ON A SUNDAY evening in May, the Accor Arena in Paris thrums. Thousands of fans scream and shout as Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 French teenage basketball sensation, warms up with a blizzard of baby hooks, casual 3-pointers and the occasional hammer slam.
As Wembanyama lopes through the layup line, he brushes past a man of similar height standing near the edge of the court: Frédéric Weis, at 7-2, is impossible to miss. Wearing dark jeans, a suit coat and tie and shiny Air Jordans, he is preparing to do color commentary on the game. He watches closely as Wembanyama goes through his paces.
Height aside, there is no comparison between Weis and Wembanyama in terms of their playing styles; Wembanyama, a lithe, spindly teenager, takes more long-range shots in a single practice than Weis attempted in his entire career. The bruising, banging post play that defined Weis’ game in the 1990s is, as he puts it, “totally dead now.”
But Weis, at 46, knows about expectations and hype, knows about dreams and the way they can slip, ever so quickly, into nightmares. More than two decades before “Wembymania” swallowed up global basketball, Weis was the Frenchman in the spotlight, generally regarded as the best pivot, or big man, in Europe. In summer 1999, he was drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks. It was — like Wembanyama’s selection by the San Antonio Spurs — the development in his life that was supposed to make him, supposed to send him on to fame and glory.
Instead, Weis’ world slowly unraveled, spooling out in a blur of bad luck, awful advice, disastrous decisions and a heavy, crippling depression that left him despondent, wondering if he could ever love his family, his son, himself and his sport in the way he knew he was supposed to.
Weis, then, sees Wembanyama in a unique way: an incredible talent, to be sure — “That’s freakish!” Weis shouts on air when Wembanyama pulls off a devastating spin — but also as something more.
“His whole life is in front of him,” Weis says. “After everything with me, I think sometimes maybe mine is too.”
WHEN WE FIRST MET, about eight years ago, Weis and I talked a lot about the time he attempted suicide.
We were in Limoges, the city about 250 miles southwest of Paris where Weis finished his career. Back then, he owned a tabac, or convenience store, and worked behind the counter most days. He was overweight, prickly and grim.
Sitting with him, it was hard to think of Weis as a generational player who had retired only four years earlier. If you were not a fan of the Knicks or the EuroLeague in the late ’90s, you might only know of Weis as a rube, the hapless galoot on the receiving end of the incredible, outrageous so-called Dunk de la Mort, or Dunk of Death, that Vince Carter pulled off during the 2000 Olympics. (It’s worth Googling.) But Weis’ relationship with basketball was more illustrious than that, and also more complicated.
Growing up in eastern France, he towered over other children so much that at his first communion, a priest admonished him for perching on the prayer stool even though Weis was just standing on the floor. Basketball was a given: His father played on a local team, and his sister was an excellent player. Of course he would play. What else could a giant do? By 7, he could dunk with two hands on an 8-foot rim. By 10, he was dunking on a regulation hoop.
It was only when coaches and scouts told him he was exceptional that Weis began to like the game. At 14, he left home to join the French National Institute of Sport, playing against adults in the lower divisions of French pro ball. At 17, he signed for top-division Limoges and blossomed, averaging 13 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block per game in the season before the Knicks drafted him. He was 22.
I assumed, when I arrived in Limoges in 2015, that what happened after the Knicks selected him was the catalyst for Weis’ spiral. Because Weis, despite his hype, never played for the Knicks in a meaningful game, never made an impact in the NBA at all. Instead of becoming an American star, he was a punchline, not even a bust but something worse: a never-was.
The details of why Weis remained in Europe are a long and complicated story that vary depending on who you’re talking to and involve an agent with conflicting agendas, a bevy of crossed wires and some poor decisions by Weis (“It was just a mess,” he says). But the outcome was clear: Weis was a joke.
Most Knicks fans hated Weis from the moment he was picked anyway because they wanted Ron Artest, who was from Queens, and each month that passed when Weis didn’t come to the U.S. only made him more reviled. The New York Post had him on its front page once under the headline “FRENCH TOAST.”
It was enough to cut at anyone’s spirit, and a simple narrative about Weis developed: He was a miserable Frenchman, too afraid to come to the NBA and left cowering after being emasculated by Carter. It was easy to understand, and it spread even if it wasn’t true.
The reason Weis tried to kill himself, he told me in Limoges, actually had almost nothing to do with the Knicks, and even less to do with the Dunk de la Mort, despite the many blog posts and YouTube versions of it that still exist on the internet with titles like “The Dunk That Destroyed A Player’s NBA Career.”
In reality, Weis said, the reason he wanted to die wasn’t rooted in any of that. It was about Enzo.
THREE YEARS AFTER the Knicks drafted him and more than a year after Carter climbed over his face, Weis had actually never been happier. He was playing for Málaga and living in Spain, and his wife, Celia, had just given birth to a son. With a nod to Weis’ Italian lineage (and his admiration for a fellow big man, Alonzo Mourning), the couple named the boy Enzo.
Fatherhood was what Weis dreamed about, more than playing in the NBA. His relationship with his own father, Jean-Claude, was tricky — “He was happy, he was proud, and he would talk to everybody, but not to me,” Weis says — and from the moment Weis left home as a teenager, he thought of how it would make him feel to have his own family. Celia was 20 when Enzo was born; Weis was 24.
Weis relished being a dad, doting on Enzo and pushing his stroller constantly. He fantasized about playing basketball with his boy. By the time Enzo was a year old, he would talk back to Weis, even using some sentences; Weis was convinced Enzo was a savant.
In 2004, when Enzo was 2, Weis joined Bilbao, in northern Spain, and he and Celia enrolled Enzo in school there. One day, they got a call. Enzo’s teacher was concerned about his development. Weis didn’t believe there could be a problem at first, but the teacher persisted. Weis and Celia conceded they had noticed some things about Enzo’s sociability, about his focus.
In a small office, a doctor told Weis and Celia that Enzo hadn’t been advanced at all when he was speaking at age 1; he had only been parroting the sounds he’d heard characters saying in cartoons.
Enzo is severely autistic, the doctor told them. “He will never have children, and you will never have grandchildren,” the doctor said.
“I still can’t believe he said it like that,” Weis recalled. He was crushed and confused. He did not know anything about autism beyond Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man.” He had no idea what it would look like in a little boy, but he was sure it meant his son wouldn’t be the way he had imagined. He wasn’t able to process how to handle that.
He and Celia left the office and barely spoke to each other. Weis continued training and playing with Bilbao, but he was in a haze, feeling detached from the people and things around him. Weis wondered if he had done something wrong, if Enzo’s disability was somehow his fault. As Enzo grew, Weis found it harder and harder to connect. Enzo couldn’t have a conversation with him, couldn’t do a puzzle with him. He tried to teach Enzo basketball, but Enzo wouldn’t hold the ball — he would just drop it and run around the court, up and back, as Weis stood still.
Weis felt like he had nowhere to turn with his grief and anger and fear. He and Celia fought constantly. He began drinking, staying out until 5 a.m. His game suffered, his mind unable to move beyond what was going on at home. When Weis tried to talk to his parents about how he was feeling, his father didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to acknowledge Enzo’s disability at all. “I was so sad, and he didn’t want to help me or he couldn’t help me,” Weis says. “He would just say, ‘Your son is OK’ all the time.” Weis and his father stopped speaking.
Celia moved back to France with Enzo. Weis stayed in Spain alone and sank deeper. He drank at all hours. He got into fights in the street. He raged. He wondered if the depression that gripped him had been passed down to Enzo. He wondered if maybe there was a connection to autism.
In January 2008, on a drive from Spain back to France, he pulled over at a rest area near Biarritz and ingested an entire box of sleeping pills. He “just wanted to stop it all,” he said. When he woke up, 10 hours later, he felt relieved and grateful and embarrassed. He called Celia and they both cried. He quit drinking and reconciled with her. After retiring in 2011, he bought the tabac and tried to move on — from his former life as a basketball player, from the way he felt in those darkest moments. He wanted a “regular” life, as he put it. But things are never that easy.
Some days, according to Celia, Weis would argue with customers in the store for no reason. Other days, she would find him in bed, just staring at the ceiling. Celia wanted him to talk to a therapist but he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to be around people.
It was all bleak and difficult and wrenching, which is why, eight years later, on the day before Wembanyama’s game, it feels strange to sit across from Weis in a brasserie in Paris and laugh. To hear him joke about his travels or cackle about the way an old injury has left his pinkie jutted sideways. To see him banter with a server about whether the restaurant’s tartare is hand-cut or machine-cut (it’s machine, apparently, so he orders a burger).
There is an ease to Weis now, a light in his face that wasn’t there before. He puts down his burger. “I’m much more tranquil,” he says. “I’m OK with me, myself and I — the three of us are OK.” He laughs.
What’s different now, I ask him. What changed?
He doesn’t hesitate.
“Love,” he says.
EARLY ONE AFTERNOON, Weis slips on his headphones and slides his chair up to the microphone in a studio at RMC, a French radio station. He is recording an episode of “Basket Time,” a popular podcast, and keeps up a good patter with the three other men on the show as they discuss the ongoing NBA playoffs.
Weis’ voice sounds different when he talks about basketball. There is a lilt, a trill. He gets animated during an intense discussion of Jayson Tatum‘s shot selection, then moments later, elicits universal agreement when he says, definitively, “I really like the Knicks — except when Julius Randle is on the court.”
Weis’ enthusiasm for the sport is constant. When Nicolas Batum had a ferocious block in a game Weis was calling, Weis screamed, “It’s Batman who serves the justice! Here comes Batman!” After a dramatic buzzer-beater in a French league game, Weis concluded his analysis with the glee of a boy watching his first playoff series. “What a game we’ve had!” he told the audience. “Many thanks to both teams for giving me so much pleasure.”
Weis did not imagine he would have a career in broadcasting, mostly because he had little interest in being around the game once he retired. He was reticent about basketball — whether doing events or even just playing casually — because inevitably he would have to end up doing what most former players do all the time: Talk about how things used to be.
For Weis, that idea was grotesque; first, conversations would inevitably turn to the NBA or Carter, and that wasn’t the way Weis wanted to remember his career. And second, it would bring up all the emotions he experienced in that period as he tried to cope with learning about Enzo’s disability. There was nothing he wanted to do less than relive the past.
But in 2016, he was asked to do some radio commentary and despite being “terrified,” he had more fun than he anticipated. He found he could just talk about the players on the court. There was always another sequence to analyze. He could enjoy the rhythm of a game, the pacing, the grace — the things he liked about the sport in the first place. He did another game and another. He worked for L’Équipe TV and a few radio stations. He is now a regular on beIN Sports.
“He’s far from basketball and he’s near to it at the same time,” says Geoffrey Charpille, a journalist on the RMC podcast who is also a close friend. What makes Weis unlike most other analysts, Charpille adds, is that he keeps the focus on what is happening in front of him.
For Weis, that distance from his former self is critical: The angst he feels about basketball has to do with his own life, his own experiences. Not with the game itself. He did not expect it, but his affection for basketball has never been stronger.
“You know, sometimes I don’t even remember that I played,” Weis says, quickly putting out his hand when he sees me start to scoff.
“I’m serious!” he continues. “I really forget. And this is why I like doing commentary. It’s like I just get to be a fan — but of both teams.”
ONE EVENING, I meet Weis at Montparnasse station in Paris as he arrives on the last train of the night from Bordeaux, a suit coat on a wire hanger in hand. He is going to work.
We go down one escalator, then another toward the Metro. As we approach the automated gates, Weis turns sideways to shimmy through but isn’t quick enough; the gates snap shut on his backpack, trapping him. He strains against the gates as a frantic tourist tries to help by inserting her own ticket. Everyone stares.
“I swear, I’ve been this big a long time and that’s never happened!” Weis says after eventually being extricated. (He then nearly slams his head into a metal exit sign hanging from the ceiling as we walk toward the tunnel.)
It is nearing midnight. Weis has just finished a two-stop, 4½-hour train journey. When he gets off the subway, he will shoehorn himself into a tiny booth inside beIN’s studio and commentate on an NBA playoff game that tips off at 1:30 a.m. He will then take a quick snooze inside the studio and board another train to a small town in central France to commentate on a French women’s league game, before returning the next day to call a French men’s league game. Then there is another middle-of-the-night NBA game.
Given the way Weis previously felt about his size, his basketball career and his time in the public eye, this feels like a particularly extreme shift. But Weis is giddy when he looks over and says, “The game tonight is going to be so good! I love this time of year!”
One of Weis’ closest friends, a man named Maïk Prime, says he believes that Weis is finding the proper calibration for each thing that matters in his life. While some people might be able to do that easily, for Weis it is a delicate balance to figure out just what he can and can’t do when it comes to basketball.
When Weis is working in Paris, he often stays at Prime’s apartment — “If I’m alone in a hotel, I think too much,” Weis says — and Prime tells a story about a recent day when Weis came with him and his son to the park.
Prime and his son were shooting some baskets, and the boy kept trying to throw the ball to Weis. “Uncle, I want to play with you,” Prime’s son said, over and over. But Weis only wanted to watch the boy run up and down the court. In this moment, in this phase of his life, basketball doesn’t fit like that.
“Fred never touched the ball,” Prime says. “He just said, ‘No, no,’ and stayed on the side.”
SO, THE DUNK.
Over the years, Weis has talked plenty about it. He has been honest about it (“I had my eyes closed”). He has been gracious about it (“I learned people can fly”). He has been glib about it (“It was just two points”). He has been, at almost every turn, a good sport.
Weis’ emotions about the dunk are nuanced. There is part of him that appreciates the historic nature of the moment, the raw magic of what Carter did. And yet he also remains angry about the way people continue to remind him about the dunk more than 20 years later, particularly because he thinks it is indicative of what he dislikes most about French sports fans.
“People in France like to hate,” Weis says, mentioning the racist vitriol fans spewed on soccer phenom Kylian Mbappé after a missed penalty kick.
Weis draws a connection between his experience with the dunk and the biggest fear he has for Wembanyama.
“Now, he’s good,” Weis says. “But if something wrong happens? He’s going to be the worst guy ever. It’s what happens here. It happens all the time.” He shrugs. “It happened to me.”
Mostly, Weis sees the dunk as an event that changed something, an event that transformed something that could have — and maybe should have — been pure bliss.
Winning the silver medal at the 2000 Olympics was a big deal for Weis. “I’m the only Frenchman to have won a silver medal and commentated on one!” he says, noting that he called games at the 2020 Olympics when France took second place again.
This has long been the problem: Weis wants to be proud of his Olympics, wants to be proud of a career that had that silver medal and a French league title and defensive player of the year awards in Spain. He wants to believe all of it meant something. He knows it does. It’s just hard to remember something one way when the whole world is telling you they remember it as something else.
In some ways, the dunk and its aftermath became a cipher for how Weis saw himself. So as Weis rediscovered his love for the things in his life that make him happy in recent years, he reckoned with his own questions about the dunk in the same way he reckoned with so many of the other questions that bounced around inside his head.
What if he’d stepped to the side as Carter came toward him? What if he’d knocked Carter down?
What if a team other than the Knicks drafted him?
What if the doctor in Spain never told him and Celia that Enzo had autism? What if he had reacted differently to the news? What if his father hadn’t ignored his fear?
What if Enzo could shoot baskets with him?
It was too much. And ultimately, Weis realized he had to accept that the answers don’t matter.
“I stopped thinking about the past so much,” Weis says. “Because it does nothing.”
He reconnected with his parents after years of not speaking to them. When his father died last year, there was no anger, no pain about things unsaid. Jean-Claude had finally told Weis, many times, how his heart swelled when he heard his son on TV. How proud he was to see the way he treated his family. Weis’ mother now texts him before every game he commentates, even in the middle of the night.
With Enzo, Weis stopped wishing, day after day, that he could play basketball with his son, and found other ways to bond that make him feel like he is the parent he is supposed to be: Walking in the forest together and holding hands and swimming in the pool because Enzo has always loved the water. Sometimes, at night, if a basketball game that Weis is working is on TV, Enzo will perk up and turn his head and say, “That’s Papa Fred!” with pride.
“He’s my beautiful boy,” Weis says of Enzo, who is 21. “Sometimes we wrestle, and he’s so big it’s hard to take him down.”
With Celia, it was trickier. The couple separated in 2016 (though they still talk every day), and Weis soon found love with a woman who has little knowledge — and even less interest — in basketball.
Her name is Fanny. The first time Weis got her tickets to a game he was broadcasting, he glanced over and saw her reading a book. The next time he got her tickets, he saw her watching a movie on her phone. “I don’t get her tickets anymore,” Weis says, laughing.
Weis and Fanny talk about film and television, about the cats and dogs and 14 chickens they have at their house. Mostly, they talk about anything that isn’t basketball.
Among the many things in sports Fanny had never heard of when she met Weis was a particular dunk in a particular game at a particular Olympics, and so one day — aware she would soon hear people asking him about it — Weis showed her the Dunk de la Mort on YouTube.
She was indifferent. He was smitten.
“It was impressive, I guess,” Fanny says now. “But I know Fred’s done other things that are 1,000 times better than this in his life.”
A COUPLE OF HOURS before tipoff of a French league game in Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, Weis stands near the courtside broadcaster’s table and waits. As arena workers finish setting up the chairs by the team benches, we pass the time chatting about the memoir he wrote last year.
There are sections about his playing career and draft night and, of course, Carter and the Olympics. But there is also a chapter in which Weis describes a second occasion when he attempted suicide, a few years after the first.
“Just double the dose of pills, turn it up a notch,” he wrote of that night. “Celia came in the room and stopped me. She gave me a big slap, which I deserved, and insulted me: ‘Fred, you’re a moron.’ She called the firefighters [and] they escorted me to the hospital.
“Depression was a part of me at the time,” he concluded. “It still is. I know that it will be by my side for the rest of my days.”
As we watch the players begin warming up in Nanterre, I ask Weis if he still worries about slipping into a darker place again. His eyes follow a player shooting a pull-up jumper. “Yes,” he says.
Did you ever talk to a professional? A therapist, like Celia suggested? He looks away.
“I think I’m more happy to try and do it by myself,” he says. “I don’t really ask for help.” He shrugs. “Kind of like my dad.”
The tape that holds him together now, Weis says, repeating his line from the other day, is that he has a better understanding of the love that exists in his life. A steadier realization that the people around him don’t see him as a burden, but as a rock.
He and Fanny had a daughter 14 months ago, a little girl named Anna. Before Fanny got pregnant, Weis wasn’t sure whether he should have another child, wasn’t sure whether he deserved one. Once Anna arrived, though, “It was like I woke up,” Weis says. He plays with her, holds her, hugs her close. While swiping through photos of her, he informs me, delightedly, that her name is a palindrome. “Like kayak,” he says. We talk about how he might encourage Anna to like basketball (since Fanny certainly won’t), and Weis belly-laughs. “I’ll be the one getting her the Nikes,” he says.
Weis isn’t certain Enzo fully understands he has a half-sister, but there is no question Enzo knows Anna is special; every time they are in the house together, Weis says, Enzo comes over to the baby and kisses her on the forehead and smiles. “He shows his feelings, and it makes me so proud,” Weis says. The connection between Anna and Enzo, he adds, gives him a feeling of peace unlike any he’s ever felt before.
“You know why?” he says. “Because I know that there is someone who will take care of Enzo. Who will love him.” He hesitates. “I know that’s kind of a selfish feeling, but I feel that way — like, OK, when she’s 18 or 20, I could die because she is going to be there for him. He can’t protect himself. But when I’m gone, he is going to have a sister. He always will. And so I just …”
He trails off, struggling to fully explain just how significant that comfort is to him. But he doesn’t need to. Everyone can see it in Weis. Everyone knows what it means that Weis can finally see it in himself.
Frédéric Weis is happy.
As Weis packs up after the game, he tells me he suspects that some people might be surprised to read that conclusion in a story about him. Frédéric Weis is happy? Frédéric Weis is supposed to be angry or upset, sad or depressed, he says. Supposed to be anxious. The Knicks, the dunk — how could it be otherwise?
“I guess I am those things,” he says as he zips his bag. “But I’m also not only those things.”
He knows it may not last forever. He knows it may not even last for long. But when he was working on the memoir, Weis says, the title he picked was purposeful.
Jusque-là, ça va, he called the story of his life, because it was a phrase he found himself saying more and more.
Jusque-là, ça va.
So far, so good.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Additional reporting by Tom Nouvian.