Parker, Batum ‘Les Partenaires’ in Basketball, Business
How and Why Two Long-Time Teammates Built One of Europe’s Rising Club Teams
By Sam Perley
Tony Parker and Nicolas Batum spent nearly 10 years together on the French National Team, a stretch that included the country’s first-ever European title and FIBA World Cup medal. Now side by side on the Charlotte Hornets roster, the pair also owns and operates an up-and-coming professional basketball team in France known officially as ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne.
The origins of this unique, off-the-court element of their relationship can be traced back seven years ago, when the start of the 2011-12 NBA season was delayed because of a 161-day lockout. Like many players looking for work while logistics were sorted out, Parker and Batum headed home and suited up for French LNB Pro A League teams ASVEL and Nancy, respectively.
Based in the suburb of Villeurbanne just outside of Lyon in central France, Parker was already a minority owner of ASVEL after purchasing shares two years prior. His role as not only an executive, but now a player for the club provided a rare, simultaneous window into both sides of the team’s operations.
Parker played three months at minimum wage for the now 18-time French champions, while also paying out-of-pocket insurance in case an injury impacted his return to the San Antonio Spurs. Alongside fellow NBAers in Ronny Turiaf and Hilton Armstrong, ASVEL’s newest point guard put up 22.0 points and 6.1 assists over eight total outings, concurrently getting hands-on front office experience under then team president and former pro tennis player, Gilles Moretton.
Parker returned to the United States when the lockout ended and three years later, he bought major stake in ASVEL, becoming the club’s new president in the process. Looking back, the 18-year NBA veteran said the decision to invest was quite simple.
“I wanted to give back to my country and that’s what I want to do after my [playing] career,” Parker stated. “Just own a team and I like that side of the business. I don’t want to be a coach. I like both sides. Marketing and how to work on the brand, how to bring people to the arena, create an experience. At the same time, I still have a foot on the basketball operations. I talk with the coach and build the team.”
In March of 2017, Batum came on board as a shareholder and was named ASVEL’s Director of Basketball Operations. The role is similar to its counterpart in the NBA, although involves working with the club’s male, female and junior teams.
“I love basketball and it’s cool to see the other side of the business actually,” Batum said. “The decisions you make – sometimes they’re easy, sometimes they’re not. We got a great team in France. The people that work for us do a great job there, like coaching staff, all the people working in the office.”
“I just wanted to have a partner and have somebody who can help me accomplish our goals,” Parker added. “We needed Nico’s input because he obviously knows a lot about basketball. He loves basketball and that’s why he’s Director of Basketball Operations. He watches film all the time and knows all the young guys.”
Transitioning to the other side of the sport has certainly opened Batum’s eyes to new challenges and given him a better appreciation in terms of what it takes to run a franchise.
“The biggest thing in building a good team is who is going to fit with that guy, who is going to fit with the other guy?” he said. “We’ve got different rules in France and in Europe as well. You can have only a certain number of American players and need a certain number of French players. All summer, I tried to figure out which guy can fit in, which guy we’re going to keep. It’s different, but pretty cool.”
ASVEL won the French League title in 2016 and has finished no lower than sixth in the domestic standings since Parker purchased majority control. The club will be relocating to a brand-new arena in 2020 and recently signed a 10-year sponsorship (the largest in the history of French basketball) with a computer hardware sales company called LDLC. An updated logo with black and white colors was also unveiled a couple months ago.
All of ASVEL’s off-the-court success appears to have carried over onto the hardwood as well. Through Nov. 11, Head Coach Zvezdan Mitrović has led the team to a 7-2 start and first place in the LNB Pro A League. ASVEL is also 5-1 so far in EuroCup play, the second-most prominent intercontinental tournament in Europe. The women’s team, Lyon ASVEL Féminin, is 4-1 to start the campaign as well.
While France has produced several high-level players in recent years, that wasn’t necessarily the case when Parker and Batum were growing up. Thoughts of reaching the NBA were considered “crazy” and “impossible” recalled Batum, particularly for somebody from a small town like himself. In a way, ASVEL has served as a means of paying it forward by providing young French players with resources that weren’t necessarily available to everybody 20 years ago.
“When Tony and I played in France, we had an opportunity to play at the highest level. It gave us a chance to get drafted early,” recalled Batum. “We really try to put young French guys on the court. Tony and I have the same strategy. We’re also building an academy. That’s new, too. We want to do everything for the young guys so they have the best chance to become professionals.”
Parker, who was actually born in Belgium and raised in France, trained at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP) and later joined Paris Basket Racing, while Batum trained with a club called Le Mans Sarthe Basket. When the former was drafted in 2001, there had only been three French-born players in the NBA, all of whom took the NCAA route. Today, the country has had 28 total players make the league, nine of whom are active.
Two French players on ASVEL’s current roster might also be making their way stateside in the near future. Guard Theo Maledon is FIBA’s 13th-ranked, non-US born player born in the year 2000 and forward Amine Noua is the ninth-best international prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft. Their long-term plan is still undetermined, but ASVEL has worked diligently to put players like these two in a conducive environment for growth and development.
“I think Maledon is going to [someday] be a top-15 pick in the NBA Draft. I think he’s better than [New York Knicks guard] Frank Ntilikina at the same age,” said Parker, referring to last summer’s eighth overall pick. “Theo is really, really good. He’s starting already for us and playing very well in the French League and EuroCup. We’ve got Noua, who played for the National Team. He’s going to be in the draft too, next year. We’ve got Alpha Kaba, who was drafted by the Hawks. That’s a lot of young guys who are pretty talented.”
“When you get a guy like [Theo] who is young with great potential, we want to get him on the court right away,” added Batum. “He can make all the mistakes and learn from them right now. He starts almost every game. He’s doing a great job so far. We want to put him in the best position to have the best career possible.”
He added, “Amine was born [in Vénissieux, just outside of Lyon] and started from Day 1 with us as a little guy. He has great potential as well. I don’t think we’re going to keep him for a long time because if he keeps going like this, he might go to a bigger team in Europe.”
And ASVEL’s goal is to become one of those bigger teams that Batum is referring to. Next season, the club is slated to reenter EuroLeague play for the first time in 19 years as part of a two-club expansion movement. Widely considered the second-best basketball league in the world, the soon-to-be 18-team competition is a staggered, eight-month-long tournament featuring Europe’s top squads facing off in a round-robin format leading up to a single-elimination Final Four.
ASVEL was actually the most recent French club to make the last stage of the competition, doing so in 1997. Four years earlier, Limoges CSP became the first and still only French team to ever win the EuroLeague Championship. ASVEL certainly has some lofty goals, but Parker and Batum are ready to prove nothing is out of reach.
“If we want to be one of the best teams in Europe in a couple years, we’re crazy enough,” said Batum. “We were crazy to want to be in the NBA as French guys, so why not with this team? We can be one of the best teams in Europe in a couple years.”
Parker and Batum have helped take French basketball to heights it had never even dreamed of before. Turning ASVEL Basket into one of the leading producers of young talent in the country is just another part of the journey.