BUILDING A MONUMENT TO STREET BALL: QUAI 54 PARIS
The founders of one of the world's biggest street ball tournaments talk about the evolution of the culture in Paris. Shot by Kevin Couliau.
The Quai 54 tournament is one of the most respected international street ball tournaments in the world.
Since 2003, Hammadoun Sidibé and Thibaut de Longeville have been working side by side to set the stage for each season’s main event. Combining New York’s EBC [Rucker Park] Tournament vibes with a strong French street culture, the Quai 54 cocktail boasts incredible energy from stands to court and travels beyond basketball boundaries.
This is all to the credit of two men, who freed up some time in their busy agendas a few days before the 2017 edition to sit down and talk shop about their creation.
Tell us the history of this tournament.
Hammadoun: Basketball came to me quite late, in 1991 when I went to NY. I was 14 years-old and immediately hooked. From that moment on I spent my childhood on courts. I had many friends who turned pro. We were often in Paris during summer, on the courts all day long. This is a way of life.
We always had an eye on NY where everything was happening. We knew the level was decent in Paris. And one day in 2003, someone told me about a new court in Levallois. It was gorgeous. The idea of the tournament came to me the moment I saw the court. I asked each of my friends to form a team and we built a tournament from scratch. Nike supplied some jerseys, and it was on.
Thibaut: The first edition was very organic, all word-of-mouth. From the music to the organization, it was chaotic but at the same time pretty much a family affair. I have wonderful memories of this block party in Levallois. Somebody even threw a barbecue. It was all spontaneous, everything jelled. It was like a postcard straight out of NY but in Paris with almost 1,500 people.
Hammadoun: We thought we had to make it happen again. Nike came down to check it out and they found the atmosphere dope. We grew every year. I’m lucky to have Thibaut as an associate, because I’m more a hands on type of guy whereas he has strong marketing experience and a lot of hip-hop connections from US to France.
Thibaut: In that period I spent a lot of time in NY, namely at the EBC tournament where I attended the huge games of this era. I was working with a lot of the guys involved in this league, Fat Joe and various music labels. I immediately saw the possibility to connect these two worlds with Quai 54.
We tried to send a team of French players to EBC, we set things up but the French Federation vetoed the pro players. In the end we got in touch with Fat Joe and the Terror Squad, who just won EBC three times in a row, we invited them. Of course they came with a wrong idea of French players. When they realized these players had game, they immediately understood that it was possible to lose. Things heated up during a game and they withdrew.
That day we were very concerned, but we filmed everything and made the 52 minute format about the tournament as usual. The images travelled the globe. It was a turning point — without doing anything, calls began raining in from foreign teams to participate.
Hammadoun: This was the beginning of Quai 54’s legend. Maybe if they made it through and won the tournament, it would have been a different story, but they didn’t.
What is Paris’s connection to pick-up basketball?
Hammadoun: Here, if you go and play on a court, you are already passionate. In NY, you just go down from your block and it’s there, it is more like football for us. In France you have a lot of diversity like in the US, contrary to other European countries and in a lot of fields we are the second nation after US. We are the second hip-hop nation after them. French are somehow closer to the US than the English.
Thibaut: The parallel is evident with NY, our Mecca, from the way players live it, speak it, play it. There was this generation of very skilled French players who spent time playing in NY during summer, and brought back stories that created a special energy between the two cities. Besides immigration, other factors played a role in this connection.
We have a strong street culture in France. You can’t have a game between Paris and NY without feeling some tension. No matter the stakes. Especially during a street ball game. It takes things to another level.
What makes Paris’s pick up basketball unique?
Hammadoun: For me there isn’t that much difference between the way streetball is played in NY and in Paris. The main difference is the number of players there. But in terms of energy, it is the same. From my point of view, the stands on Quai 54 are as crazy as ABC’s. If I had to single out one specific thing about Paris players, it would be that we play more collectively than Americans. I think that’s why American teams struggle to beat our teams.
Today we see less club players on the blacktop than before, that separation is more visible. The play is also not as rough as it used to be on these outdoor courts. The mindset is more friendly today than competitive. But it is not only in France or basketball, you can see it in rap or in the basketball league. They are all friends. That’s the way of the world.
What is the importance of the streetball community in Quai 54?
Hammadoun: The most important to me are the roots: basketball. To be honest, Quai 54 was perceived at the very beginning as a black thing, and I strongly disagree, the community is bigger than that. Everybody has always been welcomed with open arms and I’m happy because we showed people it is very inclusive.
The only community working here is the basketball community. Even if we bring the entertainment around it, the roots is the court, and while we took the entertainment to new dimensions, the basketball level kept elevating, too. We are still working with the same people we began with because if there’s anything why the event is what it is today, this is thanks to them, too. You can have the most beautiful kitchen, if your chef is garbage, the food will be too.
Thibaut: Most of the guys who played that very first day in Levallois are still somehow playing or involved in the tournament nowadays. Solidarity between French players and even more Parisian players is very strong. Exposure is pretty bad in France, so they share a mutual interest in supporting basketball culture. This is for me one of the reasons of Quai 54’s success. Players were very invested.
My best memories from all these editions might be the one that took place in 2004. Because of the rain, the event was indoor, and nothing was ready the day before. So we had to paint sheets to put around the court and the players were among us painting with their relatives. To see them participating shows how much this event meant to them.
What role does a tournament like yours play in this community ?
Thibaut: We went from 1,500 people at the first edition to a 10 000 people event, so you don’t have only basketball players. One of the virtues of this event is that we brought many others things from our background in it, hip-hop, imagery. There is a strong American influence of the tournament with a certain idea of entertainment, but the atmosphere brought all the French rappers and MCs like Manu Key or Booba, who came just because they were friends of ours and loved basketball. It escalated very quick. Sneaker boys came, too. I can’t tell you the percentage of basketball players we have in the stands today, and it is not important because it brought together basketball in France and went beyond it.
Through our exposure techniques, some players became faces of the tournament and it had a strong impact. We pushed to reach past the basketball world and to invite people from other fields, from music to cinema or fashion. When I went to Rucker park I witnessed celebrities enjoying the tournament. We tried to bring this to Quai 54, but very naturally: you like basketball or street culture, come!
I sometimes hear that Quai 54 became the Roland Garros of the street because it is somewhere you have to be seen. I like it. In 2005, the same year musicians performed at halftime of national football games for a huge amount of money and would do a relatively small French tournament for nothing. Miracles like this put us on the map.
Hammadoun: The family grew little by little. We were a popular event in a literal type of way, entertainment, music… We were 100% genuine, but we have to admit we like the bling, we want to show we can make it classy. Of course some people have said this is not street ball but they are wrong.
Do you remember you first encounter with Jordan Brand?
Thibaut: I had my first pair at 16 in 1990. For us at that time, it was like having a luxury sports car. I’m from a generation that cherished Air Jordans before they were available in France. It was a pair of Jordan 4s. It was kind of magical because of all the known factors, the player, the mythology of Spike Lee movies and commercials, Tinker Hatfield designs… I have to say it motivated me to do what I do. I can’t say I’d be here today if I wouldn’t have seen the Jordan Spike Lee commercials and this incredible culture and energy bursting in a very corporate way of speaking about sport. For kids nowadays, it is very hard to realize how groundbreaking it was back then.
Hammadoun: For me it was pretty late, in 1996 with the Jordan 11, all white. I bought it in NY and when I came back to Paris with it, people went crazy. My relation to the brand has always been very strong because I was a Jordan guy. It was a popular statement for some guys not to like Jordan because everybody was saying he is the GOAT, but at the end of the day, if you don’t like Jordan you didn’t get basketball.
Thibaut: Jordan Brand came to us in 2006. At this time, they were not so street ball-connected, their partnerships were more about performance. But they felt something special with Quai 54 and they wanted to sponsor their first street ball event. They identified that the event could become the best outdoor street ball meeting in the world. I think an American journalist said it first, but [the brand] truly helped us to make it happen.
We asked for Jordan Brand players, entertainment contacts and for our own shoes. They declined at first, as they never teamed up with anybody on the shoes. I remember somebody from their team saying ‘it will never happen’. And one day a Senior VP product guy told us ‘let’s do it!’ For us, to see the identity of our tournament on an Air Jordan pair was a very symbolic achievement. We never imagined it could had such an impact. Today it is a true collaboration with a small collection.
Hammadoun: Of course I was proud but it was an achievement to have the Jumpman with us. We were the pioneers and we quickly stepped it up.
How does Jordan Brand resonate with French basketball culture?
Thibaut: Air Jordan is for me the top leader basketball brand symbolic wise. The gesture they did with this tournament had a strong impact through the French basketball community. Hammadoun is a living mouth (laughs) so he let people know and that’s for the greater good.
I think there is a strong loyalty coming from Air Jordan history and symbolism but it comes from this early involvement, too. It was even stronger for players, because they knew Air Jordan was not a street ball-involved brand. Today they sponsor a few tournaments in NY, some others across the world, but they were positioned in a more premium way than before. And [the brand] embraced it, as messy as it was. They never tried to change us.
For this community, Jordan is the summit and the attachment is stronger because of the gesture. We’re talking about people who are mistreated in all aspects of their life beyond basketball. So it is more gratifying for them to be recognized by the most iconic brand. For 15 years, all the players I talked with told me how this shift was a big deal for them.