Thompson joins Team Canada in hopes of saving Olympic dream

Canada's Tristan Thompson (Fernando Llano/AP)

Tristan Thompson has never seen the game that caused him to interrupt his summer vacation to fly halfway around the world to help anchor a last-ditch effort to qualify for the Rio Olympics by the Canadian men’s basketball team.

Not in video format, anyway.

While his friends and teammates were in Mexico City last September fighting for Canada’s first Olympic berth since 2000 and just the second since 1988, Thompson was back home in the midst of a difficult contract negotiation with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It eventually kept him out of training camp for three weeks before he signed a five-year deal for $82-million, kicking off a dream season that culminated with an NBA title just two weeks ago.

But Thompson was in Mexico City in spirit, via his smart phone, following the play-by-play of Canada’s pivotal semifinal game against Venezuela, a team Canada had thumped by 20 in round-robin play.

Win and Canada was going to Rio.

What he watched in nearly real time was one of the most painful moments in Canadian basketball history. Canada was up seven with 3:19 to play but failed to score again. With two seconds and the score tied Venezuela launched a long jumper that missed and bounced about four feet above the backboard. In the scramble Canada’s Aaron Doornekamp was called for a phantom loose-ball foul. Venezuela’s Greg Vargas hit the winning free throw with 0.3 seconds left.

It was crushing. Just like that Canada’s Olympic dream was delayed if not denied.

It’s easy to imagine that if Thompson was patrolling the paint he would of snatched up the rebound that led to the loose ball foul. It’s easy to imagine if he was there Canada’s lead would have been much bigger than seven, his hard-nosed, all hustle play being exactly what Canada seemed to be missing in what was a ragged, rugged game.

“Don’t worry, I was pissed, I was cursing,” he told me about his reaction to the game a few weeks ago when his decision to join the national team this summer was still up in there air.

Thompson was in the midst of the NBA Finals and loathe to get into a detailed discussion about national team commitments when so much else was going on. But already there were some indications he was going to try and make something work this summer.

Unlike Andrew Wiggins and Nik Stauskas – the only Canadian NBAers healthy and under contract who had formally declined invitations to play – Thompson had kept the door open to the possibility, staying in touch with national team head coach Jay Triano via text and keeping his public comments vague.

With his deal in place and his standout performance in the NBA Finals behind him Thompson is trying to make up for lost time.

“He’s come in, he’s practised hard. He’s been a leader,” said Triano on conference call from Manila. “He’s got a lot of pride. … I told him let’s make it a great year. You’ve got a great contract, you’re an NBA champion, let’s make you an Olympian.

“He said, ‘That’s what I’m here for coach.’”

He joined the team in the Philippines for a few days of practice before the Olympic Qualifying Tournament – one of three being held to determine the final make-up of the Olympic field – which begins Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. ET with a game against Turkey.

Canada is in Group A with Turkey and Senegal. Group B includes France, Philippines and New Zealand. The top two teams in each group advance to the semi-finals where they crossover. The winners of the semi-finals meet in the finals on July 10 with the winners earning one of three remaining spots in the Olympic tournament beginning August 6.

France, ranked fifth in the world, is the presumed favourite and will be bolstered by the late addition of Nicolas Batum, fresh off singing a $120-million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. They will also have NBAers Tony Parker and Boris Diaw of the San Antonio Spurs.

Much of the story leading up to the tournament has been who among Canada’s deepening pool of NBA players isn’t with the team this summer.

Kelly Olynyk, who scored 36 in the loss to Venezuela, is rehabbing a shoulder injury. Andrew Nicholson and Dwight Powell were free agents who reached contract agreements too late in the process to be added to the Canadian roster. Wiggins and Stauskas each elected to take the summer to work on their skill and fitness heading into their third NBA seasons and have taken their share of public criticism for it.

Thompson doesn’t judge, but thinks people are too quick to criticize.

“It’s not fair, we have a lot of stuff going on,” he said before making his decision to play. “Obviously you want to represent your country but guys have contractual situations you have to deal with and that stuff is important. That’s how you take care of yourself and your family. It’s tough. Sometimes guys are put in tough situations.

“Everyone has a different reason.”

There’s little doubt that Canada is at the beginning of what should be a special era for the men’s national team (and always worth noting that the women, legitimate medal contenders in Rio, are already where the men want to be). No country besides the United States has as many NBA players as Canada does, and more are on the way – Jamal Murray was the 12th Canadian taken in the first round of the NBA draft in the past five years and the pipeline remains full behind him.

Even with NBA players not in Manila, Canada still has more players from the world’s best league on its roster (five if you include Anthony Bennett) than any other team.

It’s completely reasonable for Canadians to dream about playing the U.S. for a gold medal at the Olympics or World Championships in the next decade or so.

But you have to qualify to compete and Canada isn’t so deep in talent that they can win without some of their best players making sacrifices to participate.

That’s why Thompson’s presence is so important. He could have cited fatigue after the Finals and he didn’t. He could have promised to meet the team in Rio if they made it and he didn’t.

Thompson had good reason to sit out a year ago. What he saw on his phone – a disaster unfolding in slow motion – made him determined to play this summer and hopefully help set Canada’s Olympic dreams in motion even while others in his position are at rest.