TORONTO — Canada’s path to the 2019 FIBA World Cup was paved on the backs of 35 different players.
They came from the NBA, the NCAA, Euroleague, U Sport and even high school. They came willingly. They got paid nothing. Some travelled halfway around the world. A good portion did so knowing their chances of suiting up for Canada in this summer’s World Cup are slim.
A day after the Canadians’ thrilling 94-67 rout of Brazil that punched their ticket to the 2019 World Cup, Rowan Barrett spoke with admiration about the growing culture of commitment within the country’s best basketball players.
"This is about the players. It doesn’t work if they don’t want it. And I think their level of sacrifice and commitment is to be commended," said Barrett, the GM of Canada’s men’s program.
"I would love to see a change in any narrative that speaks disparagingly about our players and their desire to play. It’s flat out wrong," he added. "Let’s be real and look at what’s happening, the level of sacrifice, these guys are putting their bodies on the line, the amount of hours they have to travel to do this, just for their country, they’re taking risks, and they’re doing this. I’m elated as a former player to see my countrymen step forward and answer the call like this."
Canada’s victory came after a combined 43 hours of travel from their camp in Orlando to Venezuela and then Brazil.
The 46-year-old Barrett, who’s also dad of Duke star R.J. Barrett, remembers the adverse conditions in big games on the road. He played in the 1998 and 2002 world championships and the 2000 Olympics — the most recent Olympic appearance for the men’s team.
"In order for us to qualify for the 2000 Olympics, we had to beat Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico," Barrett said in a phone call from Durham, N.C., there for his son’s game on Tuesday. "I can remember there were cars in the street trying to block our path. You’d get off the bus and they were jeering. At the arena they were throwing things at us. We’re in the locker room and the coach is trying to do the pre-game and they’re banging on the door, screaming things in Spanish. Anything to try to interrupt your focus.
"I just remember thinking ‘OK, do your best, let the dog-and-pony show go on, we’re going to beat you. Doesn’t matter what you do. It’s coming.’ But we also had to suffer through some losses to go to that point. I think that maturation and mental fortitude all came together when we finally qualified in ’99. And I’m starting to see that with this group."
Canada limped to a miserable 0-5 at its last World Cup in 2010 in Turkey, finishing 22 out of 24 countries.
Next summer in China, the country should field its best squad in history, blessed with a deep talent pool.
"I think that a part of being the greatest team ever is performing like it," Barrett said. "Our guys have to show up, and we’ve got to perform. On demand."
Competition to make the squad will be fierce. While Canada could have at least 17 NBA players to choose from after the 2019 draft, the roster likely won’t be comprised exclusively of NBA players.
"We need to pick the best team, and the best team is not always the most talented team," Barrett said. "I think winning our (U19) world championship in 2017, first ever in our 93-year history, if that taught us anything, it’s that the best team is going to have the best chance to win. The one where we can set roles. When I talk to my NBA guys now, and I hear them saying ‘If I’ve got to come off the bench so another player feels good and he’s in the right mindspace to be great, I’ll do it.’ That’s the stuff that we’re going to need in order to be successful."
The work of communicating with players, and gauging their interest, started a long time ago, Barrett said. He doesn’t believe that anybody who’s available and is selected will say no.
"The type of enthusiasm that players have for next summer is exciting," he said.
The World Cup runs Aug. 31 to Sept. 15. The top eight teams, including Olympic host Japan, book automatic berths in the 2020 Tokyo Games. Canada’s top finish in the event was sixth in 1978 and ’82.
Just five weeks into the NCAA seasons, Canadians are already turning heads south of the border. Barrett captured ACC freshman of the week honours. The Duke forward is the NCAA’s top rookie scorer averaging 23.1 points a night… Luguentz Dort has already captured both NCAA player of the week and Pac-12 player of the week honours. The Arizona State rookie guard is averaging 21.7 points a night, second in rookie scoring behind Barrett… Andrew Nembhard was named the SEC freshman of the week. The Florida Gators point guard had 11 assists with no turnovers in a recent win, becoming the second SEC freshman to record that many assist with no turnovers since 1967… Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis earned Big 10 freshman of the week after averaging 18 points in two wins…And Noah Kirkwood, a freshman at Harvard, won Ivy League rookie of the week.
Elsewhere, Chris Boucher of Raptors 905 earned G League player of the week, averaging 30.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks. And Natalie Achonwa earned Interperformances player of the week after leading Chinese team Jiangsu with 29 points and 11 boards in a game.