Grunwald turns focus to dream of Canada Basketball national training centre

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Glenn Grunwald has stepped down as president and CEO of Canada Basketball.(Kathy Willens/AP)

Could Canada’s path to international basketball glory run through Hamilton?

Those are the plans.

And if he can help pull it off it will be one more foundation piece laid down by Glen Grunwald, the Chicago native-turned Canadian basketball executive who has spent a career assembling them.

Wednesday was supposed to be a recognition of Grunwald’s contributions to Canada Basketball in his three years as president and chief executive officer.

In theory Grunwald is retiring, though with plans to stay on as a consultant on the basketball operations side and elite performance.

In his place, Canada Basketball announced Michael Bartlett, the former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. executive, will move up from his current role as Canada Basketball’s chief operating officer.

But Grunwald has one more signature task he wants to see completed in a Canadian tenure that started in 1993 when he joined the pre-expansion Toronto Raptors as legal counsel before eventually becoming general manager and leading a 16-66 tire fire in 1997-98 to three consecutive playoff appearances while drafting franchise icons and future Hall-of-Famers Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

He went on lead the New York Knicks to the playoff while general manager there and enjoyed a successful tenure as athletic director at McMaster University before taking over the reins at Canada Basketball in the summer of 2019.

But his dream now is to see a national basketball training centre built as a venue for Canada’s age group teams, a home for the Canadian basketball Hall of Fame and a home for what should be an unprecedented era of Canadian international basketball success.

His goal now is to raise the funds and get the approvals for a national basketball training centre in Hamilton.

“It’s been a goal of Canada Basketball’s for a long time to build a national training centre, and during the pandemic, we cleaned up our office, and we found plans going back to the 1980s,” said Grunwald.

“But now is the time. There is a tremendous shortage of playing facilities for players across the country. We did our strategic plan, and we talked to a lot of stakeholders, and the two things they told us consistently were one, we need more and better referees, and two, we need more access to facilities. And that’s true across the country, but it’s particularly true here in the GTA … so, I am trying to get this done.

“We have an agreement with the City of Hamilton to go there. We have land already donated to us. We have applications in with the federal government under the new program called the Green Inclusive Community building fund. We have the support of politicians; everyone sees the value of this. The current plans call for an eight-court facility; where three courts convert into a mini arena, where we can host international events and bring sport tourism in there.

“It just makes so much sense for us … [and] I’m going to keep bothering everyone until somebody agrees to fund this thing.”

That’s always the catch. Grunwald leaves Canada Basketball in a better place than he found it, with a robust and business-minded board of directors and world rankings at an all-time high, with youth programs ranked fourth on the girls side and second in boys, while their senior women’s team is ranked fourth in the FIBA World Rankings and the senior men having improved to 18th.

But to reach the organization’s ultimate goals money will matter.

Bartlett takes over an organization with high expectations but without the top-line results that make it easier to attract corporate sponsorships and additional government funding.

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The high-profile men’s team missed out on qualifying for the 2020 Olympics and have advanced to the Summer Games just once in 32 years, even though there are more Canadians in the NBA than from any other country than the United States. The women’s team were medal hopefuls as they advanced to their third straight Olympic tournament but were eliminated in pool play.

Money helps support winning programs, but winning helps generate money.

“Winning performance on the international stage will make business better. We know that,” said Bartlett. “It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. We have to be out talking to partners about the opportunity for them to invest in our future performance. … We anticipate and expect and will hold ourselves accountable to better performances in AmeriCup and World Cup and Olympic competitions for our senior team[s]. But the story and the confidence that we can give to the corporate community and partnership world is that there is performance [in the younger age groups] that we can count on, be proud of and quite frankly better their brands as contributors to our brand. We believe that story.”

Bartlett says the plan going forward is to try to double Canada Basketball’s overall revenues, which are at about $12-13 million today, with roughly 80 per cent of that coming from government funding.

In addition to looking for more corporate partners [Sportsnet is a broadcast partner] he’s hopeful that there are more opportunities in hosting events, from a planned international U22 annual event to grassroots competitions in the fast-growing 3X3 space to age group competitions and sports tourism possibilities.

Having a national training centre and a facility — Grunwald’s passion project — to call their own would round out the plan nicely.

Grunwald has contributed mightily to Canadian basketball over nearly three decades, but he’s not done yet.

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