Khem Birch says there’s ‘no excuses’ for skipping Olympic qualifier


Orlando Magic center Khem Birch. (John Raoux/AP)

TORONTO — Khem Birch said there’s virtually no argument for skipping Canada’s Olympic qualifying tournament.

The national men’s basketball team received a big boost in its chances of booking an Olympic berth when Victoria was announced at the host of the six-team, last-chance tournament in June.

"I was a little bit surprised (Canada was awarded the tournament), but I feel like now it’s no excuses," Birch told a pair of reporters on Wednesday, before his Orlando Magic tipped off in Toronto.

While Canada boasts the second largest number of NBA players behind the United States, Birch and Sacramento Kings guard Cory Joseph were the team’s lone NBA players at the World Cup in China in August. In the days leading up to the tournament, Canada’s biggest stars pulled out one by one for a variety of reasons.

Birch believes hosting the tournament on home court should draw a healthy amount of NBA talent.

"Oh yeah for sure," Birch said. "Guys don’t need to worry about going across the continent, across the sea or anything. Now you can just stay home and just play."

Memphis shooting guard Dillon Brooks and Dallas big man Dwight Powell told reporters recently they’d like to play at the June 23-28 qualifier.

Canada could have clinched an automatic Tokyo Olympic berth with a top-seven finish in China, but wound up 21st.

Now Canada must win in Victoria to book the team’s first trip to the Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Games. The Canadians narrowly missed a berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics when they lost to France in a last-chance qualifier.

"That’s the price you play for not qualifying (earlier)," Birch said. "I remember doing that three years ago in the Philippines, playing against France and it was a heartbreak, but hopefully everybody comes to show (up) this year so we can just knock it out the way and do something we haven’t done in 20 years."

The Montreal native said he enjoyed the Canadian team experience, which included several pre-World Cup exhibition games in Australia.

"I feel like when I first came to (Magic) camp I was in shape, probably the best shape I ever came into training camp and more confident than I ever had been coming into camp so that definitely helped me," he said.

But coming off an NBA season that saw him play a significant role for Orlando, he hasn’t seen the floor much this year. The team instead has been playing No. 6 draft pick Mo Bamba.

In Wednesday’s 113-97 loss to Toronto however, Birch played 21 minutes scoring 12 points and grabbing four rebounds after centre Nikola Vucevic and forward Aaron Gordon left the game with ankle injuries.

"It’s kind of crazy how it happened," Birch said after the game. "I don’t wish an injury on anybody. It’s just crazy you know that someone gets hurt and I play in front of my mom. My mom was sitting courtside. It’s great. I love playing in front of my home country."

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