The world — as we need any reminder after the past 15 months or so — isn’t perfect, and so it shouldn’t be any surprise that the still-evolving edition of the Canadian men’s national basketball team isn’t perfect either.
It likely never will be, and coming to accept that should be an admission test for Canadian basketball fandom.
On paper a ‘Dream Team’ version of Canada’s best is loaded at every position and sprinkled with the kind of elite, difference-making players that allow teams to win at the highest level.
Just close your eyes and imagine Kelly Olynyk grabbing a rebound and flicking a sharp outlet pass to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who then throws it to Jamal Murray with a no-look touch pass that leads the Nuggets star into a wide-open three.
It may never happen. Murray won’t be playing for Canada this summer due to an ACL tear; Gilgeous-Alexander has been shut down for months with plantar fasciitis and has ruled himself out. Olynyk — who has played 12 summers with the senior team — is a free agent positioned to sign what could well be his last long-time NBA deal and with memories of the knee injury he suffered while with the national team two summers ago likely front and centre, was absent Wednesday.
There are other key players missing for different reasons. It is the way of the world.
So it was for good reason men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett began his remarks following the first day of training camp in Tampa in advance of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament June 29 to July 4 in Victoria by expressing gratefulness for those that were in camp and understanding for those that weren’t.
“I want to start by honouring our players that are sacrificing to be here. I don’t use that word lightly, when you think about the condensed season our players have had to play in as a result of COVID, the historic rate of injuries depending on the league you look at,” said Barrett. “Some of them have not seen family for weeks, months even, over a year… but still choosing to play for their countries.
“Committing to a full summer with us all the way into August, some of them will have to leave the Olympics and go right back to their professional teams in Europe as well as shortening the time that they have to rest for those going into the NBA. [So] I want to start by just making sure I honour those players.”
Players had to arrive in Tampa on June 12 for testing and quarantine and — presuming Canada does make it to Tokyo — will be together until Aug. 7. It’s not working in the ER during a pandemic, but nearly two months in the off-season of what are typically short and perilous careers for a professional athlete is not asking nothing either.
Feeling the age-old need to judge those that can’t make it or choose not to?
Save your breath. This isn’t 1984 when Canada could take a team with Canadian university players and part-time professionals to the Los Angeles Olympics and finish fourth, losing in the bronze-medal game to powerhouse Yugoslavia. And this isn’t hockey where the NHL and all the top leagues in Europe pause competition to allow players to play in the Olympics.
The players that aren’t available have reasons. Those that are willing to play should be recognized. The choice isn’t easy. Players have families, nagging injuries, weddings or babies on the way. They work for teams with millions invested in them and have agents who can’t help but counsel their clients to make safer decisions that maximize their career potential.
“I think in any situation, regardless of the reason, when you are asked to spend seven weeks on someone else’s schedule, it’s challenging and especially in these strange COVID pandemic times,” said Dwight Powell, who is hoping to make it to the Olympics after coming so heartbreakingly close in 2015 when he was in Mexico City and Canada lost a semifinal to Venezuela on a phantom foul at the buzzer after dominating the tournament. “We are going to be under rather strict protocols to make sure everybody is safe and we can keep all of our guys together. But, when that reason is to compete for your country, it makes the decision a little bit easier… we are all very excited about this opportunity because that is what it is, first and foremost. So the sacrifice is secondary to the fact that this is an opportunity to represent our country and compete for something that we all hold very near and dear to our hearts. We know that we can make our families and our country proud. That is the main focus really.”
But Powell was on the other side of that coin in 2019 when he had every intention of playing for Canada at the World Cup but backed out when Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle visited him in Toronto to let him know in person how important Powell was to what the Mavericks wanted to do that season. “Yeah, it is a very, very difficult situation,” said Powell. “…You have to sit down with your family and your camp and with yourself kind of quietly and figure out what is the best situation to make the most out of your career. Eventually, that will translate into helping the national team hopefully at some point. But yeah, those are some of the toughest decisions an athlete faces in terms of their career path and in terms of their legacy. That’s really… I feel for anyone that finds themselves in that position because I know what it is like and it’s very, very difficult.”
Which players head coach Nick Nurse will have to draw on in Victoria and — if Canada wins the six-team qualifying tournament — at the Olympics in Tokyo July 23-Aug. 8 is a moving target. Tristan Thompson and Dillon Brooks are believed not to be playing while Olynyk and Khem Birch — stalwarts of the program in recent years – are pending free agents who nevertheless indicated they wanted to play but weren’t on the floor Wednesday.
But there will be some very good players. From the perspective of Canadian basketball, perhaps the most talented team ever with eight current NBA players and two more with recent NBA experience projected to be on the 12-man rotation. A back-of-the-envelope starting five of Cory Joseph, Lu Dort, Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett with Powell at centre has to be taken seriously. Trey Lyles, Mychal Mulder and Nickeil Walker-Alexander give Canada an All-NBA eight-man rotation, while some experienced international pros with long national team ties — Andrew Nicholson, Phil Scrubb, Owen Klassen, Melvin Ejim — should round out the team nicely.
“I’m super appreciative of the guys that are here. We are, as a Canada Basketball organization,” said Nurse. “It’s a lot [and] there’s a lot. We’ve been in the bubble in Orlando, a lot of these guys were there as well. We’ve played in front of no fans. We’ve gone through all these protocols. There’s been testing, like, 400 straight days of testing or whatever it was. And we’re back in pretty heavy protocols again, and not to mention contracts and body and rest and family, and the list goes on and on and on and on.
“So [if the question is] what does it mean? It means everything that they’ve committed.
“It really does.”