Frédéric Weis and Le Dunk de la Mort: A Story of Descent, Depression, and Recovery

Frederic Weiss at a Knicks camp

It was the end of June, 1999, and my New York Knicks had come off a stunning run to make it to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. They lost in five games, but the energy and excitement that Latrell Sprewell, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Marcus Camby brought to New York City was electric!

It was a great time to be a Knick fan!

But a week later, still basking in the glory of my team’s incredible season-ending run, the powers that be in the Knickerbocker management team made a decision in the NBA draft that puzzled, if not deflated the fan base. With the fifteenth pick in the first round of the draft, the Knicks selected Frédéric Weis.

Qui?

Weis was from France, a seven footer, perhaps someone to clog up the middle. Who was pick number 16? One of the most talented players to come out of my favorite university college team, Ron Artest, who would go on to become a volatile but brilliant All-Star in his career. (Yes, Artest of St. John’s University, would change his name to Metta World Peace.)

But what of Weis?

For starters, the Knicks’ coach, Jeff van Gundy did not appear to be supportive of the selection. Weis, overjoyed to be drafted, soon felt the cold shoulder once he arrived in the United States for the Knicks’ summer league camps where rookies and others are worked out. Weis was not considered inspired material, but he was a first round draft pick, which afforded him the right to sign a contract that would have made him a Knick. But thanks to his agent, he declined so that he could play another year with his professional team in France. Weis personally believes that was a mistake.

Then came the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and perhaps the most famous dunk in Olympic history, perhaps in basketball history. The American team were facing the French national team, and pretty much handling the French, up by 15 with 16 minutes to play in the game. The French rebounded the ball at their end of the court, one player bounced pass a ball that went a bit too high for his teammate. That’s when Vince Carter, one of the NBA’s most dynamic players at that time, came charging in, snatching that high pass, dribble twice and then leaping for a thunderous dunk. In his path was Weis, who Carter simply lept over, all 2.18 meters of him.

That play has been dubbed “Le dunk de la morte,” or the Dunk of Death.

Vinsanity went into overdrive. Weis, if he were a stock, nosedived – a symbol of all the terrible talent decisions Knick management had made in the past (and in the future).

And that was despite the fact that Weis played well on a French team that won the silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Weis never played a game as a New York Knick. After the Olympics and his return to France, no efforts were made by Knick management to make him a part of the team. In other words, to Knicks fans, Weis was a total waste of a good draft pick.

The New York Times followed up on Weis in September, 2015, with this wonderful but sad story of a man whose basketball career, so full of promise, never took off, and a life that appeared to deteriorate year on year.

Vince Carter Frederic Weiss in Le Duck du Mort

A couple of years after winning silver at the Olympics, Weis and his wife Celia had a boy named Enzo. A year later, the boy was diagnosed to be autistic, which was hard for Weis to handle, so much so that the couple separated, Celia taking Enzo away. Bouts of depression became deeper, until finally Weis decided he had had enough of himself. Here’s how the New York Times told that story:

On the morning when Frédéric Weis tried to kill himself, he dreamed about owning a beach house. A beach house had been Weis’s dream for a long time. In France, in Spain, in Greece — wherever his career as a 7-foot-2 professional basketball player took him. He liked the sand, he liked the surf. A beach house was a good dream.

But on that day, in January 2008, the dream did not make him smile. Weis got into his car in Bilbao, Spain, around 10 a.m. and began the drive here, to this small city in west-central France best known for its production of fine china. He was on his way to see his wife and son. About 90 minutes into the drive, Weis suddenly pulled over at a rest area near Biarritz, a French town not far from the border.

He stopped the car, leaned back in his seat and, at 30 years old, considered all that had happened to him during his career… Weis thought about all this for a while. Then he thought about the beach house. Then he thought about his son, Enzo. Then he reached over, took out the box of sleeping pills he had brought with him and swallowed every single one.

But, as the article explained, Weis did not pass on. He instead fell into a deep sleep, waking up 10 hours later realizing he was still alive. “He had failed, and for once, this made him happy. ‘It was the luckiest I’ve been in my life,’ he said.”

Frederic Weiss tobacco shop
Frederic Weiss at his tobacco shop

Weiss returned to basketball in Spain and France before retiring in 2011. When the New York Times caught up with him in Limoges, France, where he was running a tobacco store and a bar, battling bouts of depression, but back with his wife Celia and son Enzo.

Life goes on for the man made famous by the Dunk of Death.