Canada Basketball’s chance to shine on world stage put on hold

Canadian IOC representative, Dick Pound, joins Writers Bloc to discuss why the IOC hasn’t come out and formally postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and what the most realistic plan B is.

The list of Canadian Olympic athletes that will be affected by what appears certain to be a postponement of the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo is long, their biographies varied.

You have elite athletes struggling to keep their window open for another year and youngsters fighting to push their way through.

In the bigger picture, the 2020 Games were positioned to be a memorable sports moment for Canada, with the Olympic team likely to be the country’s largest contingent of athletes ever thanks in part to a record nine team-sport entries having already qualified, with more on the cusp.

But if we’re going to pour one out for our Olympians who have had dreams delayed with the news the Canadian Olympic Committee wasn’t going to send a team to Japan even if the International Olympic Committee was determined to plow ahead – although it now appears that even the IOC has seen the light and is thought to be working on a plan to postpone already — can we save a little extra for the Canadian basketball contingent?

What was looking like a summer like no other is now inevitably and sensibly being overtaken by far greater concerns as sports bodies and governments grapple with the fallout from COVID-19, the pandemic that has brought the world largely to its knees for the moment.

“We don’t know when it will be safe to be in a community again, physically, and when that happens we’ll get going again,” said Canada Basketball chief executive officer Glen Grunwald. “Things are changing on a daily basis, we just have to be prepared for however the situation unfolds and do what’s right.”

The timing is tough, there is no denying it.

On both the men’s and women’s side there seemed to be the possibility of a real breakthrough for Canada in what is the glamour event among team sports at the Summer Games.

It has been so long coming.

The Canadian women’s team, which has been marching steadily up the hill since winning a last-chance qualifying to crack the field in London in 2012, seemed to be peaking, coming off quarter-finals appearances during the last two Olympics.

Over the years the team has kept replenishing itself under head coach Lisa Thomaidis, somehow getting younger and more experienced at the same time while adding length and athleticism.

They punched their ticket to Japan by going 3-0 against top competition in Belgium in February and were rolling into Tokyo ranked fourth in the world – the best ever for a Canadian team in any sport other than hockey. A podium finish was in the plan.

On the men’s side things were a little more uncertain – Canada would have had to win its Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria in June – but the hopes were just as high and arguably equally as justified.

After one Olympic appearance in 32 years and none in 20 years – even as basketball was gaining more and more traction across the country and Canadians were making a bigger name for themselves in the NBA – this was supposed to be the year everything came together.

Lacking a large swath of their 20-plus pool of NBA players, Canada fell short of qualifying for the Olympics at the World Cup in China last year but from that disappointment came a great opportunity.

Community support rallied to fund a successful Canadian bid to host the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, a six-team event Canada would have to win to advance to Tokyo.

The prospect of playing at home and the lure of the Olympics seemed to resonate.

One by one Canada’s NBA players committed months in advance, with national team general manager Rowan Barrett nudging, beginning with Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets and including the likes of emerging star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder, third-year wing Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies and on down the line.

Optimism was growing that Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors was waiting until the end of the NBA season to state his plan to play.

Meanwhile, fans were making plans to be in Victoria in force with organizers predicting a sellout. Hotels were tight as CanBall junkies were building summer plans around watching the most important international basketball played in Canada since the 1994 FIBA World Cup.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture a who’s who of Canadian basketball, past and present, gathering for a coming out party.

It’s all up in the air now. Shortly after the COC made its decision to not send athletes to Tokyo, Canada Basketball came out in support of the move, even as FIBA gently urged the IOC to postpone the games.

With momentum building towards a postponement it’s a matter of when, not if, the final decision is made on the OQT.

“We’re just waiting for the dominoes to fall,” said Grunwald. “The tournament itself is based upon the Olympics and we’re waiting on the Olympics to make their decision. I’m still very hopeful that we’ll host it here in Canada in Victoria, but the timing of it is obviously up in the air. There’s nothing more to say about it than that.”

Grunwald is confident that if the Games are postponed to 2021, Victoria can still be a viable host for the OQT event although there are too many variables in play to go much further than that.

“The spirit of this has been wonderful,” said Grunwald. “The folks in Victoria aren’t doing it for any other reason than to help their community build a basketball legacy there and help Canada qualify for the Olympics.

“They’re sticking with us and we remain hopeful that it’s all going to happen, that the Olympics will figure out the right time to hold it and it will be a great experience for everyone.”

The delay could create other wrinkles. Is Raptors head coach Nick Nurse under contract to coach the national team through 2020 or through the Olympics, which now could be in 2021? And could the disruption to the NBA season crowd the 2020-21 season – there has been talk of a Christmas-to-August season next year to accommodate a late finish to the suspended 2019-2020 campaign — to the point where he might not be available for an early summer qualifying event?

Again, more unknowns, but Grunwald seemed less concerned on that front.

“I think Nick still wants to coach the team and we want him to coach the team,” he said. “It’s just a matter of the timelines and all that stuff, I don’t see any issues there.”

If there is a positive it’s that Canada’s pool of players could be even deeper. Contract issues that made veterans Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk doubtful for playing in the qualifying tournament this summer should be resolved by 2021 and Dwight Powell should be healthy after a season-ending Achilles injury ruined his chances this year. Meanwhile, Canada’s young core of NBA talent should be that much further along on their development curve.

This was supposed to be the summer that Canada Basketball shone brightest internationally.

Now, thanks to the ultimate plot twist, everyone will have to wait.

That much, at least, we’re used to.

“All the athletes are in the same position and we have to do the best for all,” said Grunwald. “Now’s the time to be smart about it and take our time and get it right.”

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