Back in Hamilton, Gilgeous-Alexander set for special Canada Basketball return

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) smiles after his shot against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half of an NBA basketball game. (Jessie Alcheh/AP)

Playing basketball for Canada often means only rarely getting to play basketball in Canada.

It’s part of the job description for so many of the country’s elite men and women, who commonly leave home to pursue elite opportunities in the United States early in their high school years, spend time at U.S. colleges after that and – if all goes well – matriculate to jobs in the States or Europe as professionals.

If and when they do play under the maple leaf, the competitions are typically far afield. The FIBA World Cup of Basketball is in Japan and the Philippines next summer. If the Canadian men make it to the Olympics in 2024, it will be in Paris.

So playing for Canada on Canada Day in Hamilton as part of World Cup qualifying?

Sign me up.

At least that’s how Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was looking at it.

The Oklahoma City Thunder star last played in Hamilton as a 16-year-old when he led St. Thomas More Secondary School to the Midget high school championship. He was off to high school in the U.S. shortly after that, joining forces with his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“I was maybe 16 years old [the last time I played in Hamilton], in high school. Long time. Now I’m 36,” he joked (Gilgeous-Alexander is 23).

“[But] it should be good. Hamilton has a huge basketball fan base,” he added. “Kids play basketball. Guys play pick-up basketball outside. I didn’t know that before I moved to Hamilton. I realized how much they love basketball. The crowd should be good.”

Canada faces the Dominican Republic at FirstOntario Centre in downtown Hamilton. It is the penultimate game of the opening round of World Cup Qualifying. Canada leads Group C with a 4-0 record and has already advanced to the second round of qualifying. They finish the first round on Monday at Virgin Islands.

As if playing at home in Hamilton wasn’t enough, playing with his cousin – now with the Utah Jazz – is another bonus.

“It’s gonna be super fun. Haven’t done so since high school. Played against him a lot, obviously. Playing with him this time will be fun,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.

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The cousins – who will likely form head coach Nick Nurse’s starting backcourt – won’t be the only players with friends and family in the stands. The majority of the roster has ties to the Greater Toronto Area and appreciates the chance to play in front of familiar faces.

“It’s amazing,” said national team veteran Dwight Powell who is from Toronto. “Anytime we get a chance to play here in Canada it’s a little bit more – it’s a lot more special. … You feel it, there’s definitely a difference. So to be able to play in front of even more of a home crowd and you know, just down the street from where I grew up is huge, and it’s a blessing. It’s an amazing opportunity. Definitely looking forward to it.” 

It was Alexander-Walker who helped encourage Gilgeous-Alexander to sign on to play as part of the three-year commitment Canada Basketball asked from its pool of players in order to build a more cohesive roster from summer to summer. It was a strategy that came with some risks – Andrew Wiggins, who starred this month in the NBA Finals for the Golden State Warriors, for example, chose not to include his name among the 14 players that have put their names forward.

It doesn’t mean he won’t play, but according to men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett, he’ll only play if someone from the original 14 chooses not to or otherwise isn’t available.

Alexander-Walker made his senior men’s team debut last summer at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria. The outcome wasn’t what anyone wanted – Canada lost in overtime to the Czech Republic in the semi-finals and missed out on the Olympics for the fifth straight and the seventh in the last eight Olympic cycles – but the experience has stayed with the 6-foot-6 23-year-old.

“It was a lot of fun, and it taught me a lot,” said Alexander-Walker. “I think it really helped me in a lot more ways than I thought. Just the meaning, the passion and the fun and the joy that you get from representing Canada and having Canada on your chest, it’s a blessing to be on that level. And to play alongside great players. NBA champions – two NBA champions, actually [Wiggins and Cory Joseph] – guys who are gonna do great things in this league, learning from them in this camp while you’re here, and then just taking it to your team and growing and just the comradery every summer and being around great Canadian players.

“… It’s exciting. Hopefully … we’ve got everyone back and everyone’s healthy and to be able to make a run and medal would be amazing.”

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Canada’s plan was laid out to its prospective player pool in Las Vegas last summer during NBA Summer League. It was head coach Nick Nurse who was leading the presentation, but he didn’t get to start it before he had his first player, Gilgeous-Alexander, jump on board.

“I was just about ready to start a big speech about why we were here and what we were doing and he interrupted me,” said Nurse. “And said ‘I’ve gotta say something,’ 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.

It was a pivotal moment, given Gilgeous-Alexander is on par with Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray (who is also committed but still recovering from a knee injury) and Wiggins as Canada’s best NBA player at any given moment.

Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t play last summer as he was coming off a foot injury and in the midst of negotiating a lucrative contract extension with the Thunder, but he’s all in now.

“He’s been super conscientious, super communicative about everything and his excitement to play,” said Nurse. “I’ve heard it quite a few times from him about how pumped he is to be here … so he’s been great, super professional and super excited to be here.”

For Gilgeous-Alexander the timing is right, and he wants to take advantage.

“I just feel like I had a chance to play last summer [in Victoria] and obviously qualify for the Olympics, which is obviously what everyone in the country wants to do, it just didn’t work out,” he said. “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.”

That he gets to start his journey with his cousin and in front of a rare home crowd makes it that much more special.

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