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Canada basketball
Holly MacKenzie

Dedication and drive make Thomas Scrubb a Team Canada constant

The process to qualify for the FIBA Men's Basketball World Cup 2023 is a lengthy one. Through multiple windows, games are played around the world, often overlapping with a player’s pro club commitments and schedule. A team’s roster can fluctuate from window-to-window and game-to-game.

As the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team has built an undefeated 10-0 record in the current FIBA Men's Basketball World Cup 2023 Americas Qualifiers and booked their ticket to this summer’s Men's World Cup, veteran Tommy Scrubb has been a constant.

Scrubb suited up in all 10 victories, hopping on a flight from Spain, where he has spent the past two seasons playing for Monbus Obradoiro in Liga ACB, to join his national team teammates for each of the first five windows of qualifiers.

“I think it’s a great honour,” Scrubb said. “When I play for Canada, I can tell you that it just feels different. You feel a bit more pride after a win. It’s more pressure to play well, compared to your pro team. You just feel the need to make your country proud and play as well as you can, play your heart out.”

The stability that Scubb brings to both ends of the floor has helped Canada to remain one of two undefeated teams through the qualifying windows thus far. After an illustrious college career that saw Scrubb win five straight CIS National Championships at Carleton University alongside younger brother Phil, the elder Scrubb brother has spent the past eight years playing overseas and the past two with Monbus where he shares the court with two familiar faces.

Though Phil played in Russia to start 2022, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine he signed with Monbus, where he joined Tommy and fellow Team Canada teammate Kassius Robertson. The trio are the only three players to appear in all ten games for Canada through this qualifying cycle.

“It’s pretty nice,” Scrubb said of sharing the court with his brother and Robertson in Monbus. “It’s kind of up in the air every time you go to a new team. You don't know the players, the cities, the different cultures. There’s a lot of unknowns. This is the first time I’ve been on the same team for two years in a row, so even that by itself has been pretty helpful. Especially that Phil and Kassius are here, it makes it less like an overseas job and it feels more like home to play with guys that you know, that you trust and that are going through the same experiences as you. It’s been really great to have those guys with me.”

It has also been really great for Team Canada Associate Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren to have the trio on the court representing Canada as well.

“I have so much respect for them and what they do and how hard they work, the places they’ll go, the airplanes they’ll get on,” Bjorkgren said. “It’s a big commitment. It means a lot and I just want them to know it does not go unnoticed for me.”

Whenever Bjorkgren speaks with Scrubb between windows, before he can finish asking the question, Scrubb says that he will be there, wherever the team is, to suit up for Canada.

“I’ve been a part of some loses with the national team, some tournaments and experiences where we didn’t play to our expectations or get the job done that we needed to, so I feel like this may be my last chance to play for the national team before the younger generation starts to come up,” Scrubb said. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity and whenever they call I'm going to show up and try to play.”

Scrubb does more than show up, though. Bjorkgren raves about his impact, as well as his even-keeled approach to whatever is happening on the floor.

“Tommy’s commitment is so great,” Bjorkgren said. “So outstanding. He’s been playing great. He’s so versatile. On defence, he can guard all five positions. With his size and quickness and experience, that’s what makes him great at being able to defend like he does. He’s got great experience and toughness, everything you look for.”

The 6-foot-6 forward also has the kind of basketball instincts you can’t teach.

“He’s a very, very good rebounder, especially on the offensive end,” Bjorkgren continued. “He sees the ball coming off the rim, he crashes in there, takes a good angle and reads it. Rebounding is a lot of effort and intelligence and he has all of that stuff.”

Scrubb is equally complimentary for the job that Bjorkgren and head coach Nick Nurse have done since joining the program in 2019.

“Going into the last qualifying round, they wanted guys to commit to the next few years,” Scrubb said. “I think with the continuity, the coaching staff and the players, it helps us to get comfortable with each other and comfortable with how the team wants to play. I think that’s helped us play better and it shows our depth and how well we can play together. It doesn’t really matter who is on the court. We’ve rotated through over 20 guys these last 10 qualifying games and we’re all comfortable and we’ve shown we can get the job done."

The connection between the Team Canada coaching staff and players is strong despite limited in-person instruction time. Bjorkgren keeps in touch with players throughout the year, keeping tabs on their pro teams and checking in to see if he can be of service.

“The Team Canada uniform, the players, the entire program, the organization, all of it, it's a great feeling,” Bjorkgren said. “The pride is so great for the country of Canada. Man, are they a lot of fun to coach.”

Though Scrubb turned 31 this past September, he still feels like he’s improving. His deeply competitive nature coupled with a tireless work ethic ensures he’s always getting the most out of every practice and competition.

“Even if you’re a veteran, when you’re playing you may as well play like you’re a rookie, like you have something to prove,” Scrubb said. “That will make your life more enjoyable and will maximize what you can get out of your career.”

With a pro career overseas and representing his national team whenever they call, no one would blame Scrubb for taking it easy during the offseason. Instead, Scrubb spent last summer playing for the Ottawa BlackJacks of the CEBL as well as suiting up in the Canada Quest 3x3, ultimately winning the national championship with Team Montreal in Toronto as part of the inaugural GLOBL JAM this past July.

Though it was the first time playing 3x3 for Scrubb, he was familiar with the sport through his wife, Catherine Traer, who has played for Canada's 3x3 team in recent years.

“I only really started 3x3 because my wife started playing a few years ago so I watched a lot of it in the summer and whenever they have these tour events throughout the year,” he said. “It looked like a pretty fun event whenever they’ve been running it so I decided to join the tournament this summer for the Canada Quest, It was a last-minute thing, we got a bunch of guys together and qualified in Montreal then we showed up for the weekend in Toronto. It was fun. I’m looking forward to doing it again if my schedule allows it.”

As for the CEBL, Scrubb says he always prefers playing 5-on-5 to working out alone, and that in addition to having fun with the BlackJacks, the league provides another opportunity to play at home, a rarity for Canadians playing pro overseas.

Part of what made November’s qualifying window so special was that the team got to punch their ticket to this summer’s event in front of a hometown crowd in Edmonton, Alberta.

“It’s something we really haven’t had that chance to do in my career, playing for the national team [at home], so it was fun,” Scrubb said. “We’re used to playing in South America, Central America, so just being on Canadian soil, getting the win in front of our fans, it was just a great feeling. I think we deserved it and it was great that we did it at home.”

Up next for Scrubb and the Senior Men’s National team is a trip to Argentina and Venezuela in February for the final window of qualifiers. Though Canada has already accomplished the main task of qualifying for the World Cup, Scrubb's approach doesn't change.

“I just try to play as hard as I can and I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I’m just taking the opportunities I’ve been given and doing as much as I can with them. That’s what I'll keep trying to do as long as I'm playing.

“Keep working hard, keep striving for bigger and better things,” he said. “That will help you out in all aspects of your life.”