Growing up in Switzerland, there was this show my brothers and I watched every Sunday. Really great show, a lot of action and cool stunts.
You may have heard of it. For us, it was always dubbed over in French, but in English I think it was called Texas Walker, Ranger?… pardon… Walker, Texas Ranger.
Ah yeah, that’s it Walker, Texas Ranger. That show was my jaaaaam.
It was basically this guy Chuck Norris, who played a cop. A Texas cop. He had tight jeans and a cool beard, and sometimes a cowboy hat, not always. The way it went was that if you fought Chuck Norris, you got your butt kicked for sure. And his partner Jimmy, his sideckick, was real cool too. Also kicking butts.
So anyway, until pretty much the night I was drafted by the Rockets in 2014, if you asked me what I knew about Texas, I could tell you about Walker, Texas Ranger then fini [nothing else].
Texas had always seemed like this imaginary place I’d seen on TV, but I never expected to live there. Yes, I expected to play professionally in America. But this wasn’t America. I was going to Texas.
For so long I had only played for Chalon, in France. When I first joined their academy, I viewed myself more as a football player — not like Houston Texans J.J. Watt, I mean soccer. That was the sport I spent most of my time playing growing up. I was a striker, always attacking the net — a lot of headers, obviously. And my biggest sports hero was Thierry Henry. He still is, actually. I never missed a French national team game growing up. It wasn’t just his great skill, it was also his style. Henry had this different kind of swag, man. He’s what in America they call greatest of all-time. Le GOAT.
I was used to this entirely different culture and lifestyle overseas. Of course, getting drafted to play in the NBA was a dream come true, but it wasn’t until I heard my name and “Houston Rockets” together for the first time that the reality of everything hit me.
I was moving to a new place where I barely knew the language and where I understood none of the customs.
I mean, I didn’t even have any tight Chuck Norris jeans.
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Tout est plus grand au Texas.
Everything is bigger in Texas.
The first thing I noticed when I got to Houston after I was drafted was all this… space. All the streets were so wide. Even the sidewalks. Then there were all the cars, so many people driving huge trucks. I felt like I had landed in Europe XXL. Everything was bigger. I thought scientifically, if they were to actually measure everything, I can’t imagine another place that has bigger stuff.
That included the food, for sure. My rookie year, I had a lot of athleticism, but the thing is everyone in the NBA has athleticism. I needed to get bigger and put on more weight. That was no problem, Houston had my back.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to a steakhouse here. I thought I’d eaten steak before. I was expecting this small, flat circle of meat, maybe a couple of fries on the side. Fine. C’est bon.
So in Texas, steak is a different thing. I’m at this restaurant and they put this plate in front of me, and, well, there was barely any plate visible — all I saw was this was this big, big piece of meat. I look around, maybe I had been mistaken in what I ordered. Maybe this waiter was playing a prank on me. It looked like a whole farm animal in front of me. But everyone with me laughed and nodded and told me that in Texas, this is a steak.
Then I was introduced to these other foods I’d never seen before but were totally amazing. Mac and cheese, man. Guys, you are blessed for having mac and cheese here. It’s a work of art. Bravo, guys.
And that was the first time I thought, O.K. O.K., I think I can get used to this place.
But still, there were a lot of adjustments I had to make my first year in Texas.
For starters, when I came to America, I didn’t have a driver’s license. I got to Houston and figured I would just walk to the arena from where I lived. It wasn’t a long walk, what’s the big deal? First time I made the walk, I get outside and noticed right away that pretty much all of the sidewalks were empty. I get moving and within a couple of minutes, I understood why they were so empty. It is hot in Houston. It’s a different level. By the time I made it to the arena and took my headphones off, and all this sweat pours out. It was like I went through a desert. And that’s when I thought, Okay, I gotta get a driver’s license.
Another big challenge was just learning how to communicate. Most of the time I felt very uncomfortable expressing myself because my English was not so good. I’d taken classes in secondary school, but that was different from living in an English-speaking place.
I was picked in the same year as Nick Johnson, and he was a huge help for me. He was my voice a lot. If I was in the locker room and tried to speak with someone, he’d try to help translate. But for the most part, I just didn’t speak. I had thoughts and things I wanted to say, but I was so scared of sounding stupid.
The thing about living in Texas, though, is that it’s really hard to be in your shell because everyone wants to talk. In Switzerland, you don’t know someone, you don’t talk to them. But in Texas, even the cashier at the grocery store wants to know how you are doing and how your day is — and they aren’t just saying that, they want to know what you got going on. The idea of someone you don’t know talking to you just to be friendly? It was so strange.
Slowly, I started to adjust. I got my first driver’s license, which was quite an adventure (see you on 610, guys). And I found out that a lot of cool people who aren’t from Texas really love Texas.
I’ll never forget the first time Hakeem Olajuwon spoke to me at a practice. My eyes went so wide. I thought, Oh my God, this legend knows who I am. Like every other person I met in Texas, he wanted to help me and to make sure I felt good. He even would coach me on post-moves. That’s how I learned just how much a legend he is. Hakeem is this older guy, but he would start showing me these moves and it was like he’s in this movie The Matrix. He starts moving his feet and then all I see is a bunch of blurs. The ball is here, then it’s there, his body’s this way and his feet at that way, then swish. Then he’d hand me the ball like, “Okay, your turn.” And I’d kind of stare back thinking, Uh, there’s a reason you’re The Dream. No one else who has ever lived can do that.
But still, I was thankful for the help I was getting from everyone I encountered. Eventually I started to improve. Not just on the court, but also away from it — the way I communicated and my willingness to open up with people. As I got more comfortable and things slowed down, I started really enjoying my life here. And as my confidence grew, so did my basketball skills.
But still, Hakeem’s moves, that’s still something I’m working on.
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Last year, before a game we were playing in San Antonio, one of my coaches pulled me aside and pointed to a person sitting in the crowd.
“You know that guy over there?”
I looked at where he was pointing, then I froze. I was in shock. Oh my god. It was Thierry Henry. And he wasn’t on TV wearing the blue kit like I was used to growing up. He was there, in person, about 50 feet away from me.
I ended up getting introduced to him and he was a really cool guy. He was at the game because he’s friends with Tony Parker. To be honest I can’t even remember any of our conversation. I think I was in shock — but we seemed to get along. It stood out as pretty much one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me. It was one of those amazing moments that only basketball could make happen.
At the time I met Thierry, I really started to get in my groove as a player. Having Mike D’Antoni start as our coach definitely helped with that. He introduced a system that made me feel so free on the court. It’s about pace, movement and just making something happen every possession. I’m one of the younger players on our team, surrounded by veterans, but he never let my confidence go down. Whenever I had a bad game, I might be at my locker with my head down, but he’d the person who would tell me not to feel negative. He’d tell me I’ll play better the next day, and I almost always did.
Under Coach D’Antoni I feel like every player on the team has gotten better. Except for James. He’s always been on a different level.
When I first got to Houston, I’d be on the bench watching the stuff he’d do during games, how easy he made it look, and I’d almost forget we were teammates. It was like I was another fan watching him. But now, I’m used to James doing at least one thing a game that’s amazing. He has made doing amazing things seem routine. Forty one night? No problem. Forty-four the next? Sure, no sweat. Fifteen assists? Sure, that’s his thing now. Nothing he does on the basketball court shocks me anymore.
Man, it has been a special season, hasn’t it?
At the same time, I knew this season was going to be different before it even started.
It began with a text. I was back home during the off-season relaxing when I noticed my phone starting to blow up.
I turned it on and the first thing I saw was a text from Thierry (Yeah we text now, it’s no big deal. Not a big thing at all. I’m totally cool about it).
The text said he was really excited. I asked him why and he sent back something that got me crazy excited too.
I went on Twitter, and everything was blowing up. And it all clicked: We’d just traded for Chris Paul. Houston got Chris Paul!
Ever since then… everything with our team has been boom-boom-boom. Screen-pass-pass-bucket. You blink, you might miss something amazing. We can be down two, then up 15 in zero time.
And as our team has taken it to another level, our fans have too. I’m not just talking about in Houston, I mean worldwide. Rockets fans are everywhere man. I even hopped on Weibo, and found out I have people watching me out in China. They call me Bing Hwang (饼皇), which I was told means The King of Pancakes. At first, I was like, what are pancakes? Then I thought, Oh, those sound like crepes. And then I was like, Wait, still why King of Pancakes? And then I found out “King of Pancakes” refers to someone who catches and dunks a bunch of lobs. So then I thought, O.K., that’s pretty good, respect to Weibo.
Considering how scared I felt when I first got here, it’s crazy how much this now feels like a second home. I still remember how worried I was when I had trouble communicating. It made me feel like a very different person, almost scared of going out, because I was worried I’d have to talk with someone. It made me realize how important it is to be able to communicate, so I was really thankful when I was approached by Reliant with an opportunity to help other people out who face that same challenge. For every double-double I’ve gotten this year, they’ve made a $200 donation to the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. I’m not sure if they really knew what they were getting into when they offered, but I’ve been grinding to make sure Barbara gets a big check out of this. My new nickname is going to be King of Books when I’m done.
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We started out pretty hot but I think our season really got going in February. We went 13–0 and it felt like we were almost playing a different sport from everyone else. Every city we went to, it was like the other team was trying to fight Chuck Norris. We were kicking butts every night. And it became a routine. We’re at home? Kick butt. Back-to-back road games? We kick butt, then we kick butt. Chuck Norris.
And the players, we’re feeling that love from Houston. And, honestly, we might be taking things too far at this point. I’ll never forget sitting in the training room a couple of months ago, and seeing Chris walking by me wearing a cowboy hat, tight-tight-tight pants and this huge belt buckle. I said, “Where you think you’re going? You think you’re about to go shooting with Clint Eastwood or something?” I had to start recording him. I still can’t stop laughing when I think about it. But at the same time, nobody is showing up at a basketball court dressed like that unless they know we’re about to ball. We’re feeling ourselves, for sure.
The best thing? The real fun is just starting.
At this point, there’s no more surprise surrounding this team. Nobody (smart) is talking about whether we’re for real. We know that, when we’re on our game, we’ll beat any team in the league. Doesn’t matter what they do, what happens next is about us — it’s about H-Town.
This year, all of us, everybody in Houston, should be thinking championship. Based on what we’ve done so far, there’s no reason we can’t do it. I’m hyped just thinking about it all.
So I’m calling on Downtown, Midtown, The Woodlands, Memorial, Bellaire, Westbury, Sugar Land — all the way to China and everywhere in between: Grab your Rockets jersey and get ready to be loud. Give us all your energy this playoffs.
We’ll handle the rest.