Nestled between a high-school building and an apartment block in the 9th arrondissement, the unique creation of Stéphane Ashpool (founder of the Pigalle Basketball boutique), the creative agency Ill-studio and the leading sports brand Nike, is arguably the most recognizable basketball court in Paris.
As you approach the eye-catching pink, purple and yellow court, you’re greeted with a sign politely informing onlookers that photo shoots must be approved. At this point photographers from around the world head directly across the street to the Pigalle Basketball boutique where they are greeted by basketball fanatic and store manager Ahmed Taofik.
Ahmed, an avid Cleveland Cavs fan, knows everything there is to know about basketball. For this Beninese and Gabonese expat, it is much more than just a sport. Local kids walk by to shake his hand, drivers stop their cars to shout «Salut Ahmed, ça va? » and neighbours seemingly pass by to introduce a friend. His energy and warm nature are infectious. I’ve met with Ahmed on several occasions and am delighted to share some of his insights and philosophy with you.
Tell us a little about the basketball court.
This space was originally a barely used parking lot. The locals got together and went to see the Mayor with a petition. A basketball fan himself, he signed off on the idea and the court opened in 2009. It was then redesigned in a purple and white scheme, later reworked in primary colours, and in June 2017 we closed the court for a week before revealing the new design you see today. This design will stay for 2 more years as we typically redesign every 3 years. When you look at the court, sure the colours stand out, but maybe you didn’t know it’s made from recycled shoes, using a Nike technology called Nike Grind. People come from all over the world to see the court and I have the pleasure of meeting many of them as they come into the store.
When I was young, my mother gave me a pair of Air Jordan 6 Carmine sneakers, I proudly wore them to school but didn’t expect the reaction I got from my classmates. They were amazed. You see, for young kids in Benin back then, only professional basketball players wore Air Jordans. They jokingly said «You can’t wear those without knowing how to play.» So, I met up with a friend who played. He trained me and from thereon I practiced and it became a passion. When my mother passed away, basketball became everything. More than a sport, it’s life. It gave me everything: my job, my wife, my degree, the people I’ve met along the way…Without it I’d probably still be in Africa. Those sneakers were the biggest gift of my life.
Clearly basketball is more than a sport to you, how do you see its role in the community?
When you play basketball, or any other sport for that matter, there are rules to respect, just as there are in life. For example, you have a referee, who is similar to the police or government «off the court». If you fail and do something wrong, you go to jail. There are similar parallels in sport with life; it’s much more than a hoop and a ball. It’s a team sport where you learn to respect each other, which in turn teaches you to respect your friends, family and yourself. If a kid comes into the shop and asks for a ball to take out on the court and they forget to say please, I remind them it’s a minimum, they apologize and next time they remember.
You’re very active in teaching.
When I was living in the States, I studied to open a basketball camp back in Africa; a place for the kids to learn, not only the sport, but also life skills, nutrition and health. We organised litter-picking days among other community activities. Our camp became known in Benin. We positively taught them the life skills many were missing. They learnt how to live together, suffer together and respect one another.
I remember one kid in the camp disrespected a girl. I made all the boys do 50 pushups in front of the girls, reinforcing the message that they need to respect them, «They are your mother, your sister» I told them. Once they understood the message they became much more respectful and gentle with them.
Is the camp still going?
Yes! I went back last year and had a surprise run-in with one of the kids from the early days. I was in a store buying a SIM card and a guy came up to me asking if I was Ahmed from basketball camp. Kids change so much that I didn’t recognise him. He showed me a picture and then I remembered him. He was one of the 2010 camp. He told me those 3 days at camp had changed his life. He didn’t go on to become a professional basketball player, instead he focused on his music career and became famous in Benin as a rapper. He had learnt to work hard and be determined, and by applying that to the music industry he achieved his goal. I invited him to come along to the camp to speak to the kids. He was surprised how far the camp has gone. Now, all the kids receive free sneakers, shirts and socks thanks to Nike. Back in the early days I was giving away my own clothes!
Tell us about the store.
We sell basketball clothing and goods: sneakers, team jerseys etc. But there is so much more than sports goods at Pigalle Basketball. It’s a community, acting like a youth centre, in a sense, for many kids. For example, there’s a kid called Morgan; he gets dropped off here after school and spends time between here and the court before being picked up to go home. We are very focused on the community here, many of whom don’t come from privileged backgrounds, but we try to do our part in teaching values and occasionally giving lifetime experiences.
In what way?
With Pigalle Basketball, Stéphane took some of the kids from here to the Philippines (they are big basketball fans over there). He’s also organised a trip to Japan and Los Angeles… Places some of these kids from the streets wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to visit. We’re working on a trip to Africa next, and these trips are fully paid for by sponsors such as Casio.
Experiences to last a lifetime…
Absolutely, but it’s not just travelling. We are also approached by famous people who want to play on the court. Just last week, the PSG team enquired about coming down. Naturally the courts are open for play, but we do have one condition: that our kids get to meet and spend time with you. It’s all too easy for a famous person to come and ignore everyone, but these are the very people kids are looking up to. If they are shown that they are accessible and normal people who have become successful, there is no reason why the kids cannot do the same in whatever avenue they pursue.
So, we’ve had the likes of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kevin Durant come here and open up. It was just last year that Kevin Durant spent the whole day with one of the kids. They played on the court, went for lunch. That boy will remember that day for the rest of his life, and hopefully be inspired to follow his own dreams whatever they may be.
Pigalle Basketball is located at 17 Rue Duperré, 75009 www.pigallebasketball.com