Shouts of “merci!” echoed through the basketball court at I.S. 318 in East Williamsburg on Wednesday evening, as Brooklyn’s middle school girls basketball champs bid adieu to their French opponents following an exhibition game.
“It was really fun,” Jara Lee-Chianese, 13, told the Gazette. “I was excited that girls from another part of the world were coming.”
The international matchup was organized in January, when Coach Damien Bouillac of College de l’Edit in Roussillon, France, contacted New York City Middle School Basketball League Commissioner Mike Connors. Bouillac was interested in bringing his middle school players to New York City, so Connors recommended they challenge I.S. 318’s team, which is competing for its third Brooklyn championship title on Saturday.
“It’s hard to find a stronger connection with New York than Brooklyn,” said Connors, who hopes to send a middle school team to France in the near future.
I.S. 318’s principal and basketball coach Eric Windley, who can speak “some French,” was delighted with the idea and invited the French players to attend school for a day with his eighth grade players as well.
“It’s good for the players to interact with girls from different countries who share the same experience,” he said.
Only an hour or so after landing in New York City on Tuesday evening, the French team arrived at a pre-game bonding session with the I.S. 318 players. A little shy at first given the language barrier, the girls gradually warmed up to each other over pizza. By the end of the evening, they had found more common ground than just basketball.
“It was cool,” said 13-year-old Alexys Windley of I.S. 318. “It was fun to know they like One Direction – stuff we like.”
But the French team was still a bit intimidated by all the impressive titles I.S. 318’s girls basketball team has racked up over the past couple of years. Undefeated in league play all three years, the Conquistadors have also taken the city title two years in a row.
Coach Bouillac said some of his players picked up basketball as recently as last year.
“I’m stressed out, but I really want to play with them,” Manon Garcia, 13, said on Tuesday with the help of her English teacher, Marylin Romeu, who also came on the trip.
Before game time on Wednesday, the French players spent the morning touring the City, visiting the Empire State Building, Times Square and Grand Central Station. None of the young basketball players had ever visited the city before.
“They’re amazed by everything,” Bouillac said.
After “a lot of walking” around the city, the jetlagged French team arrived at I.S. 318 for the game. A smattering of students, teachers and parents looked on as the girls started playing, I.S. 318’s “Lady Conquistadors” in red and the French team in white.
The game was all in good fun: Halfway through, with the French students leading 17 to 14, the coaches mixed it up so the French players would also have an opportunity to play alongside their opponents.
“I’m glad we mixed the teams up,” Windley said. “We wanted this to be about the learning experience. It’s not about wins or losses. We became one.”
Afterward, the girls exchanged t-shirts from their respective middle schools, and the French students offered their New York hosts cookies and sweets from their home country.
“I loved it,” said Sarah Turki, 14, who was surprised by how well her French teammates did. “The game was easier because I was stressed.”
On Thursday, the learning experience will continue when the French students shadow the Brooklyn players around their honors classes. They’ll also get a chance to watch I.S. 318 play in the championship game on Saturday.
The French team will head home on Monday, but before they go, they’ll take in a bit of professional basketball as well when they attend a Sunday Knicks game.
Coach Windley is glad his students got the opportunity to meet other basketball playing-middle schoolers from abroad – especially since I.S. 318 has a large ESL program.
“This makes students, as well as adults, appreciate that we don’t have to through those daily frustrations that they have to go through,” Windley said. “It’s a great experience.”