PARIS “Detroit defenseman Rodney McGruder has never experienced anything like this. He entered the foyer of the Paris Opera, then stopped and silently looked at the works of art of the 19th century.
Finally he spoke.
“It’s something different,” McGruder said. “It’s incredible.”
That was the reaction the Pistons wanted from their players for this trip.
The Pistons and the Chicago Bulls will meet Thursday night in Paris, though the journey — across six time zones for the Pistons and seven for the Bulls — is about more than just basketball. It was an off-season dive into French food, wine and culture, some nightlife, some fashion, and even some business. Everyone saw the Eiffel Tower, everyone saw the Champs Elysees, but both teams decided they couldn’t come to Paris and not do their best to enjoy the opportunity.
And fans in Paris, which is preparing for the Summer 2024 Olympics, have been showing up wherever the Bulls and Pistons have gone.
“I don’t understand what they’re talking about,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “But it looks like there are crowds and crowds of people.”
On Wednesday, both teams made the necessary trips to the Eiffel Tower, as well as basketball practice for about 50 French school-age girls.
“These guys don’t get a lot of chances to see us in person, so it’s great for them and for us,” said Bulls center Nikola Vucevic. “It means a lot to them and we try to give as much as we can, to spend time when we can.”
There were events associated with the opening of murals depicting both teams, as well as the trip of some to an event at Roland Garros – the venue of the French Open tennis championship. A visit to the US embassy was expected by some members of the Bulls delegation on Tuesday, some members of the Pistons group on Wednesday. And the Pistons decided they needed a private party filled with the finest Parisian art, ballet, food, drink and opera.
So owner Tom Gores and vice chairman Arn Tellem spearheaded plans for an evening they hope the 200 or so members of the Pistons touring group won’t forget.
“I think overall, whether it’s business or basketball, the most important thing for us is to bring families together,” Gores said as guests took in the sights of art and the sound of music. “For us as a culture, that’s the most important thing.”
A simple sign on a fence outside the opera house on Tuesday read: “Fermeture Exceptionnelle,” which translates to “exceptional closure.” Why is not said. A few passers-by on the sidewalk on a cold night wondered who was in the fleet of buses that carried a well-dressed group of people to the event, especially those who might have been a bit taller than the usual opera crowd.
Inside, the Pistons had room for themselves.
There was the sound of a violin and a cello, an opera singer appearing on the grand marble staircase and her sound filled the entire space shortly after the event began, ballet dancers in a gold-covered foyer with works of art dating back to the 1800s, again opera singers here and there and finally, a final tribute to The Phantom of the Opera, written over 100 years ago and set inside what Parisians and aficionados around the world call the Palais Garnier.
“It’s great to be able to show some of your culture,” said Pistons’ Killian Hayes, a Frenchman. “Although I didn’t grow up in Paris, I spent a lot of time here. It’s fashion week here and everyone loves it.”
Hayes had never been to an opera house before and, like everyone else, admired the views inside. As did Pistons coach Duane Casey, who described the night as unique. For his wife Brenda, this evening has been in preparation for 25 years. Once she spent a short time in Paris, she had tickets to the opera house, but she did not get to look inside – that evening the performance was canceled.
The view she got on Tuesday was perhaps a little more breathtaking than what she might have had 25 years ago.
“A little better,” Casey said, laughing.
It was two days before the game in Paris, about the middle of a tough season full of losses and injuries, none of which mattered to the Pistons for hours. They dressed up, took countless photos and videos, and stayed until the last note was sung.
The plan was to make a memory. And it happened.
“This is a really special evening,” Tellem said. “When we came here, the whole idea was to create at least some goodwill in the world. So, we did this to create an unforgettable evening that we hope the players and their families will remember forever.”
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