MONTREAL — There is no one happier — “relieved” might be more like it — to be in Montreal and pulling on a Team Canada jersey this week than Kevin Pangos.
And it goes well beyond the point guard’s long-held passion for playing basketball in his country’s colours, a staple of his summers growing up but something he’s had to put on hold since turning professional.
On this occasion — as Pangos gets set for the first meaningful senior-team game of his career, a FIBA World Cup qualifying match versus Brazil Thursday night — he is just pleased to be anywhere on solid ground. Hearing his sneakers squeaking on the hardwood is a bonus.
The 25-year-old was flying from Spain, where he’s starting his first season with EuroLeague club FC Barcelona, to join the national team on the eve of Sept. 11 when he got the instructions no one in an airplane ever wants to hear:
“They told us to brace. They told us to look at the emergency landing card and all that stuff,” said Pangos. “I saw the flight attendant, she was trying to play it cool, but her smile didn’t look so real, that made me a little nervous.
“I tried [to text my family] but I didn’t have any service.”
The flight had to emergency land in St. John’s, N.L, where Pangos was delayed for eight hours — just enough time, arguably, to calm his nerves.
“We all thought … we were about to crash land. Then 15 minutes later they said they smelled smoke in the cockpit, so they were just taking precautions … [but] it took 15 minutes for them to tell us that so everyone was kind of panicking on the plane, thinking like, ‘This doesn’t sound so good.’ It was frightening.”
Lining up at point guard for Canada against a dangerous Brazilian team should be a breeze, comparatively, even if the game has a whiff of must-win about it. The contest marks the first of six games — played out in a home-and-home format — in the second round of qualifying as Canada is among 12 remaining teams in the Americas regions vying for seven spots in the World Cup in China next September.
Pangos finally arrived at the team hotel in downtown Montreal at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Between the time change, the full day of travel and the late night, he wasn’t quite at his peak in his first workout on Tuesday, but expectations are that his blend of FIBA-style know-how and elite shooting — he averaged 47.3 percent from three playing for Zalgiris Kaunas last year en route to second-team all-EuroLeague honours — will make for a seamless fit in the backcourt for Canada, either splitting minutes with Cory Joseph or playing in tandem with the Indiana Pacers guard.
“He’s just such a savvy veteran now — he really understands how to play,” Roy Rana, who is in the No. 1 seat with the national team for this round of qualifying as head coach Jay Triano starts a new assistant coach position with the Charlotte Hornets. “With him in the backcourt with Cory, whether it’s them sharing it or playing off each other, it’s a really nice thing to have.”
Having Pangos on the floor for Canada has been a long time coming. The point guard became the youngest to ever suit up for the senior national team when he dressed for an exhibition game as a 16-year-old in 2010. He helped Canada win bronze at the U17 World Championships while playing for Rana. He starred at the U19 World Championships in 2011 and led Canada at the World University Games in 2013.
But circumstances have prevented him from suiting up for Canada since and it was only his determination not to miss out again that ensured his trip to Montreal for the first window of the second round of qualifying.
He also felt the urgency to make the trip because Canada’s talent pipeline is such that there could very easily be more applicants than jobs in the coming years, presuming Canada qualifies for the World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2020 and beyond. As it stands, candidates among pure point guards would figure to include not just Pangos and Joseph, but also Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, the former Kentucky standout and 2018 NBA lottery pick; Tyler Ennis, who is joining the EuroLeague after four NBA seasons; and Andrew Nembhard, who is projected as a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and showed well for the senior team earlier this summer.
“[The competition] is definitely real,” said Pangos. “It’s a good problem to have, I guess. There is so much talent in Canada coming up now. For me, I would love to be part of the roster every time I’m able to, so that’s why this was also important to me.”
As a free agent after two standout seasons with Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania, Pangos signed with Barcelona and had enough leverage to guarantee the club would let him return to Canada to play even though they are already into their pre-season schedule.
“I don’t think it was put in writing, but it was a verbal discussion we had and [they] sent an email saying, ‘We understand the importance of this to you,’ so it was all discussed,” said Pangos. “And when I got there it wasn’t easy, but we had to discuss it so both sides could be happy.”
As he gets ready for his long-awaited return to the national team, Pangos couldn’t be happier just to be here, in more ways than one.