Canada Basketball’s O’Keefe stepping down ahead of Golden Age

(Chris Young/CP)

Wayne Parrish, the co-chairman of the board for Canada Basketball, has a simple pitch for whoever takes over from Michele O’Keefe as the new leader of the organization:

Close your eyes and imagine yourself courtside in the Saitama Super Arena north of Tokyo at the 2020 Summer Olympics as a young but exceptionally talented Canadian men’s basketball team tries to complete its Cinderella run through the tournament by ending Team USA’s gold-medal hegemony.

Or how about hearing the national anthem being played later this September at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Tenerife Spain when the fast-rising senior women’s team earns Canada’s first medal in a major international competition in nearly a quarter century?

Or having your finger on the pulse of one of the fastest-growing sports cultures anywhere, one that is producing NBA- and WNBA-calibre talent at a rate nearly unrivalled on the planet?

“That’s what you can put in the shop window for this job,” says Parrish. “The growth and development of the game and the trajectory it’s on … it’s not going to abate. It’s an incredible gig.”

But it’s only available because O’Keefe, Canada’s Basketball’s current president and chief executive officer and arguably the most successful leader the organization has ever had, decided it was time to go home again.

A native of Welland, Ont., O’Keefe announced Wednesday she was leaving Canada Basketball after nearly a decade travelling the world and earning the respect of international basketball’s movers and shakers from Geneva to Buenos Aires while also herding cats domestically from Regina to Fredericton.

“I always said that for the right job I would go back to the Niagara region,” said O’Keefe, who will stay on in here role with Canada Basketball until June 30th before taking over as the associate director of athletics and recreation at Niagara College, based in her hometown. “You can’t do a job like this forever.”

She’s made the most of her time since taking over from Parrish as president and CEO in 2015 following joining Canada Basketball in an executive role in 2010. Together they had helped lift a near-bankrupt organization – there were moments in the mid-2000s when paying rent at their offices in the west end of Toronto was a challenge — to solvency while developing a strong foundation for future growth.

O’Keefe’s decision didn’t catch the organization off guard but they would have loved to have kept her on, Parrish said. The search for a successor will begin immediately and there is optimism that the improved profile of Canada Basketball should yield a deep field of candidates but there is no short list at the moment.

Names likely to surface as potential candidates include Glen Grunwald, the longtime NBA executive and Canada Basketball board member who is currently the director of athletics at McMaster University and Maurizio Gherardini, one of the most respected figures in international basketball, a former Toronto Raptors executive and a long-time advisor to the program.

As interest and participation in basketball continues to surge across Canada it is finally being reflected by the performance of Canadian teams internationally.

Canada is ranked sixth overall in FIBA and fifth on the women’s side on the strength of a senior women’s program that finished eighth in the 2012 Olympics, seventh in 2016 and will be a medal threat both at the World Championships in Spain later this year and in Tokyo in 2020.

On the men’s side Canada’s depth of elite talent hasn’t yet been converted to international success but, as the leading provider of NBA players outside of the US, that could change as soon as the 2019 World Championships in Beijing or in Tokyo a year later.

Meanwhile the talent pool continues to grow, as suggested by the u19 World Championships gold RJ Barrett – considered the top high school-aged player in the world – led Canada to in Egypt last summer, the first world title for a Canadian team of either gender.

In that sense O’Keefe is the chef who’s leaving before dessert.

“It’s going to be really tough, no doubt about it,” she said of the prospect of Canada thriving internationally in her absence. “But I’ll be satisfied to watch in it on DAZN [digital streaming service with right to FIBA].”

In amateur sports executives and coaches can easily find themselves butting heads but it’s a measure of the esteem O’Keefe is held to that both Jay Triano, the senior men’s head coach, and Lisa Thomaidis, the senior women’s team bench boss, are sad to see her go.

“I’d like to thank her for everything she’s done to help build the program,” said Triano. “Our communication has always been open and honest. In amateur sports in Canada funding is always going to be a challenge and I’ve known that since I was a player, but we’ve always had a common goal of growing basketball in Canada and that has always made our relationship easy.”

Says Thomaidis: “I’ve only ever felt nothing but support from Michele, she’s always been a champion of women’s basketball and women in sport and growing the profile of our national team in the country. It’s going to be a big loss, for sure.”

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O’Keefe can take satisfaction not only in cooking the meal but gathering the ingredients and setting the table.

“She’s done tremendous work in the eyes of the world and FIBA but also a lot of work behind the scenes that goes unmentioned in terms of the relationships she’s built across Canadian basketball,” said Parrish. “She leaves a huge hole in the organization. It’s a bittersweet day here.”

While most of the attention that a national sports organization gets is garnered by the performance of its teams internationally, so much of the job is about being able to build bridges and deliver programs that build and sustain the grassroots.

O’Keefe has excelled in both areas. She represents Canada on the FIBA Central Board – the adult table of international basketball – as well as serving as the vice-president of FIBA Americas.

Under her guidance Canada has gotten back into hosting international competitions – the 2015 FIBA Americas women’s championships in Edmonton and the U18 FIBA Americas boys championships in St. Catharines next month are examples.

But she’s also been instrumental in leading the charge in areas that fall well off the radar, such as improving relationships with the provincial governing bodies or establishing the Canadian Basketball Officials Commission to help – among other things – enhance the voice of referees in the game and bolster their development path.

Her years in the basketball community – she was previously the executive director of Basketball Ontario before returning to Canada Basketball where she started in communications – made here aware that it was these kinds of efforts that would pay off in the long run.

“Nobody gives a flying fadoo about that stuff; the national teams are the sexy piece,” says O’Keefe. “But I was determined to break down the silos and have alignment between all the parties.”

It’s a job that is never done, but O’Keefe has raised the bar higher than it has been before and even as she’s poised to move on she has a message for her successor:

“People say this is the Golden Age of basketball in our country,” she says. “But it’s not. It’s just getting started. Just watch and see what’s going to be happening here. It’s incredible.”

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