Grunwald hiring checks all Canada Basketball’s boxes

Eric Smith and Michael Grange talk Glen Grunwald taking over the Canadian basketball program.

MONTREAL — Canadian basketball has never been in a better place, but it still has a long way to go.

That’s both the opportunity and the challenge that Glen Grunwald has taken on as the newly appointed president and chief executive officer for Canada Basketball.

It’s a job big enough that he may need and be offered some high-profile help as the sport’s landscape continues to shift and the potential for growth continues to unfold.

That Grunwald won the competition for the job after a search that screened through 375 applicants from 30 countries isn’t surprising. Those in Canadian basketball circles will remember him picking up a Toronto Raptors franchise that was in pieces after the sudden departure of then team president Isiah Thomas and sparking a turnaround, but the resume goes much further. A resume that, after a full examination, may have made Grunwald the obvious choice even among the eight finalists for the job vacated this summer by the popular Michele O’Keefe.

How many applicants could claim to have taken two NBA franchises to the post-season over the course of 14 years in one of the most pressurized roles in sports? Been an NBA draft pick and survived playing for the iconic Bobby Knight? Boast a law degree and an MBA? Or have fully sampled the business environment he’ll be operating in as the president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Board of Trade? Or most recently as the director of athletics at McMaster University, dealt first-hand with the realities of Canadian sport – non-hockey division – where elite and even global ambitions have to be managed within what is often a decidedly small-market funding environment.

That he already holds a Canadian passport – Grunwald took out citizenship before he was fired in Toronto in 2004 – and lives just down the Queen Elizabeth Way from the Canada Basketball offices are only an added bonus.

As Wayne Parrish –- co-chair of Canada Basketball’s board of directors — and the search committee looked for candidates, Grunwald was on the radar early and eventually became the obvious choice.

“Of the eight candidates on the shortlist, most [of] them tended to index [their strengths] more to either the business side or to the basketball side,” said Parrish. “Glen indexed very high in both.”

The announcement was supposed to be made in Montreal Wednesday morning where the senior men’s team is getting set to play Brazil in a FIBA World Cup qualification game Thursday night, but Grunwald had to change plans to due to an urgent family matter.

“I’m honoured and proud to have this opportunity to work with Canada Basketball,” he said in the release announcing his hiring. “This is an exciting time for the sport in our country and I look forward to working with the entire basketball community to continue the tremendous progress the sport has made here at all levels … we’re ready to show the world this country’s potential, promise and power as a basketball nation… I can’t wait to get to work.”

There is much work to be done and more changes likely coming but Grunwald may not be alone in having to do all the lifting as Canada Basketball tries to evolve at high speed to keep up with the growth of the game domestically and the nearly unlimited potential of both the men’s and women’s national teams to excel globally.

It’s a lot to manage for a perennially under-funded national sports organization.

According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation another former NBA executive with deep Canadian ties — former Toronto Raptors president Bryan Colangelo — has significant interest in contributing to the program in some capacity. There have been preliminary talks between Colangelo and those close to the CB board with more to follow.

For his part, Colangelo — who was pushed out of his general manager’s role with the Philadelphia 76ers after his wife was determined to have made sensitive team information public via anonymous ‘burner’ accounts on Twitter — could be a good fit in a consulting or advisory type role that would offer him a chance to give back to the sport while also keeping in touch with the game at the highest levels as he works to rebuild his professional reputation.

Finding a way to leverage Colangelo’s deep business and basketball connections could be a welcome boost for an organization that needs to solidify additional sources of revenue to keep pace with the ambitions of its programs.

Moreover, there could be some room around the senior men’s team in particular as it is expected that recently inducted Naismith Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash – on title as the men’s team general manager but who has stepped back his involvement in recent years – will look to give up his GM title in favour of an advisory role, according to sources.

What shift in emphasis that could mean for Rowan Barrett – currently the executive vice president and assistant general manager of the men’s senior team but who has been effectively operating as the team’s general manager – will also need to be determined.

Grunwald will also need to decide on the future of senior men’s head coach Jay Triano, whose contract is up and who will be unavailable to coach the men’s side in the second-round of qualifying for the World Cup (Ryerson University head coach Roy Rana is in the first seat) given the requirements of a new role as a senior assistant with the Charlotte Hornets.

Because of the new qualifying format, the FIBA World Cup has teams playing essential games during the NBA season (in prior years qualifying was typically concentrated in a two-week tournament in the summers). It might be time for Canada Basketball to consider hiring a full-time coach on the men’s side for the first time since the Jack Donahue era ended in 1988. Given the promise of the men’s team, the interest in the job would be considerable and global, providing Canada Basketball could find a way to properly fund the position.

Those close to the situation emphasize that all of these developments, however they unfold, can evolve without rancor – “this is not 2004,” said one source, referring the clumsy firing of Triano after his first stint as senior men’s head coach, a move which alienated Nash – but will provide an early test for Grunwald.

Fortunately for Canada Basketball and Grunwald the women’s senior team – ranked No.5 in the world heading into the World Championships later this month — is stable and running smoothly, but finding the funding and the structure to consistently push for podiums in the future will need to be a high priority as well given how much closer they are to delivering a medal than the men’s side at the moment.

But all of that – as those familiar with the inner working of any national sports organization will tell you – is only the tip of the iceberg in roles that require tremendous energy and focus on the vital, if less than glamorous, work or coordinating with governing bodies across the provinces and lobbying the federal government on funding and policy initiatives.

Grunwald’s ability to fit in seamlessly nearly anywhere from a FIBA board meeting in Geneva to the boardroom of a potential sponsor on Bay Street to a board meeting of CABO – the Canadian Association of Basketball Officials – in Moncton should serve the 60-year-old well in his new role.

“He’s got the demeanor to connect on an interpersonal level in any gym in the county and he can connect with high level CEO’s as well,” said Parrish.

It will take all those skills and more to take Canadian basketball where it can go, but what a ride it could be.

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