PARIS - Detroit guard Rodney McGruder had never experienced anything like this. He walked into the foyer of the Paris Opera House, then stopped and looked up to stare in silence at artwork dating back to the 19th century.
Finally, he spoke.
"This is something else," McGruder said. "This is incredible."
Such was precisely the reaction that the Pistons wanted their players to have on this trip.
The Pistons and Chicago Bulls are facing off in Paris on Thursday night, though this journey — across six time zones for the Pistons, seven for the Bulls — is about much more than basketball. It’s been a midseason immersion into French cuisine, wine and culture, a bit of nightlife, a bit of fashion, even a bit of business. Everybody saw the Eiffel Tower, everybody saw the Champs-Élysées, but both teams decided they couldn’t come to Paris and not make every effort to enjoy the opportunity.
And fans in Paris, which is revving up for the Olympics in the summer of 2024, turned up wherever the Bulls and Pistons were going.
"I can’t understand what they’re talking about," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. "But there seems to be huddles and crowds of people."
There were requisite trips to the Eiffel Tower for both teams, along with a basketball clinic for about 50 school-age French girls on Wednesday.
"These kids don’t have a chance to see us as much in person, so it’s great for them and great for us," Bulls center Nikola Vucevic said. "It means a lot to them and we try to give back as much as we can, spend the time when we can."
There were events built around the unveiling of murals depicting both teams, as well as a trip for some to an event at Roland-Garros — site of tennis’ French Open. A visit to the U.S. Embassy awaited some members of the Bulls delegation on Tuesday, some members of the Pistons’ group on Wednesday. And the Pistons decided they wanted a private party filled with some of the best of Paris like art, ballet, food, drink and opera.
So, owner Tom Gores and vice chairman Arn Tellem led the plans for a night they hope the 200 or so members of the Pistons’ travel party won’t forget.
"I think in general, whether it’s business or basketball, bringing families together is most important to us," Gores said as guests took in the sights of the art and sounds of the music. "For us as a culture, that’s what means the most."
A simple sign on the fence outside the opera house Tuesday read "Fermeture Exceptionnelle," which translates to "exceptional closure." It didn’t say why. A few passers-by along the sidewalk on a cold night wondered who was inside the fleet of buses that carried the well-dressed group of people into the event – especially those who were perhaps slightly taller than the usual opera crowd.
Inside, the Pistons had the place to themselves.
There were sounds of a violin and a cello, an opera singer appearing on the grand marble staircase with her sound filling the entire space shortly after the event started, ballet dancers inside the gold-covered foyer with artwork dating back to the 1800s, more opera singers there and then finally a closing tribute to "The Phantom of the Opera" — written more than 100 years ago and set inside what the Parisians and aficionados the world over call the Palais Garnier.
"It’s great to be able to show my culture a little bit," said the Pistons’ Killian Hayes, who is French. "Even though I didn’t grow up in Paris, I spent a lot of time here. It’s fashion week here, and everybody’s really enjoying it all."
Hayes hadn’t been to the opera house before, and like everyone else, marveled at the sights inside. So did Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who called it was a one-of-a-kind night. For his wife, Brenda, it was a night 25 years in the making. She once spent a brief time in Paris, had tickets to the opera house and never actually got to see inside — the performance was canceled that night.
The view she got Tuesday was perhaps a bit more spectacular than the one she could have had 25 years ago.
"Little better," Casey said, laughing.
It was two nights before the Paris game, roughly midway through a tough season filled with losses and injuries, and none of that mattered to the Pistons for a couple of hours. They dressed up, took countless photos and videos, and stayed until the last note was sung.
The plan was to make a memory. And it happened.
"It’s a really special evening," Tellem said. "When we came here, the whole idea was to create some good will in the world. So, we did it to provide a memorable evening, one that hopefully the players and their families will take with them forever."