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Canada basketball
Steven Loung

Senior Men’s National Team entering new era building on foundation of brotherhood

TORONTO (June 29, 2022) – Just a little over a year ago Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team came up short in the semifinals of their Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C., as Tomas Satoransky just managed to get a shot over the outstretched hand of Lugentz Dort to give the Czech Republic a 103-101 victory.

The loss eliminated Canada from the tournament, ending the team’s hopes of reaching the Tokyo Olympics.

In the aftermath of that setback though, senior men’s team general manager Rowan Barrett, head coach Nick Nurse and other leaders put their heads together and devised a new way forward for the program.

Roster continuity and consistency has been a hurdle that the men’s team has had to deal with. As an example, the Canadian team that played in that Olympic qualifier last summer was far different from the one that participated in the 2019 World Cup. Whereas, the Czech squad that downed Canada was largely made up of returning players who played with each other at that World Cup event in China.

So then, what if you were able to eliminate some of the inherent challenges with the variance that’s bound to come up as Canada assembles its roster?

That, essentially, was the question asked and was then answered with the creation of the three-year commitment plan that Canada Basketball has put in place, where a pool of 14 high-level NBA-calibre players can be drawn upon each summer as the club attempts to qualify for Paris 2024 and, if everything goes according to plan, medal there.

This plan was made possible thanks to a Las Vegas meeting around this same time last year that saw Nurse and other Canada Basketball staff assemble a host of the nation’s top basketball talent and ask if they could commit for the next three years or not.

And as it turns out, finding players willing to jump right in wasn’t all that difficult.

“When we got this group together last summer I was just about ready to start a big speech about why we were here and what we were doing and he interrupted me and said, ‘I’ve gotta say something,’” Nurse said of Oklahoma City Thunder star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during a senior men’s team practice at OVO Centre Tuesday. “He stood up and said, ‘I’m playing.’

“I hadn’t even got to ask the question yet, and so that just shows you he’s ready to go.”

Added Gilgeous-Alexander himself, who was unable to play in Victoria last year recovering from a foot injury: “I just feel like I had a chance to play last summer, and obviously qualify for the Olympics, which is obviously what everyone in the country wants to do. It just didn’t work out. I didn’t want the media and the outside noise to interfere with my teammates. I just wanted to get in front of it and let them know that I’m here. I’m committed. Everything’s worked out and I’ll be with the team going forward.”

A bold declaration from Gilgeous-Alexander that set the tone for other NBA stars such as his Thunder teammate Dort, R.J. Barrett, Jamal Murray and more to follow his lead and help not only looked to establish the mood around the men’s program for the next Olympic cycle, but perhaps usher in an entirely new era for it.

“I don't know what they had done earlier, but bringing everyone together in Vegas, I think, really did help as a show of commitment from other players. And I think sometimes guys don't want to be the only one,” said Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Gilgeous-Alexander’s cousin who plays for the Utah Jazz, earlier this week. “But when they see that they're not the only one and everyone's kind of banding together, it's easier to commit – stronger by forces in numbers.”

As the men’s national team has prepped for the third window of FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Americas Qualifiers this week, there’s been an apparent shift in attitude around the club. Yes, this is a team that’s still trying to fit together in a short span before Friday’s Canada Day contest against the Dominican Republic at Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre, but the bonds of camaraderie knowing that these are the guys who will be going to battle with you every summer are already locking into place.

As an example of this, while there are 16 players who are officially in camp ahead of the start of the third window of World Cup qualifying, six other players – R.J. Barrett, Oshae Brissett, Khem Birch, Dort, Murray and Kevin Pangos – are also there but they just won’t be participating during the actual qualifying games.

And despite not needing to be used in an official capacity, their presence is all greatly appreciated.

“It’s a brotherhood. Those guys are there supporting, giving their insight, and obviously those guys are going to play down the line,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “(Them) just learning as much as they can before they get on the court will only help us in the future when we get together.”

“That’s huge,” added Dallas Mavericks big man Dwight Powell. “Everybody knows that different guys have different situations outside of this team in terms of their ability to compete but to be able to be here and support us in whatever way they can speaks to this program and things we’ve been able to grow, especially the last few years.

“It’s definitely a great sign and it means a lot to everybody here.”

Stronger connectivity can obviously help a talented team like the one Canada’s consistently churned out into a winning team. The problem in the past has been finding ways to forge that.

The Senior Men’s National Team’s three-year commitment plan may just be the cure to that ill.