TORONTO — It was the perfect mix of talent and togetherness. And over one remarkable week last summer in Cairo, 12 teenagers did something no Canadian team had ever accomplished — claim gold on basketball’s world stage.
Canada captured the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup title in July, the country’s first gold in the sport at any world or Olympic event, stunning the mighty Americans in the semifinals before steamrolling Italy in the final.
They were honoured for their historic performance by being voted The Canadian Press Team of the Year for 2017.
"From one to 12, what an incredible group of young kids we had, who did an incredible job of representing our country," said coach Roy Rana.
The team picked up 17 of 63 votes (27 per cent) in an online poll of broadcasters and sports editors from across the country. MLS Cup champions Toronto FC and Brad Gushue’s world champion curling rink tied for second with 10 votes (16 per cent).
No one could have predicted how the young basketball team’s dramatic week would unfold, or penned a better storybook ending.
"Came out of nowhere," said Chris Bury, program director for CJAD 800 in Montreal. "Surprised and inspired the nation."
"Unexpected and unprecedented. Beating the U.S. is the cherry on top," wrote Mackenzie Liddell, Yahoo Canada Sports editor.
Set against a tense backdrop of security concerns in Cairo — sequestered in their hotel, the Canadians ventured out just once, on their day off, in a memorable visit to the Pyramids — the Canadians would overpower Mali and Japan by a combined 191-117 in the preliminary round.
But they dropped a 78-73 decision to Spain that slotted them second in Group C of the 16-country tournament, setting them on a collision course with the top-ranked Americans.
It was understood at that moment, but never spoken aloud, Rana said, that their path to the gold-medal game would go through the U.S. Canada’s kiss of death, many probably thought. The best they would likely play for was bronze.
But the Canadians defeated France 73-67 in the quarter-finals. And then, in what will go down as a landmark moment in Canada’s basketball history, the team upset an American squad coached by Kentucky’s John Calipari 99-87 in the semis.
"After that game we knew we were going to win," said team captain Lindell Wigginton. "We felt like nobody could stop us after that."
The 19-year-old from Dartmouth, N.S., was right. The Italians didn’t stand a chance in the final. Canada won 79-60 for gold.
"To beat a really good France team, and then have this magical run where we upset the U.S. and won the world championship, was incredible, just absolutely magical," Rana said. "It was just kind of the power of sport when teams start to gel at the right time and come together, and make sacrifices for each other. It was very, very special."
A big part of Canada’s exceptional story was that the wins over France and the U.S. came without Wigginton. The team’s starting point guard was sidelined with a concussion.
"People weren’t selfish, everybody was happy for each other in that moment, and enjoying the experience, and wanting to be that first Canadian team to win the world championships," Wigginton said, summing up the team’s special chemistry.
It was also a coming-out party for R.J. Barrett. Despite being one of the tournament’s youngest players at 17, the Brampton, Ont., native had 38 points and 13 boards in an epic performance against the U.S., en route to being named tournament MVP.
No basketball team had ever won the Canadian Press award in its 51-year history.
"It says that a group of young kids can capture the imagination of a country and do something that’s never been done — at any level in our history," said Rana, also head coach of the Ryerson Rams. "And it also speaks about the growth and the popularity of basketball, that it is important to us as a country, and our fans and our general population care. That in itself is pretty special."
Steve Nash is a three-time winner of the Lionel Conacher Award as Canadian Press male athlete of the year, while Edmonton Grads captain Noel MacDonald won the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as the top female athlete in 1938.
Tennis player Denis Shapovalov won this year’s Lionel Conacher Award on Tuesday, while golfer Brooke Henderson collected the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award on Wednesday.
Along with Barrett and Wigginton, Canada’s U19 players were: Amidou Bamba, Toronto; Nathan Darling, Sackville, N.S.; Danilo Djuricic, Brampton, Ont.; Jordan Henry, Pickering, Ont.; Abu Kigab, St. Catharines, Ont.; Noah Kirkwood, Kanata, Ont.; Anthony Longpre, L’Assomption, Que.; Emanuel Miller, Toronto; Prince Oduro, Toronto; and Grant Shephard, Kelowna, B.C.