Saving the oldest basketball court

Not many sports can trace their origin as decisively as basketball: Fans know the first game was played on December 21, 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

But few Americans are aware that the oldest surviving basketball court is in Paris, inside an unassuming building at 14, rue Trévise in the 9th arrondissement.

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The entrance, in a promotional brochure from the 1930s

The building felt almost abandoned when my husband and I first walked into its small lobby with our friend Gilles Thomas last April. A single shaft of light from the serpentine stairs illuminated the tile floors and the old posters on the walls.

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It seemed a strange setting for the first recorded basketball game on European soil, which took place here on December 27, 1893.

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A plaque commemorates the first basketball game played in Europe

But Sylvie Manac’h — the director of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris — would soon show us that very spot (and many less-well-known) in this remarkable structure.

A video shoot was in progress when Sylvie led us into the historic basketball court. But in spite of the pink lighting, balloons, and young actors that filled the gymnasium, I still felt like I was stepping into a time machine.

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The gymnasium in Paris was almost identical to the original in Springfield, which unfortunately was destroyed by fire. As in its American twin, the two baskets were suspended from a slanted wood track that circled above the court.

Piste-gymnasePhoto courtesy of UCJG Paris

Below, the antique exercise machines hinted at the building’s age: it opened less than two years after James Naismith invented basketball at the Y.M.C.A. in Springfield in 1891.

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I wondered whether the original gymnasium in Springfield had also featured cast-iron columns in the middle of the court.

Gymnase1Photo courtesy of UCJG Paris

Sylvie explained that the creaky parquet floor was original too, made of wood imported from the United States.

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In fact, the entire building seemed like a testament to the special friendship France and the U.S. have shared since the American revolution:

• James Stokes, a millionaire philanthropist from New York, financed half of the construction to honor General Lafayette’s role in the revolution.

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• The architect (Émile Bénard, a student of Gustav Eiffel) traveled to America to study Y.M.C.A. buildings for inspiration.

• An American named Melvin B. Rideout became the first athletic director, bringing basketball to Paris.

But perhaps even more revolutionary were the ideals of the Y.M.C.A. (Union Chrétienne de Jeunes Gens, or UCJG), which linked physical health and community with spiritual well-being — a concept that was unheard of in France at the time.

In addition to a chapel and a cafeteria …

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Gilles asked why the railing on the stairs was so high. “So people could lean against it and read the newspaper while they waited in line for food,” Sylvie explained.

… the new building featured an American-style bowling alley and France’s first indoor swimming pool. Sadly, the bowling alley (shown immediately below) and swimming pool have fallen into disrepair.

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But many of the other rooms are still in use — including the auditorium, which has found new life as the Théâtre Trévise.

The upper floors also still provide housing for some 40 residents (most of them young men under 25) in modest dormitory-style rooms with fantastic views.

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I was fascinated by the winding stairs that served the dormitories, and by the cast-iron fire escape. Was it just my imagination, or did the latter show some Eiffel-like influences? It looked in excellent condition, considering its age.

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Alas, other parts of the building were much worse for wear, including a few rooms that were practically in ruins. Sylvie lamented that it would take hundreds of thousands of euros to make all of the needed repairs — money the Y.M.C.A. simply doesn’t have.

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That’s why the association has launched a Go Fund Me campaign to restore the basketball court and renew interest in saving the building, which was registered as a historic landmark in 1994.

It is my hope that a few kind, generous Americans will once again extend a hand of friendship by helping preserve this historic venue, and this living symbol of the Franco-American bond.

I extend my deep and heartfelt thanks to Gilles Thomas for arranging our tour, and to Sylvie Manac’h for so graciously sharing her knowledge and time with us. Je vous remercie infiniment !

Want to know more?

Help save the building with a donation of any amount.

Discover how you can tour this building through the European Heritage Days program.

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Learn more about the history of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris.

See more photos on Atlas Obscura.

Become a sponsor of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris.

Text and images (except where noted) © Heather Munro.