-course meets like the Olympics and the U.S. Open are held in 50-meter pools.

McIntosh also won world titles in the 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley, becoming the youngest individual world champion since 2011.

A potential showdown among Ledecky, Titmus and McIntosh at the 2024 Paris Games is already being compared to the “Race of the Century,” the 2004 Olympic men’s 200m free where Australian Ian Thorpe edged Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps.

In other events Thursday, Regan Smith, an Olympic and world medalist in the backstroke and butterfly, won a 200m individual medley in a personal best 2:10.40, a time that would have placed fifth at June’s world championships. She beat 16-year-old Leah Hayes, who took bronze in the event at worlds.

Olympic 400m IM champ Chase Kalisz won the men’s 200m IM in 1:56.52, his best time ever outside of major summer meets. Frenchman Léon Marchand won the world title in 1:55.22 in June, when Kalisz was fourth.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!