Grange: Canada’s hoop dreams put on hold

Canada failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

The thing about loving basketball in this country is it requires a rugged heart, ideally encased in armour.

Let’s face it: history shows there will be scars.

Sisyphus and his rock had nothing on Canadian teams — the senior men’s entry at least — trying to move the needle in international competition. No matter how hard the push at some point the weight comes rolling back down and everyone is left wondering what to do next.

Canada is not going to the FIBA World Cup in 2014. That’s the bottom line after weeks of considerable optimism, a month of training and 10 days of competition at the FIBA Americas tournament.

Idealists might hope Canada would get a wild-card entry next summer, but given it’s a process that’s run by FIBA, vague in its criteria, lacks transparency and requires money, don’t expect Canada to get a fair shake.

The questions are, if this is a stumble that will haunt Canada right through their efforts to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and what impact that might have on how Canadian sports fans and corporate Canada’s wallets feel about their nation’s burgeoning basketball program?

Canadian head coach Jay Triano says have no fear — his young team may have learned the hard way that international success is a tricky mistress that will leave your ego bruised more often than rewarded, but they’re ready to come back for more.

“Yes it’s disappointing right now,” he said after Canada lost their third straight game, this time 73-67 to Argentina, when even one win might have been enough to secure a bid in Spain next summer. “We know where we are and I know everyone is disappointed — no one more than our players; these guys are huge competitors and they didn’t come here for experience, they wanted to win.

“It didn’t happen but the experience was gained and the future is bright and I hope the rest of Canada continues to back these guys and not turn on them because we didn’t qualify for the world championships.”

How disappointing their stumble in Caracas, Venezuela is exactly depends on how nuanced your view of the competition.

The wide-angle perspective is that taking a collection of players new to each other, if not all new to international basketball, and expecting them to mesh well enough to earn one of the four spots available for the 24-team World Cup field next summer was perhaps unrealistic.

As Canada showed in three rapid-fire losses to Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Sunday to Argentina, name recognition and NBA pedigree don’t mean much when playing in far-off lands.

Each game was there to be won and each of them were lost in different, mind-bending ways, though the relative experience of the competition was a common theme.

“Our three best players are 22, 22 and 23 years old and we’re going up against men who have played this game for a long time and at a high level for a long time,” said Triano.

Still, when the lens really focuses on the events of the past week or so, it’s hard to deny this was a chance for Canada to get ahead of the curve for once. There was a golden opportunity to put in place a foundation piece for what is expected to be a game-changing generation for Canadian basketball.

How do you hold host Venezuela to 38 per cent shooting and lose? By shooting 4 of 25 from the 3-point line, that’s how. How do you shoot 50 per cent from the floor against the Dominican Republic, out-rebound them 32-22, get 29 points from Andrew Nicholson and not get a win? By being the best defensive team in the tournament getting strafed for 57 per cent shooting, that’s how.

And on and on.

Triano says there’s nothing he would have done differently from a coaching perspective but given how winnable the last three games seemed at times, it’s hard not to think that something might have tipped the balance.

More broadly, this was one tournament where for once things even seemed to be lining up in Canada’s favour.

There were eight NBA players in the tournament and Canada had four of them on its roster. Teams like Venezuela and Dominican Republic were missing their best players. Argentina — with the exception of the brilliant Luis Scola, who dissected Canada for 29 points including 14 straight in the pivotal third quarter Sunday — was starting from scratch after 10 years of dominance. Brazil, another traditional power, was also short of marquee names and then completely melted down, going winless.

Ultimately there was a spot in the worlds to be had — international observers even pegged Canada as a pre-tournament favourite and a near lock when Canada was 4-1 through the first five games — and Canada squandered the chance to arrive at the worlds ahead of schedule.

What does not qualifying mean? On paper, nothing.

The Steve Nash era at Canada Basketball is barely 18 months old and Nash and everyone around the program has been preaching patience.

“It’s a seven- or eight-year road, and that’s how we think about it,” said Canada Basketball president and chief executive officer Wayne Parrish from Caracas. “It starts in 2012 or 2013, but we’re looking ahead to 2020. (Not qualifying) is a misstep, for sure, but I don’t think it will have the same impact it would in a different scenario.”

But Parrish admits that trying to sell corporate Canada on a World Cup next summer in advance of Olympic qualifying would have been an easier pitch than trying to explain why they’re playing an extended exhibition schedule, and while the perpetually cash-strapped organization has a much stronger balance sheet than in the recent past, it’s not like it’s sponsorship portfolio is full or money is not an issue.

“It’s never been all or nothing on this year or next year,” says Parrish of his corporate pitch. “But (a spot in the worlds) would certainly make the task easier.”

If Canada qualified for Spain it would give the program an immediate short-term goal to focus on and a prime competitive environment to integrate the expected infusion of talent and youth in the pipeline.

In turn that experience would allow the likes of Nicholson, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Kelly Olynyk and others to have something to build on as they head into Olympic qualifying in 2015 — a much tougher task than qualifying for the worlds, given the Olympic tournament has only 12 spots, half the number available at the World Cup.

But the real heartbreak of the whole thing is that Canadian basketball Christmas just got pushed back a year and maybe more.

Sure it makes sense to look at the age of the elite Canadian talent — Nicholson is the oldest at 23 — and figure the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo is likely Canada’s best chance to push its way onto the podium.

But that’s a long time for even the most hungry hearts to stay true.

More than anything a spot in the worlds next summer would have been a welcome taste of what is hopefully to come, and some reassurance that this vision of Canada at the top of the hoops summit isn’t some kind of wild fever dream.

Instead it’s back to our natural state: waiting and hoping for better basketball days in a seemingly distant future.

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