Hope remains for fans in stands at FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament

Canada Basketball Head Coach Nick Nurse catches up with Danielle Michaud as the Canadian Training Camp roster is announced ahead of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, BC.

The pieces are coming together but a big question mark remains.

On Thursday, Canada Basketball unveiled a list of 21 players who have accepted an invitation to training camp in advance of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria beginning on June 29th.

It’s quite a list. It includes 16 players either in the NBA this past season or with recent experience competing in the best league in the world. The group has size, depth and as much international flavour as can be expected for a country attempting to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2000 and just the second time in 33 years.

There are a few names that aren’t on the list that you would love to see, but not many. There’s nothing Jamal Murray can do about a torn ACL, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (foot) and Chris Boucher (knee) both came out of their seasons dealing with injuries. With each heading into a contract year, caution is understandable. Kevin Pangos would give Canadian head coach Nick Nurse exactly the kind of FIBA experience at point guard that could ease some of the other players’ transition from the NBA game to an international style, but the first-team all-Euroleague guard is coming off a compressed season. Given he lost nearly a full year due to foot problems aggravated by playing for Canada at the 2019 World Cup, you can understand why he has opted out.

But make no mistake, men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett deserves credit for painstakingly assembling commitments from the most talented pool of players Canada has ever had.

What more could any Canadian basketball fan want as the clock starts ticking on the June 29th-July 4th tournament, a six-team event featuring Greece, Turkey, China, Czech Republic and Uruguay where the only the winner advances to the Olympics in Tokyo?

How about some fans? It’s the remaining wild card, and it’s a big one. The suspense is likely to be played out right to the wire, too.

“I mean obviously we’re playing at home and it would be awesome to have [a home crowd],” Nurse said to Sportsnet in an interview Thursday morning. “Think about what it would have been like if none of this would have happened. It would have been electric in there, right? It would be awesome if somehow they could figure out a way to do it safely to get some of our own fans in there. I know our players would appreciate the lift.”

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Great lengths have been taken to enable Canada to host the OQT, originally schedule for the summer of 2020 before the pandemic put the world on hold for a year and more.

When originally envisioned, the idea was that having Canada play in Victoria in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd of 7,500 at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre would provide something almost unprecedented in the annals of Canadian basketball: a true homecourt advantage.

No effort has been spared. When the local organizing committee – Friends of Victoria Basketball – learned they would need to provide a $3 million guarantee to FIBA to host the event, they didn’t blink. When the opportunity arose to secure the same floor the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship on in 2019 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, the wheels were put in motion.

The efforts have continued.

When the national team needed certainty about their training camp logistics in the lead-up to the OQT, the Raptors made their practice facility in Tampa available to both the men’s and women’s teams, as well as to age group teams planning to compete internationally this summer as well. Nearly two dozen professional athletes have volunteered time during their off-season.

Is it possible that the City of Victoria and the British Columbia government would deem it safe to have some amount of fans at Save-on-Foods? Could some regulations be stretched or timelines be moved ever so slightly?

Certainly Canada Basketball is hopeful.

“The folks out in Victoria have been awesome, both the organizing committee and the government out there,” said Glen Grunwald, Canada Basketball’s president and chief executive officer. “Obviously, public health and safety is the most important thing but we’ve designed a program that we think will ensure not only the safety of the participants but also the community at large.”

There is precedent for crowds in indoor spaces. In New York State, where 64.4 per cent of the adult population has had at least one dose of vaccine against COVID-19, Madison Square Garden hosted 15,000 fans – or about 75 per cent capacity for the New York Knicks playoff game on Wednesday night. The Portland Trail Blazers are hosting 8,000 fans – or just less than 50 per cent capacity at MODO centre – when they play the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of their first-round series and they have 54 per cent of the population having had at least one dose.

In B.C., the seven-day new case average was down to 327 a day as of May 25th, well off its mid-April peak of 1,126. Meanwhile 55 per cent of all age groups in B.C. have received at least one dose of vaccine. The province announced on Tuesday a four-stage plan for re-opening that targets July 1st for “increased capacity for indoor and outdoor gatherings” and allowing fairs and festivals to operate as long as 70 per cent of the adult population has received at least one dose and case counts and hospitalizations continue to decline.

Can that threshold be reached in time? Could the rules even be relaxed to allow a crowd for Canada’s opener against Greece on July 29th in a tournament where every game matters?

Fingers are crossed. Soft diplomacy is being exercised.

A lot of hopes have been tied up in the progress of the senior men’s team for years now as it’s been apparent something spectacular was happening with the explosion of basketball talent and the growth of the sport in Canada.

With necessary players seemingly on board, it’s time to hope once again that the type of energy only a rabid group of patriotic fans can bring are allowed to be part of the story.

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