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A PIECE OF HISTORY: A COURT USED FOR PLAYING HOOPS SINCE 1893...

18th April 2017

YMCA France basketball court is (probably) the oldest one in the world, continuously functional since the building opened in 1893, less than two years after James Naismith invented the game at a YMCA in Springfield, Mass.

The Y.M.C.A. in Paris says its basketball court, with its herringbone pattern and loose slats, is the oldest one in the world. It has been continuously functional since the building opened in 1893. Credit Pete Kiehart for The New York Times


PARIS -- The basketball court has warped over the years, growing herringbone hillocks and hollows, like some miniature rolling plain. The wood slats wobble underfoot. Two iron pillars ascend, almost comically, from the middle of the floor.

The basketball court, in other words, is in no sort of shape for basketball.

Yet Sylvie Manac'h -- the new director of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris, where the court is housed -- seemed taken aback when a recent visitor wondered aloud whether Manac'h ever wished she could tear the floor up and install a glistening replacement.

"No," she said. "I want this one."

Some residents of the U.C.J.G., as the Y.M.C.A. is known in France, venture down to the basketball court once in a while for informal games. "Sometimes when you run it's difficult, because the wood pieces come out," one player said. Credit Pete Kiehart for The New York Times


The basketball court is an object of immense pride for the Y.M.C.A. in France (where it is known as the U.C.J.G.) and of historical significance for the game. The organization claims it is the oldest one in the world, continuously functional since the building opened in 1893, less than two years after James Naismith invented the game at a Y.M.C.A. in Springfield, Mass.

Indeed, the gymnasium -- in a dank basement, under a rickety wooden running track -- feels like a walk-in time capsule or museum exhibit. Yet it functions, too, as a vital space in a facility that serves as a community center of sorts in the city's Ninth Arrondissement. Manac'h and the organization have thus found themselves navigating a delicate path between preservation and utility.

Regardless, the court could use an expensive makeover.
"My dream is to find the money to see it as it was before," Manac'h said.



Sylvie Manac'h, the director of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris, said the organization had considered some type of event to raise the money required for a renovation of the gym. It has considered inviting the Harlem Globetrotters to help publicize its needs. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times Photo


Old photos of the gym in Paris. The French Basketball Federation has held promotional events and news conferences there. Givenchy photographed models in the space for its 2012 spring couture line. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times


Unlike some other major sports, basketball has a neatly traceable origin story. The first game was played on Dec. 21, 1891, after Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor working and studying in Springfield, devised a new activity to occupy his restless students in the winter months. The contest, which took place at a Y.M.C.A. gymnasium almost identical to the one in Paris, involved 18 people, two peach baskets and a soccer ball.

James Naismith


Naismith hung the baskets 10 feet above the ground simply because that was the height of the running platform overhead -- the same setup still visible in Paris today.

Within a matter of years, Y.M.C.A. members had carried the rules of the game as far as China, according to Matt Zeysing, a historian and curator at the Basketball Hall of Fame. "It was one of America's great exports," Zeysing said.

A plaque inside the gym indicates its historical significance. The building that houses it has been protected as a historical landmark since 1994. Credit Pete Kiehart for The New York Times


The quick and purposeful dissemination of basketball through the Y.M.C.A. system reflected the emergence in the late 19th century of "muscular Christianity," a religious movement that linked physical health and manliness to spiritual well-being.

The Y.M.C.A. in Paris was the game's very first landing spot in Europe -- a slice of American life transplanted to France, according to Christelle Bertho, an architect in Paris who has studied the entire facility extensively. Bertho said multiuse buildings, which the Y.M.C.A. helped pioneer in the United States, were unheard-of in France at the time. The new building also featured the first American-style bowling alley and indoor swimming pool in France.

James Stokes, a millionaire philanthropist from New York with deep ties to the Y.M.C.A., financed and conceptualized the building project. The organization hired the French architect Émile Bénard, who traveled to America to study Y.M.C.A. buildings for guidance, and had all the building materials for the gym shipped from the United States.

When the building was completed, an American named Melvin B. Rideout became its first athletic director, bringing basketball with him to Paris and practicing in what was essentially a contemporary replica of the Springfield gym where the game was created.

"We really need American people to become interested in this building," Bertho said. "It's their history. It's a mixed French and American building, but it's mostly American, and Americans don't know about it."

Martial arts and dance groups meet at the gym for evening practices. "It's a very special space, and it's sad to see it deteriorating," said Julie Guillorit, who helps run a Krav Maga club that uses the gym. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times


Today the cavernous building, protected since 1994 as a historical landmark, seems to creak with every footstep. It has a vibrant theater and several conference spaces. The bowling alley and pool remain, but have fallen out of use. Upstairs, through labyrinthine hallways and winding stairways, there are dormitory-style rooms for 46 residents, all of them men under 25.

Pierre Pfister, 21, a history and geography student, said he and the other residents ventured down to the basketball court once in a while for informal games.

"I love the two poles; it's so funny," he said. "But sometimes when you run it's difficult because the wood pieces come out."

Basketball is rarely played in the gym anymore, and it is not open to the general public. A local children's hospital uses it as a daytime recreation space. The French Basketball Federation has held promotional events and news conferences there. Givenchy photographed models in the space for its 2012 spring couture line.

For those who use it regularly -- like the martial arts and dance groups that meet there for evening practices -- the court's slow dilapidation has become a problem.

"It's a very special space, and it's sad to see it deteriorating," said Julie Guillorit, who helps run a Krav Maga club that uses the gym four times a week. "We have been hoping for years that it could be repaired. But it's a matter of money."

Cleaning, sanding and refastening all the wooden planks -- about 1,000 in all -- would cost about 80,000 euros, or about $86,000. Credit Pete Kiehart for The New York Times


The matter remains unsolved. Manac'h said her organization had considered some type of fund-raising event to raise the money required for a delicate renovation. (Only the backboards and rims are new, having been installed some years ago.) They have discussed inviting the Harlem Globetrotters to help publicize their needs.

The project, she said, would involve cleaning, sanding and refastening all the wooden planks (about 1,000 in all, according to this reporter's rough count) and would cost about 80,000 euros, or about $86,000.

For many, that would be a worthwhile sum to help preserve what Daniel Champsaur, an archivist for the French Basketball Federation, called an "underestimated jewel of basketball heritage."


A version of this article appears in print on April 17, 2017, on Page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Hoops History, in a Paris Gym. The online version is available here: https://goo.gl/OIyTgE

Author/Source: https://www.nytimes.com by Andrew Keh



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