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Canada basketball
Steven Loung

Special homecoming in store for Canada’s most talented hoops-playing cousins

TORONTO – It’s been quite some time since Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have teamed up for some competitive hoops with some real stakes attached to them.

“Not counting all-star weekend, I’d say high school,” said Alexander-Walker earlier this week. “Our last high school tournament (was) in Myrtle Beach. We talk about high school all the time and how much fun it was and the jokes, him being my roommate.”

Now about five years after they played their last high school game together at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chatanooga, Tenn., Canada’s most talented basketball-playing cousins will get the chance to hoop alongside each other once again in Gilgeous-Alexander’s hometown of Hamilton, Ont., as Canada’s senior men’s national team will continue its FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Americas qualifying campaign with a Canada Day matchup Friday against the Dominican Republic at FirstOntario Centre.

Both Gilgeous-Alexander and Alexander-Walker are very eager to play together in front of their home fans.

“First time home in three years, playing with Shai for the first time since I was in high school. I'm excited. I think about it everyday,” Alexander-Walker said.”

“The last time I played (at home) I was 17,” added Gilgeous-Alexander during a Team Canada practice Tuesday. “This environment is always fun — guys I grew up with, guys I grew up watching, getting to play on the same team with my cousin. It will be fun. I can’t wait for this experience.”

As children, the two cousins went against each other on the driveway, always pushing each other to be better with a relationship more akin to that of brothers. They played with each other in high school – even rooming with one another while down in Tennessee together – before they went on their separate paths, with Gilgeous-Alexander going on to star at Kentucky before leaving after one year getting taken 11th overall by the Charlotte Hornets and then getting his rights traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2018 and Alexander-Walker playing two seasons in a key role with Virginia Tech before getting drafted 17th overall in 2019 and ending up with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Since reaching the NBA, Gilgeous-Alexander’s star has been on a steady rise. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 2019 and was then traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder that summer as part of a blockbuster deal that saw Chris Paul sent to OKC. In the three seasons that Gilgeous-Alexander has played with the Thunder he’s put up all-star calibre numbers despite not yet getting the nod. Last season he averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.

In Alexander-Walker’s case, it’s been a bit of a bumpier road, playing for New Orleans in his first two seasons in the league before going through a transition on two occasions this past season, being traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, and then the Utah Jazz.

“I think he’s had five coaches in a pretty short career,” said Canadian senior men's national team head coach Nick Nurse. “He’s getting ready to have another one. He’s gonna need some stability to help him. … I think the talent is there. He’s just gonna have to hang in there and go with the flow of the way it’s rolled out for him and continue to take advantage of his opportunities.

“When he gets a window to play, pre-season, national team, whatever it is, he needs to take advantage of it and keep getting better.”

And that’s exactly the kind of opportunity that’s in front of Alexander-Walker with committing to playing for Canada this summer and the next two.

“I think he got better from the experience as we saw going into early next season,” said Gilgeous-Alexander of the experience Alexander-Walker had playing for Canada at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C., last year. “I think Canada Basketball gives guys that little run in the summertime of real basketball, real competition. It kind of prepares you for the season.”

And now both cousins will get to have that chance for that extra bit of prep time as they both fulfill a childhood dream of theirs as they attempt to help Canada qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023, a key step towards Paris 2024 Olympic qualification.

“As a kid coming up, my favourite player was Kobe Bryant, so I’ve seen Kobe Bryant play for his national team, I’ve seen the greats play for their national team. I’ve seen them win gold medals and I’ve seen them do things in the NBA that I aspire to do,” said Alexander-Walker. “One of the things that you check off the list, that you think, ‘Okay, I’m going to do.’ I’m kind of learning but you used to validate greatness by, ‘Okay, gold medal here, winning in the league and so forth and so on.

“Definitely playing for the national team was something (Gilgeous-Alexander and I) thought about.”

On Friday, playing on Canada’s 155th birthday in Gilgeous-Alexander’s hometown and Alexander-Walker’s pseudo hometown, it’s sure to be a special homecoming for two members of a special Canadian basketball family.