TORONTO – They’ve been together since they were kids, before playing in the NBA or repping the national team was even on their radar. Back when basketball was about fun and friends and juice boxes.
Nearly two decades later, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk are still at it: Wearing the same jerseys and having a good time doing it, only with a lot more on the line as pillars of the Canadian men’s national team – their shared summer tradition.
All that’s missing is a chance play at the Olympics, the biggest summer basketball tournament of them all.
A berth in the 2016 Games was in their grasp until a stunning turn of events ripped it away at the Tournament of the Americas in 2015 – an iffy foul call at the buzzer against Venezuela was the difference.
Now, a spot in Tokyo in 2020 is in play – two teams from the Americas will pre-qualify at the FIBA Basketball World Cup which begins August 31st in China – but the task has been made more difficult by the failure of some of Canada’s best players to join the fight this time around.
It’s a seemingly perpetual summer refrain, but Joseph, 27, and Olynyk, 28, will try to get it done anyway.
“We just made a pact and a bond that we were going to do it together,” says Olynyk, who will be starting his seventh NBA season and third with the Miami Heat in October. “Our goal ever since we were young was to play in the Olympics, play in the World Cup, put Canada on the map and do it any way we can, and we’ve stuck to that and we’re just going to try and continue with that ride.”
Occasionally overlooked in discussions about who isn’t playing for Canada at major international events – this time around a full rosters’ worth of NBAers decided to pass on the six-week commitment required for the China mission – are the ones that always seem to find a way to make themselves available.
Among the current generation of Canadian NBA players, none have been more consistent in their representation than Joseph and Olynyk.
When Canada tips off at the World Cup, it will be the seventh time they’ve suited up in a major international competition as teammates. Together, they have played more than 100 official games – not counting friendlies like Wednesday night’s contest against Nigeria at the Mattamy Athletic Centre and then Friday in Winnipeg.
But their relationship stretches back farther than that.
Before becoming national-team cornerstones, they were the stars on a mighty Scarborough Blues Ontario Basketball Association club coached by Kelly’s father, Ken, that reeled off a string of provincial championships when the boys were middle-school age.
The only title game they lost? On a buzzer-beater at the hands of Toronto 5-0, whose best players were Steph and Seth Curry – living in city while their father Dell played for the Toronto Raptors.
But the ties run even deeper. Lending support from the sidelines when the boys were young and Vince Carter was winning dunk contests were their mothers – Connie Joseph and Arlene Olynyk. They first met as teammates playing for the University of Lethbridge, where Ken – who coached the junior national team for Canada and later at the University of Toronto – ran the men’s team.
“It’s amazing how it gets connected, you know?” says Ken from Kamloops, BC, where he moved his family in 2003 to become the athletic director of Thompson Rivers University, breaking up the Scarborough Blues dynasty but only forestalling the on-court relationship Cory and Kelly forged as youngsters.
“They’ve always maintained a friendship,” says Connie. “When you play together at that age there’s a special bond that just stays with you. Obviously as you get older and you go to different colleges and different teams you’re not seeing each other day-to-day, but once you’ve played with someone at 10 years old you know them well.
“Sometimes Cory and Kelly will make plays together now and I’m like ‘oh yeah, I’ve seen that before’ – you can tell that they know each other that well.”
Their friendship has been to the national team’s benefit, never more than this summer, when so many of Canada’s growing population of NBA players have decided not to take part in the World Cup.
“Him and his family have been very close friends of me and my family for a very long time,” says Joseph who signed with the Sacramento Kings as a free agent earlier this summer and is preparing for his ninth NBA season. “I’ve known them since Scarborough Blues days; we’ve played together and we continue to grow as friends and really, we’re brothers. To have this experience and with him and really from the start – I share every off-season with him, we travel the world together, it’s amazing.”
Says Olynyk of Joseph: “He’s a guy who’s always there for you. You see him, that’s his persona, that’s his character. Every single year he’s going to show up ready to play, ready to fight, ready to go to war. He’s someone you want on your team. He’s an unbelievable person, super high-character and whenever he’s called to action he’s going to be there. He’s super reliable, super accountable. He’s a fun guy to be around, he always has a great smile on his face, he’s energetic, enthusiastic and just loves playing the game of basketball.”
Their steady presence with the national team is admired by their peers, even more as so many others haven’t made themselves available.
“We know there is a lot of pressure on their side from GMs, coaches, agents or whatever and they still find a way to come out and play and represent,” says Melvin Ejim, who, along with Brady Heslip and Phil and Thomas Scrubb, has played the most games with Joseph and Olynyk internationally.
“It’s not a knock on the other guys that can’t [play] but it makes you appreciate [Olynk and Joseph] even more. They have everything, they’ve got it made – from the outside they’re doing really well for themselves and they’re still taking time out of the short summer that they have to come and contribute to the national team. I think it’s great and what they do is great for us. I appreciate it and I think it should be appreciated by everyone else because it’s not easy.”
For men’s team head coach Nick Nurse, the pair are the foundation of a roster that has to come together quickly under his first-time guidance.
“They’re obviously the backbone, they’re super high-level players, they’ve been through it, they’re committed leaders. What more can you say?” said Nurse.
“They’re a good pick-and-pop combo, a good defensive combo. I was watching some film this morning of some of the last games and it was amazing watching them guard the screen and roll. Just Cory doing it on his own sometimes and then he’d get in trouble and Kelly would switch for him. They really have a rhythm at both ends together and that comes from their time playing together and just their high level of skill in general.”
It’s not the kind of chemistry that comes together overnight or even over a single summer, but over years of warm-weather basketball when playing for fun, friends and family is the top priority.
“Both of them love the summer,” says Ken, recently retired. “In university or high school you have that team comradery, when you’re in the pros you do but you don’t – just look at the NBA off-season – but in the summer both of them really enjoy being together, enjoy playing together, enjoy having a common goal. And that’s the fun part, that’s the fun part of basketball for both of them, I believe and that’s what their relationship is built on.”
Canada is lucky they have it and have been so willing to share it.