If there was ever a reason for two Milwaukeeans living in Belgium to visit our neighbors in France, it would be to watch our hometown Bucks team take on the Charlotte Hornets in the 2020 NBA Paris Game. Watching a Bucks game in person while living in Brussels was not on our radar when we moved here in the summer of 2018. Somehow the stars aligned and we found ourselves decked out in Bucks gear sitting in the AccorHotels Arena in Paris on January 24th. Major kudos goes to Dan for planning this memorable experience as a Christmas present for us to enjoy together. As the first, and perhaps only, game of the 2019/2020 season that we have been able to watch live (thanks to the seven hour time difference), it certainly lived up to the hype.
Tip-off was scheduled for 9 PM on Friday evening. The early evening train ride from Brussels to Paris would take 1.5 hours, leaving us with just enough time to get from the train station, to our Airbnb rental to drop off the luggage, and then walk to the arena. Knowing that we would be contending with forces outside of our control that could “derail” our evening, mainly the ongoing transit strikes in Paris that were severely impacting transport into, around, and out of the city, we had made a back-up plan. Fortunately said back-up plan, which entailed driving the 3.5 hours to Paris ourselves, did not need to be implemented, but I’ll say that boarding the train with less than five minutes before its scheduled departure was way too close for my comfort level. I only relaxed when we were in our seats and the train set off in the direction of Paris… ten minutes late of course.
My being on edge is humorous in hindsight considering the pressure Dan was under when planning this trip. I was already aware that the train operator had anticipated the chaos to be caused by the planned December and January transit strikes and preemptively cancelled some of the daily trains back in November – this included the train for which Dan had originally purchased tickets. Thus, Dan was forced to swap our train tickets for a different time on the same day. It was only when we were on our way to Paris that he informed me of the other challenges he had encountered. Tickets to the game itself were hard to come by, and furthermore, the original Airbnb he booked had also cancelled on him. In all, he had to jump through a few extra hoops to purchase the tickets, and then scramble to find alternative accommodations and swap our earlier train for a later one.
Having arrived in Paris, we were hoping to make up for lost time, but in our haste found ourselves struggling to figure out how to exit through the ticket turnstiles and then find the correct intercity train platform. Fortunately my pride is usually not wounded by having to ask for assistance and in both cases, kind bystanders came to the rescue. Sometimes you just have to laugh when you’re the visitor who is frantically trying and repeatedly failing to figure out how to get the turnstiles to accept their ticket, and then a local comes along and inserts your ticket into the machine for you and you’re left wondering what on earth you did wrong the ten times before. Paris transit keeps me humble. We were relieved to arrive at the Airbnb rental but then had to wait at the front door for almost 30 minutes for the Airbnb contact to arrive and get us checked in. When we did enter the apartment the cleaning crew was still at work so we piled our bags in the corner while our Airbnb contact blamed the delays on the transit strikes. We walked to the AccorHotels Arena knowing our own two feet were the most reliable form of transportation in the city.
We should have anticipated that tip-off time would adhere to the more casual French punctuality, so even though we were 15 minutes late getting to our seats, we still arrived in time to hear the French national anthem and watch the starting line-ups get introduced. The Bucks, and especially Giannis, received a rousing welcome, but during the Hornets’ team introductions it was apparent that this was a crowd excited to see a local, Nicolas Batum, representing France in the league.
Between the first and second quarters, the lights dimmed and the crowd hushed in anticipation of the introduction of the NBA legends present for the game. The players getting introduced included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muggsy Bogues, Tony Parker, Dikembe Mutombo, Dell Curry, Ronny Turiaf, Bruce Bowen, and Sam Perkins.
We introduced ourselves to our seat mate, Charles, who was a Parisian NBA fan, and more specifically a Giannis admirer from afar. He said he had not yet been to the US and was thrilled to be attending his first NBA game. He helped us identify the celebrities seated court side, including the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club, whose star players, Neymar Jr. and Mbappé, were sitting just down the row from Tony Parker and Kareem Abdul Jabar. We in turn explained to Charles that the watches and cash prizes earned by fans during the time-out activities were superior to the frozen pizzas and mini basketballs supplied during Bucks home games in Milwaukee.
As halftime and 10:30 PM rolled around, we were starving and eager to see what the arena concessions offered. While Miller Lite and Leinenkugel’s were nowhere to be found, Moët & Chandon champagne and Heineken were in abundance. Burgers and pizza were popular fares, but we had our eyes on the pasta in a to-go box (a favorite of mine) which we could take back to our seats and enjoy as the second half got underway. Between mouthfuls of bolognaise and alfredo, we cheered proudly as the Bucks commenced their come-from-behind advance towards victory. Much to the appreciation of the many Giannis jersey-wearing fans in the arena, and most likely the stateside VISIT Milwaukee marketing organization, the Bucks pulled off a great win and represented the hometown well! On our way out, I wondered if Bucks fans had established a “traveling” Deer District at a nearby bar to enjoy celebratory drinks together, but the “herds” seemed out of place at the quaint cafes in the neighborhood so we called it a night.
Our Saturday started at Crêperie Elo Bastille with some of the best savory and sweet crepes I’ve ever had. After breakfast we walked to Paul & Rimbaud Café where, after we sampled their cookies, Dan was able to settle in and focus on work while I set out on my own. I explored the lively 11th Arrondissement on foot before viewing the city from a different angle while strolling through the park known as the Coulée Verte. The old railway viaduct turned 2.9 mile elevated park was the first and only of its kind in the world until New York City’s High Line came along in 2009.
A bit later, I met Dan back at the Airbnb so we could visit the NBA’s exhibition for fans at the “NBA House” where, in addition to watching Bruce Bowen play H-O-R-S-E, we saw first-hand just how much of a presence the Bucks team has internationally. Hoping to shop the NBA Paris Game apparel, we were shocked to find that the stand had sold out of all Bucks gear, with the exception of a pin. Good for the NBA, not so great for us!
I knew there was an easy fix for our disappointment, so we headed towards Berthillon on Île Saint-Louis for cones of some of our favorite ice cream and then made our way towards La Robe & La Mousse for Parisian craft beers. We ran into a very friendly Ronny Turiaf on the street near our Airbnb that evening but since he didn’t invite us out to dinner, we finished our evening with a delicious and affordable three course meal at La MiN.
While Dan was kept busy with work on Sunday morning, I headed in the direction of the Louvre thinking I would try to squeeze in a visit before we would need to catch our train back to Brussels. As I was debating whether to stand in line to enter the museum and endeavor a rushed visit, I couldn’t help but overhear strong Midwest accents coming from the group conversing nearby. When I looked over, I immediately noticed their Milwaukee Bucks gear and couldn’t help but interject and introduce myself – it’s not every day I randomly run into Milwaukeeans in Europe! We talked about the Bucks game, which they had also attended, and what they had all seen during their first visit to Paris before taking a group photo. They were so nice to chat with while they waited for their tour of the Louvre to start and my only regret now is not remembering their names.
Forgoing the Louvre, I made my way over to another new to me area of Paris in the 10th Arrondissement to see the Canal Saint-Martin with its locks and cast-iron footbridges. While the water may look murky, I found out that the city drains and cleans out the canals every 10-15 years – the last time was in 2016. Although some of the cafes in the area looked tempting, I had to head back to meet Dan so we could make our way to Gare du Nord station for our (hopefully less eventful) return trip to Brussels.
Paris intrigues me because it’s so easy to see or try something new each time you visit. On this occasion, it was the unique experience of witnessing Parisians in Milwaukee Bucks attire connecting with and cheering alongside the visiting Milwaukeeans – some of whom were seeing Paris for the first time and most of whom don’t know the language. Between the French commentary and a noticeably absent Harley-Davidson Clutch Crew cheering section, of course it was different than attending a game back in Milwaukee, but the city of Paris did a great job hosting their first NBA game in almost ten years.
Reflecting on the weekend and looking at post-game pictures of the NBA players exchanging jerseys with the Paris SG football club players, I realized the significance of this basketball game. Where competition and cultures often divide, it was encouraging to see connections being created on common ground. Who knows how many Parisians will resolve to venture to Wisconsin, whether to watch the Bucks or not, but I hope the same sentiments are felt and new connections are made by any first-time visitors to Milwaukee. Hey Parisians, if you’re looking for something else we have in common, did I mention that Wisconsinites also love cheese!