Canada’s road to World Cup paved by unsung basketball heroes

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Next week, 26 of Canada’s finest basketball players will compete for the chance to be part of the group of 12 players who will be heading to China at the end of the month for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

There, Canada will fight for the opportunity to earn an Olympic berth for the first time since the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Should Canada accomplish its goal and make the Olympics ⁠— and medal at the World Cup along the way ⁠— the men who ultimately make the team for the Tokyo 2020 Games will be the ones who are celebrated the most.

This is a fact that would both be deserved and understandable, as it’s likely that the final team would be comprised of mostly better-known NBA players.

But the dozen guys that could be the ones who carry Canada to Tokyo aren’t the only ones who would’ve contributed to this potential accomplishment. The same can be said of the 14 players who will be cut from the forthcoming training camp.

No, in order to find where this possible Olympic berth really started you need to go all the way back to Nov. 24, 2017, when Canada blew out the Bahamas at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax to open a 16-month qualifying period for the World Cup that saw 36 different players suit up for the team.

These were men coming from all levels of basketball and taking breaks from seasons they may have been playing in Europe, the G League and other areas around the globe to help push Canada to earn a World Cup berth.

Due to the scheduling of a lot of the qualifying windows, Canada was forced to field teams decidedly devoid of NBA and big-time NCAA talent, forcing Canada Basketball to ask guys to sacrifice their time and participate in games knowing full well they don’t get to reap the benefit of being in the spotlight of the World Cup or Olympic stage.

Of the 26 players who will be at training camp for the World Cup, 14 of them didn’t participate during the qualifying stage. Granted, as previously mentioned, this is mainly because a lot of the players invited to the camp are in the NBA and weren’t able to take time off from their commitments to play for the national team. But that doesn’t take away from the contributions of the 21 men who played for Canada during qualifying who weren’t invited to camp.

Sportsnet recently caught up with seven of these players who willingly forfeited their own time for the greater good of Canada Basketball.

Here’s why they did it, why they’ll always do it when asked and why when taking in the World Cup we shouldn’t forget their efforts.

This run to the World Cup and potentially the Olympics is so much more than just the 12 guys who will play in China.

Trae Bell-Haynes

Games played for Canada during qualifying: 1

Trae-Bell-Haynes

Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes drives down the court while Richmond’s Nick Sherod guards him during an NCAA college basketball game in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (Shelby Lum/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Currently the starting point guard of the Niagara River Lions of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, Bell-Haynes may have only played one game for Canada during the qualifying period (a Sept. 17, 2018 affair against host Chile), it’s a moment he won’t soon forget.

“That was my first experience (with the national team),” said Bell-Haynes. “When I was 16 I tried out for the cadet team, the under-17 team, I didn’t make that, so working with the senior men’s team was my first experience. It was pretty cool and was really nice to just get to play and practice and learn from some of the really good Canadian basketball players and former players who help coach and work with the team. Guys that I looked up to that I got to meet while I was there like Melvin Ejim and Brady Heslip were guys that stood out and took me under their wing.”

It was a thrill of a lifetime for Bell-Haynes, even if he already understood he wasn’t going to be playing in China.

“Coach (Roy) Rana let everybody know that each game was important and we were maybe not necessarily not gonna be on the team when the World Cup came around, but it was important for our guys that would be on the team to be in the best situation to succeed,” he said. “So we knew that it was important that we play not only for ourselves, but for the other guys who would be there when the World Cup comes around.”

Joel Friesen

Games played for Canada during qualifying: 1

Joel-Friesen

University of Alberta Golden Bears’ Joel Friesen (6) is marked by University of Victoria Vikes’ Reiner Theil (3) at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Basketball Final 8 bronze medal game in Ottawa on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The Golden Bears defeated the Vikes 61-53 to win the bronze medal. (Justin Tang / CP)

Taken first overall by the Fraser Valley Bandits in the first-ever CEBL Entry Draft back in March, like Bell-Haynes, Friesen also only participated in that Sept. 17, 2018 contest against Chile.

Also similarly to Bell-Haynes, despite it just being one game, Friesen feels privileged to play for his nation.

“That was something that I definitely had written on my basketball bucket list — to suit up for Team Canada,” Friesen said.

“Being a part of that Canada Basketball circle and meeting new people and being able to participate with some of the best Canadian coaches and players in the country was just a huge blessing for me and something that I always dreamed of, but when it becomes a reality it’s very surreal and I would hope for another opportunity like that.”

But while he waits for another chance, Friesen’s going to be cheering hard for Canada at the World Cup, proudly knowing he’s played an active role in helping Canada get there.

“To be able to make the national team and represent the country at a higher level, and to be on the active roster and for us to get a victory and to contribute to a chance at a world championship is huge to me,” he said. “It feels like a huge honour and I hope to see Canada have success.”

Grandy Glaze

Games played for Canada during qualifying: 2

Grandy-Glaze

Saint Louis’s Grandy Glaze reacts as he walks off the court after an NCAA college basketball game against St. Bonaventure in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament at the Barclays Center in New York, Friday, March 14, 2014. St. Bonaventure beat No. 18 Saint Louis 71-68. (Seth Wenig / AP)

Another CEBL product (with the Edmonton Stingers), Glaze is in his third year as a professional player after an NCAA collegiate career that saw him play at Saint Louis and Grand Canyon. As a pro, Glaze has played in Mexico and Canada’s other pro basketball league, the NBLC.

Glaze suited up in two games for Canada, participating in the first two games of qualifying against the Bahamas in Halifax and then, on Nov. 27, 2017, the Dominican Republic in the Dominican.

As a huge fan of Canada Basketball both growing up and remaining today, knowing he played a part in Canada reaching the World Cup is something that will remain with Glaze.

“I pretty much grew up watching Canada Basketball. Raptors TV, NBA TV, they’d show guys touring all across Canada,” said Glaze.

“Guys like Denham Brown, Myck Kabongo, Junior Cadougan. So just to be a part of that. Like it was never even something I wrote down in my goals list as kid. And I can’t believe that it happened because it just seemed so farfetched, so far out of my reach that I would ever play alongside guys like that. Like seeing Steve Nash or Jamaal Magloire. Some of the first pioneers who have played through it. I had no idea I’d be a part of it. So there’s definitely a sense of pride there. …

“Going back to that memory is something that I’ll definitely share with my kids and grandkids once my career is over.”

Kaza Kajami-Keane

Games played for Canada during qualifying: 9

Carleton Ravens’ Kaza Kajami-Keane, left, drives past Ryerson Rams’ Adika Peter-McNeilly during the USports basketball national championship game in Halifax on Sunday, March 12, 2017. (Darren Calabrese / CP)

No one on this list has played more than Kajami-Keane during the qualifying period. Getting into nine games and participating in all but one of the six “windows” that were held during qualifying, Kajami-Keane consistently answered the call.

“For me, it’s always an honour to play for your country,” said Kajami-Keane of why he played so often.

“I come from two immigrant parents: My mother comes from Spain and my father is Jamaican. So knowing what Canada has done for our family – my grandmother came over with nothing and she made a living for herself. So just with the country and what the country has given to her, I’ve always been eager when my time was called to come participate – I’ve always wanted to. …

“Canada Basketball is something that I’ve treated like family. So even though I understood that my name might not be called for the World Cup, it was always something where it was kind of my duty to represent your country. It’s given so much to you so it’s time to give back to it where you can.”

Given his service time during the qualifiers, it would make sense that Kajami-Keane might be a little salty over not get a chance to be there in China, but he’s not, and that’s because he understands the sacrifices that need to be made to see the program he loves succeed.

“Yeah, I would’ve loved to have been there and would’ve loved to be on the team, but it’s bigger than just one person,” said Kajami-Keane. “For me, it’s not me being there or not being there, it’s about seeing Canada being placed on the podium and whatever we can do to get to that point is who we should use to get there.”

Duane Notice

Games played for Canada during qualifying: 3

Duane-Notice

Notice spent much of his time with the Raptors organization this past season, playing 47 games with Raptors 905 and a couple of contests with Toronto’s summer league squad in Las Vegas. Now with the CEBL’s Hamilton Honey Badgers, the 24-year-old will likely be returning to the 905 next season.

Unlike a lot of the players on this list, Notice is one of the most experienced national team members – just not with the senior team. As a teenager, Notice was on Canada Basketball’s radar and participated with the cadet (under-16) and junior (under-19) teams in various competitions over the years.

The three games he played for Canada during the qualifying window (including Dec. 3, 2018 affair against Brazil that punched Canada’s ticket to the World Cup) was his first crack at participating for the senior team. It was an opportunity he was very grateful for.

“It was a tremendous experience because I’ve been playing with Team Canada almost my whole life,” Notice said of finally playing for the senior team.

“Having the opportunity to play, I was humbled. I’ve been cut from the senior team twice, so having the opportunity to finally make it and get invited and be a part of the roster to help them qualify for the FIBA World Cup in China was amazing. It was everything I could ask for.”

Adika Peter-McNeilly

Games played for Canada during qualifying: 4

Adika-Peter-McNeilly

Canada’s Adika Peter-McNeilly (6) takes possession of the ball during FIBA World Cup basketball action against Chile, in St. John’s on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Paul Daly / CP)

Glaze’s Stingers teammate in Edmonton, Peter-McNeilly was called upon to help Canada play in February twice, playing four games total across Feb. 2018 and 2019.

Those two windows in February saw Canada field some of the most innocuous rosters – with the Feb. 2019 games being particularly low-key because Canada had already clinched a World Cup spot at that point, but, as Peter-McNeilly said, it doesn’t take away from what he and others like him contributed to Canada.

“Within our own circle of Canada Basketball we never forget who played,” he said.

“We always talk about the guys who played in the previous windows, regardless of where you’re at now. You can never forget that. Everyone has their role. I feel like from the training camp and the preparation for the World Cup, everybody who wasn’t on the roster but who was still around or got a call at one point they’ll still be part of the family.”

Dyshawn Pierre

Games played for Canada during qualifying: 7

Dyshawn-Pierre

Dayton’s Dyshawn Pierre, right, heads to the basket as Syracuse’s DaJuan Coleman defends during the first half in a first-round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson / AP)

Like Kajami-Keane, Pierre also consistently answered the call, getting into four of the six windows for Canada during the qualifying stage, something that is no surprise as the man best known for his Dayton Flyer days in college also played for the cadet and junior national teams – similarly to Notice – while growing up.

As such, any time he gets a chance to play for Canada, Pierre’s probably going to take it.

“It’s always amazing playing for the national team,” said Pierre. “Being able to travel the world and play for your country, it was a very cool experience and I would love to be able to do it again one day.”

And, of course, just like everyone else on this list and everyone else who participated during qualifying, there are no hard feelings over not getting a shot at competing in China.

Everyone’s contributions matter.

“At the beginning of this journey to make it to the World Cup and the Olympics (Canada Basketball) said there was gonna be a big pool of players that are going to join to make this one big team that’s gonna go to the Olympics and the World Cup to try to win something,” said Pierre. “So people kind of understood what their role was and it was never an issue.

“Our coaches and management at Canada Basketball always made it clear how much they appreciate us as far as helping us qualify, understanding that this is one big, big team. It’s not like we feel like we should be recognized a lot more because at the end of the day we know that it took a lot to get here.”

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