Wiltjer & Co., have logged millions of kilometres to play for Canada


Canada's men's basketball team player Kyle Wiltjer protects the ball during tournament play. (Canadian Press)

With a few hours to kill during a recent layover in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Kyle Wiltjer was wondering aloud.

The former Gonzaga forward was about to bend his six-foot-10 frame onto yet another transatlantic flight to play for Canada’s men’s basketball team in its final window of FIBA World Cup qualifying in St. John’s, N.L.

Wiltjer was travelling from Malaga, Spain. Others were boarding flights in Saint Petersburg and Kazan, Russia. Still others had put down whatever they were doing to hop on flights in Buenos Aires; Istanbul; Zwolle, Netherlands; Varese, Italy; Podgorica, Montenegro; and Weibenfels, Germany.

Just how many air miles, Wiltjer wondered, has Canada’s men’s basketball team logged on its very long World Cup qualifying road?

"What’s special about our team right now, and how a lot of the guys are really positive about Canada, is we just have a large pool of players who are very unselfish," Wiltjer said. "It seems no matter if it’s the Scrubb brothers (Phil and Thomas) coming all this way, me, Melvin (Ejim) — it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, we all come together when the team needs us. The numbers are pretty amazing, just the amount of miles that have been travelled."

Amazing indeed. Canada Basketball, which has been tracking the globetrotting travel, puts a conservative estimate at more than 2.3 million kilometres combined.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about this window is Canada has already sewn up its World Cup berth. With two games left — Canada hosts Chile on Thursday and Venezuela on Sunday at Mile One Centre — the Canadians clinched their berth in early December with a 94-67 rout in Brazil.

Wiltjer, who had a team-high 25 points in Canada’s big win over Brazil, said he didn’t hesitate in leaving his club team Unicaja Malaga and the sun-drenched resort city on the Mediterranean Sea. Commitment has always been "a family thing."

"I grew up with a basketball in my hands from an early age because of my father, he played on the national team, so any time Canada offers me a chance to play, it’s really an honour," Wiltjer said. "I always jump on the opportunity. I don’t think twice. I always commit and make the journey."

Wiltjer was born and raised in Portland, Ore., but the Wiltjer family has always flown the virtual Canadian flag. Dad Greg played for Canada at the 1984 Olympics, and Kyle grew up keen to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

"I obviously went to high school in the United States, so I was always wondering why my dad was so passionate about (Canadian basketball)," Wiltjer said. "When I got older I realized how important all the stuff he did was, the fact he was able to play with some great players like Steve Nash, played in an Olympics (Canada finished fourth). I would love to play in an Olympics one day. It’s one of the dreams of mine."

Greg Wiltjer played for Canada for 12 years. When Kyle was a kid, Greg would take him to a camp every summer run by former Canadian teammate Howard Kelsey. Kyle’s sister Jordan Adams also played for Canada.

"I’ve always encouraged the connection with Team Canada basketball and having that experience, but I think what (Kyle) has found on his own is that they truly are a family, they’re connected," Greg said. "What I found is I have lifelong friendships because of those relationships, and those amazing experiences. I said ‘If you can play in a Pan Am Games, or a World Student Games, or an Olympics for your country, those are just phenomenal experiences.’ And I think what he’s learned is: yes they are."

FIBA rewrote its World Cup qualifying procedures to fall more in line with soccer. It began in November of 2017 and runs through this week. But unlike soccer, the NBA and Europe’s top leagues don’t shut down for international dates. So assembling rosters has been both a tough task for Canadian coaches, and a great opportunity to test the team’s depth. With the addition of Mychal Mulder for this week’s games, Canada will have used a remarkable 36 different players, second only to the United States in the Americas.

"The commitment of our players reflects our desire to be our best every time we wear the jersey," said Canadian coach Roy Rana. "These final two games are important for numerous reasons, but most importantly reflect our desire to win no matter what the circumstance."

Ejim, a forward for UNICS, in the southwestern Russian city of Kazan, has played in six of those games. He didn’t hesitate when asked to pull on the Canadian jersey twice more. Even if it did require four flights — Kazan to Munich to Montreal to St. John’s.

"It’s pride in our country. It’s pride in the fact that we can go out and represent Canada in a positive way," Ejim said. "And we’re fighting for a goal. Everyone here, their goal was to qualify for the world championships, which we have done, and once we get to the world championships, qualify for the Olympics. Everybody who’s been a part of it up until now is fighting for that goal.

"That’s the No. 1 thing I want to do while being a part of the national team is make it back to the Olympics, and in doing so, represent my country the best way I can. So I think that drive, the fact we haven’t been there in so long, and just the love of the game, all of those combined together is what motivates everyone."

Canada’s last World Cup appearance was in 2010 in Turkey — an embarrassing 0-5 record and first-round exit. The Canadian men haven’t made an Olympic appearance since 2000 in Sydney.

But the sport is enjoying a meteoric rise in this country with homegrown players starring on numerous stages. Canada’s 8-2 record in World Cup qualifying is proof of depth the program has never enjoyed, and the fight for spot on the roster for the World Cup, Aug. 31-Sept. 15 in China, will be fierce.

The World Cup is the main qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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