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HORNETS VS. NETS

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SATURDAY FEBRUARY 22 7:00PM

International Hornets Fan Series: Say Bonjour to Baptiste, Thibault and Laurent from Hornets France

In conjunction with the Charlotte Hornets playing their first-ever regular season game outside of North America on Friday, Jan. 24 in Paris, Hornets.com will be highlighting different international fans of the team in a three-part written series
by Sam Perley

For the last four years, Baptiste Couturiaux and Thibault Leroy have been two of the three managers running the Hornets France (@HornetsFR) Twitter account, a platform that shares daily Charlotte Hornets-related content in their native French tongue. They communicate with each other daily, talking about everything from recent games, to roster moves and statistics.

Oddly enough, despite their shared passion for an NBA team located an ocean away, Baptiste (who lives in the northern city of Lille, France) and Thibault (based in Toulouse, which is much further south) have yet to meet in person. But come this Friday, the two friends will be face to face in real life for the first time ever in Paris.

The pair plus fellow @HornetsFR operator, Laurent Estrada (a police officer working near Toulouse who has met Thibault before) will all be attending the first-ever regular season NBA game in France featuring their beloved Charlotte Hornets and the Milwaukee Bucks. Safe to say, their platform, which just crossed 11,000 followers, will have plenty of new, unique content to share.

“We started because the account had been created by another guy, but he wanted to stop,” said Thibault (pronounced TEE-bo). “I don’t know why, so he asked if anybody wanted to take the account and we were free to say yes and manage it.” Baptiste (pronounced Ba-TEEST) added, “We started with 2,000 followers and we just passed 11,000. It’s great progression and we are happy with it.”

The origin of each of the three’s fandom for the team varies a bit, as Baptiste, now 23, and Thibault, 22 are part of a newer generation of Hornets followers compared to Laurent (Laa-R-AON), who is 38 years old.

“Eight years ago, back when I was 15, I started to follow the Hornets after I saw Kemba play at UConn,” Baptiste recalled. “I started to follow him in Charlotte. My favorite player is of course Kemba and my favorite team is now the Hornets thanks to him.” Thibault said, “I’m a huge fan of Nic Batum and when he came to Charlotte [in 2015], I started to follow the team. I discovered Kemba and I became a huge fan of him as well.”

“The Hornets were a team that brought a breath of fresh air with the magnificent innovative jersey in the 1990s,” said Laurent, who has been a fan since he was 12 dating all the way back to 1993. “They were full of talent with Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and then Glen Rice, who is still my all-time favorite Charlotte player.”

The three, especially Laurent, have compiled a lot of sensational memories of the team over the years and will undoubtedly be adding another, more personal one in a handful of days at Paris’ AccorHotels Arena, the host site of this year’s game.

“Of course, for me, it’s a lot of moments with Kemba,” said Baptiste. “When the Hornets name came back in 2014, that first game against Milwaukee was unbelievable. I watched that game live and the playoff series against Miami with Courtney Lee hitting that shot in Game 5. When Kemba beat Dell Curry’s career scoring record and then scored 103 points over a two-game span last season, those were great memories, of course.”

Thibault replied, “The two buzzer beaters by Jeremy Lamb last season against the Pistons and Raptors. For me, it’s maybe the two best memories as a Hornet fan.” Laurent added, “I watched Glen Rice being crowned MVP of the 1997 All-Star live, which is definitely number one for me.”

As often the case for basketball junkies outside of North America, watching NBA games in real time is a challenge because of the time difference and juggling everyday life can be a tricky task. Thankfully with multiple bodies and technology on board, the three are able to rotate watching and publishing updates the following morning if games run a bit too late for one reason or another.

“We have a good organization because when I can’t watch, Thibault can. Or when Thibault and I can’t watch, Laurent can do it,” said Baptiste, who recently graduated from Université Lille. “In the morning, we try to put out some tweets about the game and find a different way to activate discussions and get people engaged. My mom asks me what I’m doing in the middle of the night and my girlfriend isn’t happy sometimes when I’m watching the games. When we won in Dallas, it was 2:30 AM for us, but that’s okay. She understands what I am doing, but it was funny at the beginning.”

“I think our girlfriends hate us for this sometimes,” said a smiling Thibault, a biology student at Université Toulouse. “Now, it’s becoming bigger and bigger and they know we take it more seriously. My parents start to ask me something about our coverage and Twitter. They start to like it, too.”

“It’s very complicated for me to a fan of a team that plays every night at 1 AM local time,” said Laurent. “I work and have children, but nowadays there is NBA League Pass and replayed games. Sometimes, a few matches are live at European times, but not enough. In any case, it is better today than at the time of VCR!”

Having won bronze medals at each of the last two FIBA World Cups and boasting 32 all-time NBA players (the most from any European country and second most overall by any country outside of the United States behind Canada), basketball’s popularity has certainly skyrocketed over the last two decades in France. Still though, the sport has somewhat of a niche following in the French athletic pecking order behind soccer, cycling and tennis.

“We are happy to host an NBA game,” said Baptiste. “We have a huge community in France. We have a lot of major NBA players who grew up here. A lot of people are talking about basketball. It means a lot for us. It’s going to be a great show. A lot of people didn’t have a chance to get a ticket because there was a lot of demand.”

“There have been 100,000 people who wanted to have a ticket for the game, so it’s really important for the French fans,” said Thibault. “It’s like recognition for the French fans because we have a great community on Twitter. It’s great for us to know that the NBA knows about us. I think for most everyday French people though, basketball is just Tony Parker. When we speak about another player, they can’t talk about anybody else but Tony Parker. Basketball is a very popular sport, but not very well-known. The NBA is not very followed mainly because of the time difference.”

While this will be the first NBA game for Baptiste and Thibault, Laurent will be the slightly more experienced one having attended a 2003 preseason game between the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies in Paris, a contest that featured Parker fresh off his first NBA championship.

“This Hornets team is exciting to watch and brings a lot of hope,” Laurent said. “This reconstruction is positive and this match in Paris is huge for us, NBA fans and for the popularity of basketball in France.” Baptiste added, “This year, the team has impressed a lot of people. I think a lot of people were afraid about the Paris game because Kemba was gone, Parker retired. They said Charlotte would come to Paris without them, but with the young group, we are excited to see them.”

“I am sharing the feelings of Baptiste,” stated Thibault. “It’s been a big surprise by the group. Everybody thought that we were the worst team in the NBA, which is false. We knew that we weren’t the worst, but we couldn’t imagine at this point of the season, we would be around playoff position in the Eastern Conference. It’s been a surprising season.”

It’s clear neither language nor location has had any dampening effect on the long-standing Charlotte Hornets fandom of Baptiste Couturiaux, Thibault Leroy, Laurent Estrada and the rest of their community. And come this Friday, these three won’t be staying awake all night to watch their team play thousands of miles away, but rather, taking in the action firsthand in what will surely be a long-awaited, unforgettable experience.

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