Somewhere Jack Donohue is smiling.
And not because he’s being honoured as the first Canadian basketball player or coach to earn recognition in FIBA’s Hall of Fame, a tribute that comes 10 years after the most revered coach in our country’s basketball history died from cancer.
Donohue was already in a half-dozen Halls of Fame by the time he passed away at age 70 in 2003, a show of respect for the 17 years he spent building and leading the national team in the country the New York native came to call home.
No, he’s likely smiling because the foundation of Canadian basketball he began building in virtual obscurity 40 years ago remains in place. The traditions and values he tried to impart as a Catholic primary school teacher-turned-basketball-coach-turned-Canadian-sporting icon remain recognizable if you look hard enough, and not just because Jay Triano, one of his favourite players, is once again the national team’s head coach.
The question, as Canada begins to find its way back from the international basketball wilderness, is how many will recognize the person who put Canadian basketball on the map in the first place?
“He would be really proud of where the program is headed,” says Steve Konchalski, the head coach at Saint Francis Xavier University and Donohue’s longtime national team assistant. “The shame of it is most young players today don’t have any idea who Jack Donohue is.”
It’s not their fault, really. What Canada did with Donohue in charge has never been properly appreciated in part because it happened a long time ago and in part because a sixth-place finish at the world championships in basketball doesn’t resonate the way another gold medal in hockey might. It’s not a story with a simple headline.
But Donohue’s story is a worthy one, if only because talking about it means another chance to make reference to his coaching philosophy: “You can only be a good basketball player for a certain amount of time,” he used to say. “You can be a good person the rest of your life.”
But Donohue liked to win as much as the next guy, perhaps more. He once had a 28-day training camp in Ottawa where his team practised three times a day, six days a week. On Sundays they would only practise twice so that he could go to church in the morning. That’s 80 practices in 28 days, if you’re counting.
“As much as I love basketball, it was like being in prison,” says Konchalski, laughing. “He had a soft side, but he could be a very tough guy.”
This is the first summer of the ‘new’ Canada Basketball. It’s been just over a year since Steve Nash was introduced as the general manager of senior men’s program and — just as important — his old teammate Rowan Barrett was appointed as the assistant general manger and executive vice-president.
The stated goal was to elevate Canada alongside the leading basketball countries in the world, to gun for medals at the world championships and the Olympics. But really the goal is to return Canada to where Donohue had them under his watch. The challenge is to get back to a place they already were.
Based on the age of what could be called the ‘Wiggins generation’ — the crowd of emerging talent in their late teens and early 20s — the greatest moments for basketball in our country could be another Olympic or world championship cycle from now.
That’s when players like Wiggins, the uber-talented 18-year-old set to enroll at the University of Kansas, or Tristan Thompson, the emerging NBA star with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and perhaps a dozen other NBA players with Canadian passports will be in their primes.
That’s when the real tests will come.
But in the meantime Canada’s performance on some early pop quizzes this summer is encouraging.
The junior men’s development team — a roster made up of current college players, including senior men’s team candidates Kevin Pangos of Gonzaga University, Dwight Powell of Stanford and Kyle Wiltjer of Kentucky — went a perfect 9-0 under Triano on a tour of China over the past few weeks, including three straight wins over United States and China.
The under-16 boys team won a bronze medal at the FIBA Americas championship last week, missing out on the chance to play for a silver medal after falling in overtime to Argentina in the semifinal. They will play in the world championships next summer.
Next week the under-19 team, featuring NBA prospects such as Trey Lyles and Tyler Ennis, will be competing in the world championships in Prague and later this summer one of the most competitive senior men’s camps in recent memory will open in Toronto, with as many as 10 current or recent NBA players among a pool of 20 or more serious candidates aiming to earn a spot in the world championships in Barcelona in 2014.
That team will likely form the core of the roster that will try qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. If they pull it off it will be the first time a Canadian men’s team will have made it to the Olympics since Steve Nash and Barrett were in the backcourt for Canada at Sydney 2000.
Lifting Canada out the basketball doldrums has been the focus for Nash and Barrett and Triano.
What is remarkable and the reason for Donohue’s induction to the FIBA Hall of Fame is what came before.
Before coming to Canada Donohue was best known as Kareem-Abdul Jabbar’s high school coach at New York City’s Power Memorial High School in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and later as twice being the NCAA coach of the year while at Holy Cross in the mid-to-late 1960s.
Canada was hosting the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976 and Donohue was hired to build a world class team. He was starting at the bottom. Canada hadn’t qualified for the Munich Games in 1972 but had a chance to earn a spot among 12 other nations in a last-chance play-in tournament.
They finished 12th.
“Even among the also-rans, we were last,” said Konchalski who joined Donohue on the bench as an assistant coach in 1973 and stayed there for 16 years.
That next summer they travelled to Cuba to play the defending Olympic bronze medalists and lost by 40, Konchalski was recalling from his office in Antigonish, N.S.
But two summers later in 1975 Canada beat defending gold medalists Soviet Union in an exhibition game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens, a bigger upset than any effort by a Canadian hockey team during that era.
In 1976 in Montreal Canada beat Cuba in the preliminary round and finished fourth in the tournament, a result that — arguably — remains the high point of Canada’s international basketball history on the men’s side. It will be a ball signed by the members of the 1976 Olympic team that will be displayed at the FIBA Hall of Fame.
But that level of success wasn’t an isolated event. Under Donohue Canada qualified for every Olympic tournament from 1976 through 1988, finishing fourth twice and sixth in 1988. At the world championships Canada was also a factor, finishing sixth twice and eighth once.
What happened after Donohue retired in 1988?
Canada has been back to the Olympics only once. Their average finish at the world championships has been 11th and trending down — they failed to qualify for the worlds in 2006 and finished 22nd in 2010.
The goal of everyone involved in Canada Basketball is to make those results a relic of the past — a blip in time when the basketball world surged ahead and Canada stood still, falling behind by doing nothing.
If it changes — and the betting here is it will and in a big way — Donohue will have had a hand in every win, every international success and every medal to come.
He took a team from last among also-rans to fourth in the world, proving it could be done. There remains an unbroken line from him to Triano to Nash to Wiggins.
Whatever peaks Canada manages to climb in the next decade as a golden generation of talent comes into their own they’ll reach on a trail blazed by Donohue — a Canadian original, courtesy of the Bronx, recognized on Wednesday in Geneva.