A slice of history in a Paris gymnasium

Basketball

A slice of history in a Paris gymnasium

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 YMCA 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.”
The basketball court is an object of immense pride for the YMCA in France (where it is known as the UCJG) and of historical significance for the game. The organisation 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 YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts.

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 centre of sorts in the city’s Ninth Arrondissement. Manac’h and the organisation have thus found themselves navigating a delicate path between preservation and utility. Regardless, the court could use an expensive makeover.

Unlike some other major sports, basketball has a neatly traceable origin story. The first game was played on December 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 YMCA gymnasium almost identical to the one in Paris, involved 18 people, two peach baskets and a soccer ball.

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, YMCA 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.

The quick and purposeful dissemination of basketball through the YMCA 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 YMCA 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 YMCA 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 YMCA, financed and conceptualised the building project. The organisation hired French architect Émile Bénard, who travelled to America to study YMCA 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.

Today the cavernous building, protected since 1994 as a historical landmark, seems to creak with every footstep. It has a vibrant theatre 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.

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. “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.”

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