Canadian basketball is all about the future. It’s a giddy, paradigm-shifting time. For once, anything is possible – and it’s not just an empty slogan.
That’s what struck Canadian team stalwart Levon Kendall in Toronto earlier this month when he gazed around a room dotted with some of the brightest young stars in the sport.
“It really came to light in the first meeting we had. Andrew Wiggins was there, who I’d never met and Kelly Olynyk and Anthony Bennett …,” says Kendall. “And both (head coach) Jay Triano and (general manager) Steve Nash were saying we have a chance to really change the perception of basketball in this country.”
But the future must be earned, beginning with the national team’s appearance at the FIBA Americas Championship, which kicks off Friday at 11:15 a.m. when Canada faces Jamaica in Caracas, Venezuela.
It’s the first meaningful event in the Steve Nash-Anthony Bennett-Andrew Wiggins-Kelly Olynyk-and-all-the-rest era. It’s where the future begins.
A top-four finish and Canada advances to the World Cup of Basketball in 2014 in Spain. That would be a platform from where a successful attempt to qualify for the 2016 Olympics could be launched, by which time all of Canada’s young talent might actually be in uniform.
But for now they’re not. Bennett and Olynyk, the first and 13th picks in the 2013 NBA draft are injured; Wiggins — likely the No.1 pick in 2014 — took the summer off from international play while heading into his pivotal freshman season at Kansas University.
Yet the present still matters, desperately. Securing badly-needed corporate funding is a lot easier when there’s a World Cup appearance on the horizon. Putting together a team that can be successful in Olympic qualifying in 2015 would be helped immeasurably by having a competitive summer schedule in 2014 to integrate Canada’s new, young talent.
But in their absence the job still has to get done, and the irony in all of this is that securing Canada’s basketball short-term future could well come down to the contributions of those from its not-so-glorious recent past.
Kendall, the 6-foot-10 forward from Vancouver has been there for every moment of it – the disappointing failures to qualify for the 2006 World Championships, 2008 and 2012 Olympics and the 22nd place finish at the Worlds in 2010.
He’s the most-experienced player in the program and at his professional peak at age 29, so while he lacks the NBA pedigree of some of the better-known members of the current team which includes two-time NBA champion Joel Anthony of the Miami Heat and three former first-round NBA picks in Tristan Thompson (Cleveland), Cory Joseph (San Antonio) and Andrew Nicholson (Orlando), he’s by far the expert when it comes to the nuances of international play.
The Canadian team is heading to Venezuela with four NBA players on the roster – the most ever for Canada – but the international game places different demands on them than they’re used to on their home clubs.
“The thing in the NBA is that a lot of guys are specialists,” says Kendall. “ … The NBA is really all about that – there’s rebounders and defenders and they might get a few dump-off passes for dunks, but they they’re not always in such dynamic positions.
“It’s harder to be a specialist in the (international) game because there’s more help defense and zone defense. If you’re an athletic guy who can dunk it’s easier to take that away because there can be three or four guys in the paint.
“It forces guys to be a lot smarter and use other abilities, which a lot of these guys have but in the NBA they don’t always get to use them… but that’s going to be a big factor – how quickly those guys learn and how they can use those other abilities. “
Helping them along the way will be Kendall, who lacks the profile of some of his teammates, but has a world championship bronze medal to his name that he won in 2005 as part of Canada’s u21 team – one of Canadian basketball’s under-appreciated feats.
A perfect example of the kind of player he is that while he was named to the all-tournament team that year while scoring 40 points and 12 rebounds for Canada in a win over the United States in the quarter-finals and adding 16 points and nine rebounds in the bronze-medal game over Australia — while playing in the NCAAs for Pittsburgh or on the senior team or professionally in Europe he has readily accepted more of a facilitating role – defense, rebounding, passing and scoring when necessary.
Already this summer he’s been almost absurdly efficient. While Canada’s 0-4 record at the Tuto Marchand Cup – a tune-up event for the Americas qualifier – is hardly inspiring, a glance at the box scores indicates that Triano was spreading his minutes around for development purposes rather than running a fixed lineup out, night after night, to chase wins.
Kendall only played 42 minutes over the four games but managed nine rebounds and four assists against Brazil in just 16 minutes and four steals, an assist and a three-pointer in 14 minutes against the Dominican Republic. In Canada’s two wins over Jamaica earlier this month he played 29 total minutes and scored 21 points while shooting 7-of-11 from the floor and grabbing nine rebounds along with two each of steals, assists; blocked shots and three-pointers.
He’s the epitome of versatile, and not just because he’s a gifted musician who writes and performs his own songs or does things like use the money raised from a benefit concert to plant fruit trees and dedicate a bench in a park in the Spanish city he played in last season.
“That’s a big reason why I’m here,” says Kendall. “I’ve got over a hundred games for Canada and six years overseas. I feel fairly young at heart but I feel like I have a lot of experience I can share.”
One thing he hasn’t experienced is a high level of success playing for the senior team. Canada’s men’s team has qualified for the Olympics once since 1988. There’s wave of talent coming that promises to change that, but it’s a goal of his to play an essential role to play in making sure the tide raises all boats – not just the ships that have yet to come in.
The next two weeks in Venezuela are about building a foundation for that future and will require some heavy lifting from the likes of Kendall — international veterans who have done most of their work relatively anonymously in the past and aren’t ready to move on now that the spotlight is beginning to shine.
“That’s a little motivation for me to be one of the leaders on the court. You want them to be: ‘damn, they have all these NBA guys, who is this guy? How come we never heard of him before?” says Kendall. “Qualifying for the Olympics … that’s one of my goals that I haven’t accomplished.
“I’ll be pretty disappointed if I play for the national team for 12 or 13 years and miss out on the Olympics … so I’m thankful that I have that opportunity to maybe help out these young guys and help the program get to that level in two or three years. Then I can leave happy and pass it on to the next generation.”
For Kendall and Canada Basketball, the future is bright but the time is now.