That Canada is entering or in the midst of a ‘golden age’ for basketball is accepted wisdom. The number and quality of NBA players has exploded in the past 10 years with no end in view and similarly the number of Canadians making an impact in the top rungs of European basketball.
Citing Canada as a team on the rise in international hoops has been a signifier of hoops cred for so long it’s almost become cliché, particularly since the senior men’s national team — for all its theoretical potential and tantalizing star power — has yet to do anything of note on the global stage since Steve Nash was splitting defences at the Olympics in 2000.
But for those watching a little more closely, Canada’s hoops renaissance has long been underway, led by a senior women’s program that has steadily climbed the international rankings, a group firmly of the belief that the best is yet to come.
Led by WNBA stars Kia Nurse and Natalie Achonwa and bolstered by a deep and varied roster of elite internationals, Canada has risen to No. 5 in the FIBA World Rankings under head coach Lisa Thomaidis. The team is gathered in Toronto this week for its final week of preparation, before the hunt for a medal begins Sept. 22 at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain. Their goals are high.
On the men’s side, even qualifying for the Olympics has been a challenge – the last time they made it to the World Championships was in 2010, when they finished 22nd. They’ve since missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 Worlds and the 2016 Olympics. They are well on their way towards earning a spot in the 2019 FIBA Word Cup, but a long way from where they could have been.
In the meantime, the women — with much less hype — have been to two consecutive Olympics (finished seventh and eighth, respectively), have won gold at home at the 2015 Pan American Games, have won consecutive golds in the Americas regional qualifying and have big plans to build on that success next month.
“With this group there is a lot of collective confidence,” said Thomaidis after her group’s first workout at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in advance of a pair of exhibition games next week against Japan and the U.S. in Connecticut.
“They really have a lot of belief in each other. I think there is a lot of belief there that we can beat anyone and really perform well and that’s fun to see and now we have to leverage that for results.”
They key is to always focus on the process, and as Canada’s talent pool on the women’s side has grown, the national team has fine-tuned its approach as well.
It has forgone long, grinding training camps that sometimes forced players to choose between their professional commitments, their health and their country to a more streamlined approach with three shorter and more distinct training camps building up to the World Cup, allowing players to plan accordingly.
But now, with the final goal in sight, the women’s team can claim what the men could only dream about in recent years: Everyone the head coach would like to have in camp is healthy and available, creating a great problem in cutting the roster down to 12.
There is no last-minute anxiousness about who may or may not be available or why. Everyone is here.
“That commitment level, that dedication, that’s always there, that’s the best part of Canada Basketball and our women’s team,” said national team veteran Natalie Achonwa who just finished her WNBA season with the Indiana Fever.
“The big tournaments, everyone answers, everyone comes and that’s because we’ve been in it from a young age. I grew up in Canada Basketball since I was 13, 14 playing on the junior team. That love for putting the Canada jersey on, that’s embedded in me, that’s who I am. It’s never a task coming back, it’s always refreshing coming back here.”
As a professional in women’s basketball, you are almost guaranteed to live an itinerant existence playing for different teams in far-off places. Even the WNBA season is a short sprint crammed in what is the off-season for most leagues around the globe. Most of the players finish that season and head off to start another one in the fall with national team commitments slotted in, too.
Maybe that’s what the national team represents, a constant that players gravitate to when called.
“There’s nothing like coming home and being able to play on your home soil, eat your home food,” said Kia Nurse, who starred as a rookie in the WNBA with the New York Liberty and recently signed to play in Australia this coming winter. “But also, with so many people who are so passionate about the game, and with so much love to come here and put their heart and soul into Canada Basketball.”
Their efforts are appreciated and part of a tradition that precedes them:
“They get turned on [the national team] early,” says Thomaidis. “They’ve had some pretty amazing role models that have come before them so being exposed to them early has played a part and they enjoy it here, whether it’s coming from NCAA or professional context they really see the value in being involved and they see that we care about them and their development and we’ve had some success. When you win it’s fun and when you have people that invest in you they certainly appreciate their time us and vice versa. “
The last element shouldn’t be overlooked. Since squeaking in through last-chance Olympic qualifying to play in London in 2012 – after failing to qualify in 2004 and 2008 – the women have been rolling, riding a surge of talent. Under Thomaidis, they’ve commited to an increasingly up-tempo, athletic style that fits their emerging personnel.
Missing is an opportunity to play for a major medal and ultimately stand on a podium and that is very much where they believe it’s heading.
“We haven’t proven anything yet, that’s a big part of it. We have a chip on our shoulder and a ways to go,” says Thomaidis. “The next step for us is we need to be playing for a medal. We haven’t won a quarter-final on a major international event yet. Our eyes are on that prize and it’s going to be a tough road to get there. World Cup, every team is going to be solid and we have to do a lot of work to get there, but we’re happy with the process and who we have here.”