Dimitri Vernet with AFP // photo credit: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP 08:58 a.m., October 26, 2023

It was the event in the basketball world that night from Wednesday to Thursday: the basketball game between the victorious Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs. Their new star, the young basketball prodigy Victor Wembanyama, was also making his debut there.

Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, a basketball prodigy at the center of attention, lost in his NBA debut Wednesday night with the Spurs to Dallas (126-119), combining promise and frustration. After a day of dark clouds, a strong wind shook the area around San Antonio's Frost Bank Center on Wednesday night. The storm also raged inside the stadium where the crowd roared its joy to witness the first game of the Wembanyama phenomenon. Since May, when the Spurs inherited the No. 1 pick in the draft, San Antonio fans have been dreaming of this moment: Wembanyama, on the floor, wearing a white tank top with No. <>, in a room where Spurs legends and another Frenchman, Tony Parker, are displayed.

During the warm-up, "Wemby" sat on a chair for a few seconds, his head down, while all the other players were busy, a small moment of solitude and concentration before his life was turned upside down. "Tonight really marks the beginning," he said.

"I'm learning"

For his first ball after the intersection, Wembanyama flew in to block a shot from Dallas star point guard Kyrie Irving. A good example of the defensive threat that his size and endless arms bring, for the man who is called upon to "revolutionize" the game of the big orange ball. Three and a half minutes into the first quarter, the kid from Chesnay-Rocquencourt in the suburbs of Paris scored the first basket of his NBA adventure, from three-point range. Two symbolic actions of its unique combination of size and dexterity. What happened next proved frustrating for "Wemby."

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Not always served by his teammates, the Frenchman completely missed his third quarter, where two consecutive offensive fouls sent him to sit (4 in total at that point, 6 fouls are eliminatory). A fifth immediate foul early in the fourth quarter sent him to the bench, limiting his total playing time to 23 minutes (out of 48). "Maybe I wanted to do too well, I didn't put my energy into the right things. I don't need to put that much energy into defence. I'm learning for a first match," commented the Frenchman in a press conference. His return at the end of the game woke up his team and made the crowd explode with nine points in the last period including a furious dunk, for a total of 15 points (5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, but also 5 turnovers).

It wasn't enough for the Spurs, who were stunned at the end of the game by the class of Slovenia's Luka Doncic who, after being uncertain, started the season with a triple-double (33 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists). The Mavericks' other star, Kyrie Irving, scored 22 points.

"Great career"

Wembanyama's rough start shows that the road to NBA success will be long for the Spurs, a rebuilding team that finished last in the Western Conference last season (22 wins in 82 games). He has a date on Friday for another game against Houston. His power of attraction is already real, with supporters won over to his cause. Laura and Emile Forestier, engineer and history teacher, came from Lille (northern France) to see it. "We didn't want to miss it. We hope he has a great career ahead of him, that he becomes an NBA star," they told AFP.

Mark Burnett, with an alien mask on his head, is making a name for himself in the stadium, having a tattoo of an alien on his arm as well as the signature of the Frenchman, whom he met a few weeks ago. A tribute to the words of LeBron James, who had called the Frenchman an "alien" earlier this year. In Indiana, Frenchman Bilal Coulibaly, Wembanyama's former teammate at Metropolitans 92, also took his first steps as a rookie with a heavy defeat for his Washington team against the Pacers (143-120). Coulibaly had 3 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks in 23 minutes.