MEXICO CITY — Olympian. It has a ring to it. It is one of sports’ great adjectives. It instantly places an athlete in a time and place that requires little further description.
And in the most excruciating, painful, controversial way possible, this generation of Canadian basketball players — perhaps the best Canada has ever had — will have to rely on winning a last-chance qualifying tournament next summer or wait four long years to earn the title they hoped to take with them from Mexico.
“Our dreams have been put on hold,” said head coach Jay Triano.
In their place, a national nightmare, the kind of in-the-moment flop only winning can erase, and they’ll have to wait for their chance to do that.
In a shocking upset at the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship No. 1 seed Canada lost their semi-final to No. 4 Venezuela 79-78, a game decided by a phantom foul called on Aaron Doornekamp with 0.3 seconds left that put Venezuela on the line for the winning free throw when overtime seemed assured. It was only the final insult on a night when Canada was up seven with 3:19 left and lost.
“We looked on video and we didn’t see anything. It’s tough to finish a game like that,” said Triano of the phantom call made by Spanish official Juan Garcia. “Had it gone to overtime, maybe things are different.”
Emphasis on ‘maybe.’ There were two sporting tragedies that took root at Palacio De Los Deportes on Friday night. There were Canada’s Olympic dreams crashing due to a foul call that will go down in Canadian basketball lore, and the fact that a team this good and this talented allowed the referees to decide their fate.
“If I had to comment on the last call, I would say it’s crap,” said Canadian point guard Cory Joseph, who shouldered the blame for his own poor play. “That’s how I feel. I don’t ever bash officials, I don’t ever complain but in my opinion if he takes a shot, the ball bounces up 20-feet, time expires, it’s terrible to call that call. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Being called an Olympian was what was on the line Friday night for Canada in their one-game showdown to earn a trip to Rio. The pressure of the moment certainly got to them. The flowing, free-style, fastbreak attack was gone. The easy baskets weren’t coming on cue. With the opportunity of a lifetime at hand, it was like they were playing underwater, struggling for air.
“I can’t speak for other guys [but] we came out a bit flat,” said Kelly Olynyk, the only Canadian who could look at the stat sheet after the game and not be embarrassed as he scored 34 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in his 36 minutes, although he did make six of Canada’s 17 game-defining turnovers. “And Venezuela did a good job and they made shots when it counted.”
If the Canadian basketball program is going to ever get where they want to go, they’re going to face moments of doubt, crisis of their own making or those brought on them from elsewhere. They are kind of moments that teams learn from.
But not like this. Not like Friday night. No one deserves to miss a chance at history that way.
It was a seven-point game with three minutes left when Heissler Guillent fell out of bounds after hitting a three to cut Canada’s lead to one with a minute left. And then fate intervened: Olynyk slipped on the corporate logo at centre court causing a turnover as the crowd chanted “Venezuela” in support of the huge underdog. He fouled Guillent to prevent the fastbreak, but the little point guard hit both free throws regardless.
But then Andrew Wiggins drove and found Kelly Olynyk underneath for the big forward’s 33rd and 34th points on the night, to give Canada a lead that lasted until Guillent drove the floor for a layup.
The drama kept rising as Andrew Nicholson put himself on the line after drawing a foul setting a screen. With the building shaking he missed the first, but made the second to tie things at 78-78 with 24 seconds to go.
Joseph defended Guillent perfectly on the final shot, before the fateful foul call on the scramble. A long delay followed to determine if the call had been made with enough time on the clock. There was, barely, and Venezuela’s Greg Vargas knocked down the winning free throw, inking a modern Canadian sports nightmare.
For Wiggins, Olympic dreams floated around his house, an idea never really requiring expression. The Olympics are his family business, a tradition started by his mother, Marita Payne, who has two silver medals from the 1984 Games and was as much an athletic role model for her six kids as their father, Mitch, an NBA Finalist, was.
Wiggins has already walked where his father walked, having just completed his first NBA season. And now he’s poised to look at his mother in the eye.
“It’s one of my goals, to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” said Wiggins before the game.
He’ll have to wait.
For Joseph the dreams were shaped like so many other kids his age, watching the summer Games on long days when school was out, soaking up the pageantry.
“I was real young. I used to watch basketball, used to watch the Dream Team. I used to watch all the Olympic Games and just talk to my family talk to my brother, just picture myself being there.”
He’ll have to wait.
Olynyk’s father coached internationally for Canada. He was the guy who cut some kid named Steve Nash. The long-haired post was raised on the idea that the national team was the highest form of expression possible for a Canadian basketball player.
He’ll have to wait.
There was no question over the course of the FIBA Americas Tournament who the best team was. Canada had answered that time-and-time again with dominant performances against all-comers, the exception being their opening loss to Argentina.
There was one nagging issue for team that had led their opponents by an average of 26 points in their seven straight wins since: What would they do in a close game when things weren’t firing on all cylinders?
This team is so very good, but so very young. It was the first must-win game of their lives as a group.
And it showed. Some of Canada’s talent didn’t show up.
Nik Stauskas had played brilliantly for most of the tournament, but was tentative for most of the game, found himself on the bench for most of the second half and finished with three points in 15 minutes. Anthony Bennett’s revival tour hit a snag as he finished with no points and five rebounds in his 16 minutes. Wiggins started strong, but seemed surprised at times by how ferocious Venezuela was playing. He was scoreless in the second half and all of his four turnovers were preventable. Joseph picked up two fouls in the first quarter, his third early in the third and the Canadian captain never found his rhythm, finishing 1-of-8 from the floor in his 21 minutes.
Triano will have to answer for his decisions too: Wiggins played just 10 minutes in the second half, Stauskas played less than four, Bennett less than six. That’s a lot of talent to have on your bench, even if they weren’t producing.
Canada was the huge favourite, on merit. They rolled into the final as a juggernaut. The only problem with the whole scenario was that there was still a game to play and a team to beat. History both recent and ancient, was on the Venezuelan’s side. Two years ago at the Tournament of the Americas Venezuela had helped cut short Canada’s bid for the World Championships, winning their second-round matchup.
In 1992 it was Venezuela that kept Canada out of the Olympics that summer, ending what had been a streak of four straight Olympic tournaments and ushering in the 1-in-28 year drought Wiggins, Joseph, Olynyk and the rest were trying to end.
This time, on paper it wasn’t close. There wasn’t a statistical category in which Canada didn’t have a massive advantage. Rebounding? Canada led Venezuela 277-180 through eight games. Foul shots attempted? Canada 162-77. Three-pointers made? Canada 88-54. Three-point percentage? Canada’s 43 per cent to Venezuela’s 27 per cent. NBA players on their rosters? Canada with nine and Venezuela with none.
Had these two teams have played 20 times, Canada might have won 19 of them, but Venezuela only needed to win one.
Even in advance the formula for a Georgetown-Villanova type upset was clear: Slow the game down, hope for an edge in three-point shooting, find some luck with fouls and then scrap, scratch and claw for every possible possession.
It all came to pass. It was the first time Canada had been held below 80 points in their nine games, they turned the ball over 17 times to Venezuela’s 10 and they shot 5-of-17 from the three-point line to their opponent’s 10-of-28. And Canada allowing Venezuela 12 offensive rebounds didn’t help their cause either.
It wasn’t a loss that crept up on Canada, it was a disaster in slow motion. Canada trailing Venezuela 20-19 after the first quarter, 38-37 at the half and nursing just a 60-58 lead after three quarters. Their biggest lead of the game was with three minutes left, and they let it slip through their fingers, crashing to floor like a plate.
Canada’s Olympic basketball dreams are over for now.
In their place, a nightmare that won’t end for at least a year, and could last a lot longer than that.