The thickly accented American behind the NBA in France

A pack of New York Knicks fans from France attended a recent game at Madison Square Garden. When a player for the Denver Nuggets shot an air ball, one of them reflexively shouted in French, “Oh là là! Mettez vos casques!”

The expression — loose translation: “Oh, my! Put on your helmets!” — and the broad American accent he put on triggered rounds of knowing laughter among his friends in the stands.

It was a nod to George Eddy, an American-born sportscaster with little resonance outside France but perhaps the man most responsible for introducing the country to the NBA. French fans cannot help but narrate games in his thickly accented voice.

The remark was a signature Eddyism, an eccentric Frenglish peppered with grammatical mistakes, American-imported basketball terms and outrageous exclamations. Almost anyone who loves the NBA in France has a favorite.

When a team’s defense is as full of holes as Swiss cheese: “Gruyère time.” When a player fakes out his opponent: “Il lui a fait perdre son short.” (He made him lose his shorts.) Or when a dunk is magnificent — as was Michael Jordan’s two-handed, putback slam off a missed layup in Game 1 of the 1992 finals — simply: “Woooooo, bababababababa, c’est pas possible!”

French audiences were introduced to Eddy and NBA basketball in 1985, when premium cable network Canal Plus began broadcasting reruns of regular-season games. Unlike the French league, the NBA had awe-inspiring athletes, crowded arenas and flashy halftime shows — and Eddy’s exuberant style of sportscasting, which contrasted with the staid French announcers of the time.

According to Benjamin Morel, senior vice president for NBA Europe, Eddy’s colorful personality was instrumental in paving the way for American basketball’s success in France, the league’s main European market and one of its biggest worldwide.

“He inspired an entire generation of French fans in the early 1990s,” Morel said.

Boris Diaw of the Utah Jazz, one of about a dozen Frenchmen playing in the NBA — the most from a foreign country outside North America — was among those influenced by Eddy.

“His accent is his signature, and, even today, hearing it brings me back to all the nights I stayed up to watch games,” Diaw said.

Five years ago, Canal Plus lost the French television rights to the NBA, but Eddy still blogs about the league for the network and regularly appears on sports talk shows. In February, Eddy sat down for an interview in his office in Paris to reminisce about his beginnings at Canal Plus and his role in the NBA’s evolution from a niche to the face of basketball in France, supplanting for many fans the country’s homegrown version.

Eddy, 60, might be quick at staging his own wackiness — the silly T-shirt he wore that day read, “I’m the Michael Jordan of 55 yr. old gym rats” — but there is a steeliness inside him that helped spur his success in France. He traces it back to his childhood near Orlando, Florida, where — raised by a partly paralyzed American father and a blind French mother — he dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player.

“Maybe I wanted to prove early on that I could hold my own physically,” he said.

His ambition for an NBA career was dashed at the University of Florida, where Eddy repeatedly fell short in his tryouts for the Gators. Still, he maintained his basketball obsession by playing one-on-one games on the campus. (Even years later, as a commentator, Eddy would routinely challenge retired NBA players, including B.J. Armstrong, to games of H-O-R-S-E.)

Eventually, Eddy did go pro — in France. While visiting relatives near Paris in 1977, he asked if they knew of a court where he could practice. Basketball was so little played at the time that his relatives contacted the only option around: the professional team Alsace de Bagnolet. He went on to play 14 professional seasons in the French league.

In 1984, when he heard Canal Plus was hiring a commentator for its weekly broadcast of an NBA game, Eddy sent in his résumé.

“Nobody knew what the NBA was here, and I happened to be the biggest NBA fan,” he said. To his surprise, he landed the job.

Fabrice Auclert, 43, founder and editor of the French website Basket USA, remembers the first game Canal Plus aired in January 1985: a matchup between Bernard King’s Knicks and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics.

He was 12 years old, and in shock. Like most fans then, he had exclusively watched basketball played by French athletes. Of the NBA players, he said: “They were faster and taller. They shot better. It was like watching another sport!”

In 1991, Canal Plus started broadcasting live games — but prime time in the U.S. meant the dead of night in France. “We used to wake up at 2 o’clock to watch the playoffs, regardless of whether we had school the following day,” Auclert recalled.

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics broadened the NBA’s appeal, as the exploits of Jordan and the original Dream Team captivated French audiences that summer. Newly founded magazines like Mondial Basket and 5 Majeur capitalized on their interest, as municipalities in France built outdoor basketball courts, especially in public housing developments. Many fans, now wearing Air Jordans and Chicago Bulls T-shirts on and off the court, were discovering basketball through the NBA before its French counterpart.

Julien Barthélemy, 33, who founded the fan club Knicks Nation France last year, became hooked on NBA games as a teenager, enthralled by their spectacular productions and the electrifying atmosphere in the stands, which, he said, the French league lacked. Not unlike American soccer fans who swear by the English Premier League, but show little interest in stateside teams, he said, “I don’t follow the French championship at all.”

The 1992 Games were also when Eddy found his announcing voice. Before then, he said, he lacked confidence to be himself on air. A revelation came when Eddy watched Canal Plus’ judo analyst. “He had zero filter,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I, too, would like to be funnier, loosen up.'”

Eddy’s over-the-top style reached a peak at the 2000 Sydney Games, when American swingman Vince Carter dunked over French center Frédéric Weis in what some consider the greatest dunk of all time. The play triggered from Eddy an impossibly long “Bababababababa” and a flurry of hyperboles — “He took flight a kilometer away from the hoop” — punctuated by a high-pitched howling sound.

Aside from his showmanship, Eddy’s literal translations delighted French fans: A coldblooded player in English was, in French, someone “with frozen blood in the veins.” He gave players absurd nicknames: Shawn Kemp was “the top chef of crepes,” a crepe being a block pinning the ball on the backboard. He made bad jokes: A play was “as ugly as the first girlfriend I ever dated.” And he loved preposterous images: “Un dunk stratosphérique.”

“Before him, the style of commentary was very polished and Francocentric,” said Éric Besnard, who commented on games alongside Eddy in the 1990s. “They didn’t have George’s intensity.”

Being American also gave him credibility in the eyes of fans. “With his accent, the U.S. atmosphere really came alive,” Besnard recalled.

Eddy also imported all the American terms that are now used by French analysts — “un dunk” instead of “un smash,” “un block” instead of “un contre,” “un alley-oop” instead of “une passe lobée.”

In the process, he became a kind of ambassador of the sport. “At first, people didn’t know much about basketball,” he said. “I had to explain everything, give some history, describe the rules.”

Vincent Gobé, 32, the French fan at the Knicks game, placed Eddy alongside Jordan as the figures who taught him about basketball. “Michael was our idol, and George Eddy was our professor,” he said.

Over time, though, some fellow sportscasters started to criticize Eddy for bringing theatrics rather than analysis to the game.

Jacques Monclar is a basketball announcer for the French network beIN SPORTS, which beat Canal Plus for the NBA’s French television rights in 2012. “George is more of an entertainer,'’ he said, “and he does that very well.”

“Me, I’m always trying to be analytical,” he added. “I don’t scream, ‘Babababa, it’s stratospheric.'”

Today, in his NBA commentary for Canal Plus Afrique, a subsidiary of the network that broadcasts in most French-speaking African countries, Eddy said he strove to be more analytical.

“Maybe I’d started to caricature myself by overdoing bababoom and dunkorama,” he admitted.

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