Unshakeably determined Eli Pasquale carried Canada to unmatched heights

Canada's Eli Pasquale in action in Edmonton in this 1983 photo. Pasquale, who played for Canada for 13 years, will be inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday along with longtime coach Kathy Shields, and builders Jack Kenyon and Hank Tatarchuk. (CP PHOTO/Staff)

It was a hot summer day in Sudbury, Ont., and Eli Pasquale and his friends were doing what they always did: playing pick-up hoops in the gym at Lockerby Composite School.

There was a little extra spice in the scrimmages that day. Visiting from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was Dave Zanatta another high-end high school talent who had made the four-hour trip to find some competition.

After a couple of hours and many buckets of sweat, someone suggested heading to the lake for a swim. Pasquale went along, Zanatta stayed.

The group returned from their swim later in the afternoon to play some more and the rolled into the gym to find Zanatta – who went on to star at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, finishing with a school-record 21 point per game average – still working on his game.

It was a moment that changed Pasquale’s life and arguably Canadian basketball.

“That was it, I said ‘never again’,” Pasquale recalled nearly 35 years after the fact when I interviewed him for the Steve Nash biography I co-wrote with Dave Feschuk.

“I made a decision at that point – I think in Grade 11 — that never again was I going to let anyone else play more hours than I do, and I don’t think many did, to be honest. Kids laugh, but they don’t realize it. I put in six to eight hours a day. That’s what I did in the summertime. There was no question, I put my time in.”

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That laser focus and unshakeable determination helped forge one of the most remarkable careers any Canadian basketball player has ever had.

Pasquale, 59, died Monday in Victoria, B.C., after a lengthy battle with cancer.

“He was an athlete who brought passion to the gym, and nothing of any serious consequence has even been accomplished in life without passion and commitment,” Ken Shields, the former University of Victoria and national team head coach, said Tuesday.

His relationship with Pasquale spanned nearly 50 years, from when the skinny scrappy kid would attend his basketball camps at Laurentian University where Shields first coached to the very end this week in Victoria, when Pasquale passed away peacefully after a long battle with cancer.

“You never had to talk about quality with Eli. He brought his best to every practice, every scrimmage. It was the standard he set.

“There was absolutely no question in my mind that in today’s world he would have been an NBA player,” said Shields. “Because of his athletic ability and his will – but international players didn’t have the same respect they do today.”

Pasquale left Sudbury to play for Shields at the University of Victoria, where he was the starting point guard on five consecutive national championship teams from 1980-84.

The Vikings were to Canadian basketball at the time what Carleton is now. They eventually won seven straight titles and were .500 in 14 exhibition games against D1 opponents – all on the road. Four UVic players were on the national team roster when Canada finished fourth at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

He was also the starting point guard for a decade for Jack Donahue on the best men’s national teams Canada has ever had, piloting a run that included a gold medal at the World University Games in Edmonton in 1983, which featured a landmark win over a U.S. team that had Hall of Famers Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and a handful of others who had notable NBA careers. Pasquale’s national team career began as a reserve on a team that finished sixth at the world championships in 1982 before he took over as the starter and guided the men’s team to the fourth-place finish in Los Angeles, an eighth-place finish at the world championships in 1986 and a sixth-place performance at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea.

The common wisdom is that had Pasquale not broken his leg in the lead-up to qualifying for the 1992 Olympics in Spain, Canada would have made it to three straight Olympic tournaments. The Canadian men’s team has been to only one Olympics since 1988.

“We played nine years together in the backcourt,” said Jay Triano, the national team co-captain with Pasquale, former Canadian men’s team head coach and now the assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets.

“And he was the guy. He was the head of the whole thing. He ran the offence and was just as good off the court with the way he trained and the way he challenged himself and challenged his teammates,” said Triano.

“… there was no way I’d have had the same career I did without Eli playing point guard.”

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But his legacy lives on through the lives he touched after his competitive career was done.

Pasquale lived in Victoria after graduating from UVic and began running basketball camps all over the island.

One of his counsellors was a local teenager, Steve Nash, who was making a name for himself as perhaps the best basketball player in all of British Columbia in the late 1980s.

Pasquale still liked to be the last one to leave the gym, but in Nash he found someone who wanted to be there right along with him. The veteran international known for his ability to run a one-man press, so tireless was his defensive effort, would play endless games of 1-on-1 against the local high school phenom. Pasquale quickly recognized that Nash’s talent was even more considerable than his own.

Driving Nash home after one of their workouts, Pasquale passed on some advice that helped change the younger guard’s focus and altered the trajectory of his life.

Growing up in small-town, northern Ontario, the limits of the basketball universe seemed finite. Pasquale’s nearest rival, Zanatta, lived four hours down away along a two-lane northern highway.

When it was time to choose a university, he picked UVic because he’d known Ken Shields from his days in Sudbury.

His chief basketball ambition was to play for Canada because he saw the national team defeat the USSR at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1975, a game carried live on CBC, the first time a game featuring the national team had ever been broadcast nationally.

Pasquale watched the game – the CBC being one of the two channels he got on his television at home – and he made another promise to himself.

“For whatever reason, it just hit me; I want to go to the Olympics, I want to play for Canada. So that was the start of that,” he said.

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But years later his message to Nash – who was already scrimmaging with the national team as they trained in Victoria ahead of the 1992 Games – was to aim higher.

“If you have any thoughts about wanting to make the NBA you have to decide at this moment,” were Pasquale’s words to Nash. “You have to decide now and figure out what you have to do and go for it.

“There is no guarantee it’s going to happen, but by not making those goals, you can almost guarantee it’s not going to happen.”

It was a radical notion at the time. Aiming to make the NBA from Victoria was like drawing a target on the moon from your backyard. As Nash’s well-known legend goes, the two-time MVP and eight-time all-star was lucky to get a single U.S. scholarship offer.

But Pasquale was channeling his own experience. He had some solid NBA opportunities after leaving UVic. His play at the World University Games opened some eyes and he was a fifth-round pick of the Seattle Supersonics in 1984 and was cut only after the team traded for veteran point guard Gerald Henderson. The following year he was in training camp with the Chicago Bulls, playing alongside Michael Jordan but was cut in favour of John Paxon.

“Michael Jordan didn’t need a point guard,” Pasquale said. “They needed a guy who could spot up and shoot.”

Pasquale returned to Victoria where he would run his camps and continue training for the national team, shuttling down to Seattle on weekends to play semi-professional senior men’s basketball, often alongside Triano.

But his words and influence weren’t lost on Nash.

“He was a really good player, very smart, very efficient, very competitive,” was Nash’s scouting report on his mentor, years later. “You could throw him in an NBA game and not miss a beat.”

Nash took Pasquale’s advice and forged the greatest basketball career any Canadian has ever had and likely ever will.

And in that sense, the choice Pasquale made as an unknown high schooler in Sudbury of all places – to aim high and never be outworked again – have reverberated throughout Canadian basketball history and will likely live on forever.

Pasquale is survived by his wife Karen, sons Isiah and Manny, brother Vito, sister Luciana and mother Adriana.

On Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena, the Toronto Raptors will be celebrating “Canada Basketball night,” recognizing the remarkable strides a hockey-playing nation has made in one of the world’s most international sports.

On the floor will be Roy Rana, as assistant coach with the visiting Sacramento Kings, and Cory Joseph, the veteran point guard from Toronto. The Raptors are NBA champions and their head coach is the coach of the national team. They feature two Canadians on their roster.

Eli Pasquale played his best basketball at a time when the NBA was too distant to dream on, but deserves recognition as one of the greatest Canadians to have ever played the game James Naismith invented. It should begin with a lengthy ovation Wednesday night.

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