As a lifelong learner with a deep curiosity about basketball, Chris Oliver set out to travel the world when on sabbatical as the head men’s coach at the University of Windsor a few years ago.
He took in at least 50 practices in 64 countries at all levels and came away both impressed and more sure than ever: coaching in Canada was world-class.
“I came back with was just great confidence in what I knew and what I’ve been developing,” said Oliver, a three-time Ontario University Athletics coach of the year at Windsor. “But I also knew, ‘man, we have such great coaching here’”
Accordingly, from May 18th through to May 28th another element of the Canadian basketball explosion — that has seen 22 Canadian men make an appearance in the NBA this season and the Canadian women’s team ranked fourth in the world — will be on display, albeit via a computer screen rather than in-person.
Oliver is the organizer of the first annual Cross Canada Coaches Clinic, an innovative way to share hoops knowledge offered by most of the Canadian coaches who are beginning to make an impact at the highest levels of the sport and some of the lesser-known talents who may not have the profile, but have plenty of chops. (Full disclosure — I am making a presentation on basketball in the media as part of the program.)
There are 64 speakers and the hour-long talks are free to the 2,500 registered attendees, with a plan to make them more widely available at a later date. The headliners include:
• Jay Triano, the long-time national team head coach, the first Canadian to be an NBA head coach and currently the lead assistant with the Charlotte Hornets.
• Scott Morrison, an assistant with the Boston Celtics and the first Canadian to make the improbable jump from USports to the NBA via the G-League.
• Roy Rana, who led Canada to the U19 FIBA world championship, built Ryerson into a USports power and is in his first year with the Sacramento Kings.
• Carly Clarke, Canada’s women’s U19 national team coach, and another FIBA world championship medallist and the head coach at Ryerson.
• Jama Mahlalela, former NBA assistant with Dwane Casey and in his second season as head coach of Raptors 905.
• Nathanial Mitchel, who was an assistant with Jerry Stackhouse at Raptors 90 and is a player development coach with Charlotte. He is also a key player development coach with the Canadian national team program.
For Oliver, it’s part homecoming celebration and part professional development conference.
“You look at the how many Canadian NBA players there are and how many Canadian WNBA players there are (and) it all starts from the bottom of the pyramid and that’s where Canadian coaches don’t get enough credit,” he said.
“We talk about the highest level of the coaches in our country – which we should — but, man, we have great coaching at the bottom of the pyramid that builds it on up, so this event is lending support, lending a voice and providing opportunities.
“There are great coach coaches speaking on this platform that have never presented at a coaching clinic, that to me is shocking.”
Morrison can relate. He’s had a relatively rapid rise to the NBA, making it to the Celtics bench after three successful years coaching the Maine Red Claws, but he spent 13 years in USports, mostly at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, and the bright lights seemed a long way away. It’s one reason he reached into the Canadian ranks to help him on his G-League staff, with the Hornets’ Mitchell, current McMaster head coach Patrick Tatham and Lakehead head coach Ryan Thompson getting the benefit of the exposure to the pro game.
It’s an example that Mahlalela has followed with Raptors 905 as well, in hiring former Brock head coach Charles Kissi as his lead assistant, but events like Oliver’s make the world seem smaller.
“Coaches now are really fortunate from that sense,” said Morrison. “I know being at Lakehead or even at (the University of Prince Edward Island, where Morrison played five seasons) or any of those schools that I’ve been, there wasn’t a lot of higher-level teams or leagues around there to study or to watch … we had to kind of learn on our own and try to pick up things from VHS tapes — those were our clinics back then.
“I remember driving to clinics and Minnesota or Ohio or wherever I could get to just to try and learn something, but with the resources we have now, you could learn a hundred times more than I did just by sitting on your couch for a couple of hours and watching the different coaches that are out there.”
Timing matters also. Oliver built up a robust business as a clinician while he was at Windsor and left the Ontario school after the 2018-19 season to focus on it, moving to California in the process.
He runs a membership-driven website – BasketballImmersion.com and a podcast of the same name, featuring guests from every corner of the basketball industry — which has become a go-to destination for coaches hungry for deep dives on how to defend pick-and-roll or the finer points of various offensive schemes.
The clinic was the next step.
Typically coaching clinics are costly to host and attend, and require travel from all involved, so Oliver has long had it in his mind to try and host one online for the sake of efficiency.
And while COVID-19 has brought basketball to a halt around the world, it has provided a perfect opportunity for Oliver to give his plan a shot.
“Because I run an online business my mindset has always been, ‘Let’s make it easier and more accessible’,” he said. “But I think what (COVID-19) did is it gave me an opportunity to have a very attentive audience and take advantage of access. Like maybe we wouldn’t have had access to Jay Triano at this time — or at any time to be honest — except for maybe the two weeks he has off what August, so yeah there’s no question that (the opportunity provided by the pandemic) has been a huge, huge, part of it.”
Basketball, as they say, never stops.