There once was a time where a “Dunking Dutchman” came to America, eager to prove Europeans can play with the best of them in the U.S. His name? Rik Smits. His legacy? Becoming one of the greatest Marist athletes of all time.
This success story is one that has been told for decades. Joining Marist in 1984, he lead the team to the college’s only two NCAA tournament appearances at the time in 1986 and 1987. After an incredible senior season, he produced a stat line of 24.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks. He brought national attention to Marist, and himself.
Come 1988, the Indiana Pacers would select Rik Smits with the second overall pick in the NBA draft. While one Dutchman rose to basketball fame and a 12-year career at the pro-level, one flying Frenchman’s story would go untold.
The average basketball fan wouldn’t be able to recognize Rudy Bourgarel’s name, but they might know his son, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Bourgarel and Smits would form a formidable front-court duo. The two seven-footers towered the court, making the opponent’s jaws drop with their sheer presence. Crafty point guard Drafton Davis would round out the squad that brought the two best seasons in Marist history.
A hidden story to most, those who were around Bourgarel could never forget him, “I remember him well, what an athlete he was.” Smits said. “From his waistline up, it was just a triangle, he was unbelievable.” Coming from someone as tall in height as Smits, speaks to the physique of just how big Bourgarel was. Smits couldn’t help but take notice of the young recruit, recalling him being able to “jump out of the gym.” Smits continued, “He was fast, and in suicides he could beat anyone up and down the court if he put his mind to it.”
Rudy Bourgarel was born in the French Caribbean region Baie-Mahault, of Guadeloupe. Word of his size and athleticism made it to Poughkeepsie, and Bourgarel found himself as a Red Fox. In his first two years of college basketball he saw minimal playing time. While waiting for his opportunity, he turned his raw skill into the makings of something special.
In his junior season, Bourgarel was given the chance to start under head coach Dave Magirty when top European recruit Miroslav Pecarski left the team for a year to play for the Serbian national team. Magirty—now coaching for the Army’s women’s basketball team — couldn’t forget what coaching Bourgarel was like, and is reminded of him every time he watches the Jazz play. “His son looks exactly like him,” said Magirty.
Teaming up with Smits, he finished second on the team in scoring with an average of 10.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. Looking back on his junior season Magirty described watching him play from the sidelines: “Just some earth-shattering dunks if you gave him the ball around the basket.”
A team that was loaded with talent also came with a premier coaching staff. Magrity helped assemble this team with his assistant Jeff Bower, now the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Phoenix Suns. The attention surrounding Smits his senior year brought NBA scouts to the games and practices of Marist, where they would watch the Frenchman dominate beside Smits.
Before declaring for the draft after his senior year, Smits wanted to leave his junior year to go pro, according to Magirty. After speaking with his contacts in the NBA, he convinced Smits to return to boost his draft stock.
Instead of being a possible first round pick, he was taken in the lottery with the second pick. Magrity saw Smits develop in his junior and senior seasons. He believed Bougarel could have made that jump too. “He wasn’t at that same level as Smits, but he could have gotten there in my opinion if he would have stayed,” said Magrity. Following Bourgarel’s breakout year, would be his best season. It would also be his last. Following the 1988 season, Bourgarel would not return to Marist, leaving the world to wondering what happened to him.
The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote about Rudy Gobert, mentioning his father and his Marist career. He opened his article by telling the story of Gobert watching his father’s brief cameo in the movie Coming to America.
The 1988 picture featured a scene at Madison Square Garden where Marist played against St. Peters. Only giving a few seconds of fame, the clip rolls and gives the audience a glimpse of Smits dunking down on St. Peters. The team had no clue that they were going to be in the film and Smits told the story of how they came to find out. “Drafton Davis went to the movies, he came back to practice the next day and he couldn’t stop talking about it,” recalled Smits. By chance, or by luck the directors, they couldn’t have chosen a better team to use. Eddie Murphy wasn’t the only one coming to America to have himself a night.
Spears dug past the surface of what seemed like a feel-good story for Gobert’s family, discovering a layer of controversy. “Rudy’s father was so good, but perhaps because of the times he didn’t really get the opportunity to show what he can do,” explained Spears.
In his article, he reported that Bourgarel had made a commitment to the French national basketball team, pulling him out of Marist and the draft. After telling France he wouldn’t play for their Olympic squad, the government assigned him to participate in military service. The punishment would strip Bourgarel of a chance to become the first French player in the NBA. Instead, he would play for several minor league French teams before eventually returning to his home in Guadeloupe.
Magirty wished he could have had another year to work with Bourgarel, but believed the return of Miroslav Pecarski might have had pushed Bourgarel to take his chances playing in France. “ I think a big part of his decision to not come back was the return of Miroslav Pecarski, and he might have thought he’d play the second fiddle to him,” said Magirty.
Spears met with Gobert to ask him more on the aftermath of Bourgarel’s junior year, and his son didn’t hold. “Not going to the NBA destroyed him, he was fascinated by the game and they took that away from him,” Gobert shared with Spears.
Knowing his father was robbed of his shot resonated with him, and he has followed through. In his first seven seasons, Gobert has been elected to the all-star team once, been voted defensive player of the year twice, and has become one of the best shot blockers in the game averaging 2.2 blocks throughout his career thus far. He is doing everything in his power to avenge his father, and attain the dreams Bourgarel didn’t get.
Spears, saw this story meant to Gobert: “I definitely think his dad inspired him. Rudy is certainly familiar with the fact that Tariq Abdul-Wahad ended up being the first French player to make it to the NBA.”
“When I spoke to Tariq, he actually remembered seeing Mr. Bourgarel play. He said that he was a really good athletic player who definitely had the talent to be the first guy,” said Spears. Those who witnessed Bourgarel knew what he was capable of being. And now, Gobert continues to play for his legacy.
Missing out on professional basketball wasn’t the first time Bourgarel experienced a basketball organization stepping in to interfere with his love. Before Dave Magirty was hired as the coach of Marist, it was Mike Perry who recruited these talents to play under him. Perry went to Europe to become the coach of the Swedish national team. During his time overseas, he started to pool this foreign talent that he would recruit to Poughkeepsie.
“In the 1984 Olympics, Bobby Knight was the coach of the Olympic team and that was the year there was a boycott with the Russians. Knight was trying to prepare for the games and somehow got to know and work with Perry quite a bit,” said Magirty. Knight picked the brain of Perry who had worked with these European players for the past years. In return for his help, Bobby Knight would help Mike Perry get the head coaching position at Marist.
With Perry having this stronghold of influence on international talent, he promised to bring these players to Marist. What he didn’t promise to bring was the NCAA knocking on Marist’s doorstep. With many questions about the international recruitment, Perry never ended up coaching. The NCAA penalized Marist for violations related to recruiting international athletes. This resulted in suspensions being handed out to Rik Smits (nine games), Rudy Bourgarel, and Miroslav Pecarski (five games). Magirty inherited the talent, but also inherited the NCAA probation that would seem to end any chance of them making another tournament run.
What seemed like a nightmare season when Magirty was starting walk-ons during these suspensions, fueled Marist to make an impossible tournament run. After a rough start, Marist ripped off 14 straight wins being led by the return of Smits and Bourgarel. Their run would take them to the first round of the NCAA tournament where their push would be halted.
Looking back at the 1987 season Rik Smits says they weren’t even given a chance: “Everybody had three or four fouls by the first half, we were robbed. We played Pitt and we could definitely hang with them.” The sanctions and discrimination towards Marist all season long is something coach Magirty won’t sugar coat: “To this day I despise the NCAA.”
The story of Rudy Bourgarel is one that shows how the world of basketball has evolved since his time in college. The NBA is filled with international superstars such as Gobert, Nikola Jokic, and Luka Doncic. The reason why they have this opportunity today is because of players like Bourgarel who started to bridge the pipeline from the rest of the world to the U.S.
He had all the talent in the world, but was held back. He never got his chance to live his dreams, but now watches his son turn into one of the league’s premier players. Now living in his home country of Guadalupe, no one has been in touch with Bourgarel since his days at Marist. Spears said he isn’t open to interviews, Both Smits and Magrity hadn’t kept in touch. But maybe Bourgarel deserves more credit for his contributions to the world of basketball and for the success of this historic team.