A year from now, if all goes according to plan, the Canadian men’s senior national team will be en route home from Beijing, China as medal winners at a major global basketball competition for the first time since winning silver at the 1936 Olympics, when they played outdoors on dirt courts in the rain.
Should they pull it off, it will be due in large measure to the efforts of Canada’s swelling numbers of NBA players – the likes of Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Jamal Murray, Dwight Powell and the list goes on.
And while you never say never, it’s almost certain Joel Friesen-Latty – a Canadian pro who works several rungs below the NBA and its million-dollar contracts and private air travel — won’t be on that team.
But that doesn’t mean the 28-year-old won’t have a piece of that medal, or the respect of his higher-profile countrymen.
On Monday night in Valdivia, Chile, Friesen-Latty will step on the floor and represent Canada for the first time in his career, having travelled day and night to do it, and he couldn’t be more excited about the prospect. The goal will be to improve Canada’s qualifying mark to 7-1, keeping them in first place in their pool and furthering their chances of being one of the seven teams (with 12 remaining in the competition) that will advance from the Americas to the World Cup.
“It’s a huge honour, right?” he said while training in Montreal before leaving for Chile. “Everything I’ve done [as a player] has been in Canada so to represent the country this way with this group of guys and this level of talent and the coaching staff [will be] a great experience for me.”
It’s an experience made possible – and necessary – by FIBA’s decision to change their World Cup qualifying format from regional tournaments held the summer before the main event to a series of home-and-home games played out in specific windows over 15 months.
Since most of those windows take place during the NBA and EuroLeague seasons when the top players aren’t available (unlike in World Cup soccer qualifying, the top leagues have yet to agree to release players for international duty mid-season) the result is games played with fluid, ever-changing rosters.
As a result, you have essential steps in the qualifying process being taken by lesser-known players who are unlikely to be in the mix for the World Cup when Canada could conceivably fill its 12-man roster entirely with NBA players.
In the build-up, every time Canada has taken the floor through seven games of qualifying – there are five left including Monday night’s game against Chile – they’ve fielded a different roster. By the time qualifying is done they’ll have played just three games with NBA players and nine without.
The non-NBAers may not end up with a World Cup medal, but without their willingness to pitch in for the cause, Canada won’t ever get there.
“There’s a lot of these games that guys like me or Kevin [Pangos] — NBA guys or EuroLeague guys can’t play in,” Olynyk said after leading Canada with 20 points and 19 rebounds against Brazil, his last outing for Canada before heading to training camp with the Miami Heat. “That’s why you have a pool of guys and everybody that’s there to support and build that system and that structure to be able to do it. It’s not easy. … I commend them very much and we’re very appreciative for what they’re doing for us. We’re very thankful they’re there to step in.”
The roster flux means the first order of business for interim national team head coach Roy Rana (occupying the head coach role as Jay Triano is unavailable due to commitments with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets) after Canada won against Brazil in Montreal on Thursday night was to prepare for the game against Chile knowing he’d be turning over half his roster with the benefit of perhaps two practices in between, interrupted by nearly 20 hours of travel.
“It’s a different challenge, we’ll have a different group,” said Rana. “But those guys are hungry, they’re ready to play, they’ll have the [Maple Leaf] on their chest and I’m excited about that opportunity for them as well.
One benefit is that the number of athletes who are getting the opportunity to play for Canada has been vastly expanded.
Friesen-Latty is an example. A former All-Canadian at the University of Alberta, he played five years of U Sports basketball, split between University of Fraser Valley and Alberta. After graduating he caught on as a professional in the National Basketball League of Canada.
He’s now coming off consecutive championships with the London Lightning and establishing himself as one of the best ‘three-and-D’ wings in the league. He’s worked his way onto the national team radar as a late bloomer, attending his first senior men’s team camp last summer at age 27.
“Made in Canada. That’s what I preach,” he said. “I have a mentorship program for kids and to make it this far it shows that it can be done. I haven’t had an agent, I’ve just grinded it out, and it shows it can be done and just inspire kids and show them you can make it staying in Canada.”
The team playing Monday night is replete with stories that have more in common with Friesen-Latty’s than the likes of Olynyk’s or Thompson’s or so many of Canada’s top players – Division 1 college stars and first-round NBA draft picks.
Would Aaron Best have been on the national team under the old format? Probably not, but the former All-Canadian with Ryerson University was in the starting lineup for Canada in Chile as he was against Brazil and was critical in a crucial win, knocking down four of five three-point attempts and helping anchor the defence.
“We’re certainly building more depth with players that were never in our national team program,” said Rana. “Three years ago [Best] was playing for me at Ryerson and I never would have dreamt in my wildest dreams he’d be here and he’s earning the respect of his teammates. We’re hoping we can bring everybody together [for the World Cup] but at the same time we’re generating talent from within, so that’s really exciting.”
Overall, Canada’s depth has served them remarkably well over the course of qualifying – while undefeated in the three games they’ve had NBA players available, even more important is that Canada is 3-1 in the four games they’ve had to go deep into their talent pool.
“It makes life easier for them,” says Kyle Landry, a national team veteran from Calgary who played in Montenegro last season and wasn’t in the lineup when Canada played Brazil, but was willing to fold his 6-foot-9-inch frame into economy for the 19-hour flight to Chile. “Of course every game you have to look at like a must-win but it’s a lot easier coming into these games with a 5-1 record than a 3-3 record, it puts a lot less pressure on the NBA guys when they do.”
Will Landry still feel like part of the program if Canada goes to the World Cup next summer and he’s not on the roster, even after helping them get there?
“Absolutely. You look at it, they put the stats up for all the World Championship [qualifying] games. Even if I’m not going to be there I helped us however much to get there, playing a couple of games and if it’s not the games it’s the practices, helping guys to get ready, get the guys in shape, helping them know what the other teams are doing and it’s great to be a part of that.”
And Friesen-Latty is thankful for the chance. He’s been on the fringes of Canada Basketball’s radar for years. Injuries cost him opportunities to represent his country at the World University Games and in other iterations he’s been an alternate. Now he gets his shot.
“I know I can play with these guys and I’m optimistic I can be recognized for my capabilities as a leader and as a player,” he said. “To be here and make the Chile roster [is] a huge honour.
“It’s an opportunity for me, and my whole journey has been jumping at opportunities and trying to make the most of it and having success, I’ve proven I can be successful with the opportunities I’ve been presented.”
On Monday night he’ll represent Canada for the first time, and even if it’s in World Cup qualifying in Chile rather than at the main event in Beijing, the anthem will be played just the same and sound just as good.