Grange: Absence makes the team grow stronger

Juan Carlos Hernandez/Xinhua/

Missing the FIBA World Cup hasn’t stopped Team Canada from building for the future

Kelly Olynyk isn’t sure when he first noticed it—the whole trip was a bit of a blur, frankly—but what he saw was pure gold.

The gang of smartphone-happy twenty-somethings that made up the Canadian men’s basketball team on their recent European tour talked on the bus, shot the breeze on the plane and busted each other’s chops while waiting for their bags. And in the process, the fibre of a team began to emerge. “When you’re over in Europe, your phone doesn’t work,” says Olynyk, the Boston Celtics forward from Kamloops, B.C. “So it kind of forces you to talk to each other or play cards and just be with each other . . . guys can’t just hide away on their phones.”

If things had worked out the way they were supposed to, Olynyk and the rest of Team Canada would be free of cellular service for a bit longer, headed to Spain in September for the FIBA World Cup of Basketball. In a perfect world, the World Cup would be the first chapter written by a golden generation with the potential to eventually author a climax nearly unimaginable only a few years ago: a showdown with Team USA for a gold medal.

But this is Canada and this is basketball—there must be suffering first. Last summer in Caracas, Venezuela, Canada was 4-1 at the FIBA Americas Championships and seemingly coasting to a spot in the World Cup. Instead, they lost their last three games and missed their chance.

The Canadian basketball explosion is real. No country besides the U.S. can currently field a team with as many NBA lottery picks. Next summer, when coach Jay Triano has to pick a team to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, he believes he’ll have to tell an NBA player that he’s not good enough to play for his country. Unheard of.

But the wealth of talent comes with a catch. With the pool of qualified players growing ever larger, ever richer and ever more focused on earning lucrative NBA contracts, how do you build a team? With so many demands on players’ time, can they ever spend time together? “If we think we can take our 10 best NBA guys and throw them together and qualify for the Olympics, we’re going to be shocked,” says Triano. “You build a team by going through tough times. You build a team by going on tough trips, when things aren’t comfortable all the time and you figure out how to conquer that and motivate yourself.”

That’s why this summer has been almost as important as if Canada had qualified for Spain. In the absence of an event to plan around, the team cobbled together a schedule only a diehard could love: 11 games in 20 days in four countries. Olynyk, who missed playing for Canada last summer, loved it. “In the NBA you might have a back-to-back in two different cities and then have a day off and play another game,” he says. “It seems like a lot of wear and tear, but on this trip we had six games in six days. We played two games in Croatia, drove six hours to Italy overnight, played Italy that night, played two more games, then drove to Venice, stayed over, got on the plane in the morning, flew to Madrid, changed planes and flew again, and then played Spain that night on the last game of six in a row.”

They lost to No. 2-ranked Spain, taking them to 3-6 on the trip. But there were two games left. And after nearly three weeks without cell service, sleeping two to a room on single beds—not a small sacrifice for a seven-footer—a team was emerging, even if it was caked in road dust.

Canada finished the trip with a win over Turkey, silver medallists at the 2010 World Championships, and another over Angola, ranked No. 15 in the world. They persevered and were a better team after their 20-day odyssey.

They don’t hand out medals for efforts like that. But you can’t win one without them.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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