Grange: Cdn women demolishing FIBA Americas

Tamara Tatham (Eric Gay/AP)

Members of the Canadian senior women’s national team prefer not to dwell on the negative. It’s distracting and destructive.

Plus, they’re one of the great success stories in Canadian sports, so there’s not much to be negative about.

But you can’t blame them for being at least a little resentful towards the general sporting public— and sports media—for allowing them to go about their business this summer almost completely unencumbered by the attention they so rightly deserve.

“That’s not really my style,” says head coach Lisa Thomaidis, with a laugh. “But there are a lot of people who are pissed.”

The Canadian women’s national team is,currently in Xalapa, Mexico, kicking butt and taking names. Playing internationally can be a roll of the dice for any Canadian team in any sport. Weird things just seem to happen.

So the approach of the women’s team at the FIBA Americas championship seems to be simple: crush all opposition and take weirdness, luck or bad fortune out of the equation.

On Friday, they will face Puerto Rico in the semi-finals (Canada won 73-48 and will face Cuba in the gold medal final on Saturday). A win will earn Canada their third-straight trip to the World Championships, and their fourth-straight to a major global competition when you toss in their respectable eighth-place showing at the 2012 Olympics.

But Canada has their eyes set higher:

“We’ve won three-straight bronzes [at FIBA Americas] and I know this time we’re trying to get an even higher seed,” says national team veteran Tamara Tatham. “We want to go for gold, we feel like this is our time for sure. We want to make some noise.”

As noted above, weirdness is part of international basketball, but Canada goes into the semis as a clear favourite thanks to a 4-0 record in the preliminary round and an average margin of victory of 34 points a game.

They share a similar world ranking (9th and climbing) as the Women’s soccer team that captivated Canada in London and were a win away from playing for a gold medal themselves, but they’ve gained not even a hint of the same recognition.

And while the senior men’s basketball team has been the beneficiary of a wave of hype and enthusiasm about their potential—even after their disappointing fifth-place finish at the Tournament of the Americas earlier this month—the women have quietly gone out and accomplished things the men’s team can only dream about at the moment.

So they have a right to be ticked for largely being ignored. And they have a right to be ticked at me—as I flip through my files and realize that, umm, ya, this is the first coverage I’ve given to a program that has done just about everything right since pulling themselves out of the doldrums that afflicted them from 1998 to 2004, when Canada failed to qualify for the Worlds and finish 10th at the 2000 Olympics. It was a dismal period for a program that was a powerhouse in the early-to-mid 1980s, running up a cumulative 17-5 record at the World Championships from 1979 to 1986 and earning bronze medals in 1979 and 1986.

Things began to tick upward under the leadership of longtime head coach Alison McNeill and appear to be gaining momentum under Thomaidis, who took over when McNeill retired.

But they don’t seem ticked. Instead, the lack of recognition is something they choose not focus on.

“No matter what, men’s basketball is always going to be a big sport in almost any country, so I can’t really be mad that the men get more attention,” says Tatham. “But we’d love to be out there too, repping for our country and showing the world that we can play basketball, too.”

Be it sexism or simply market forces, the lack of attention is a bit sad when you think about it.

Do Canadian basketball fans know that Kia Nurse—little sister to Edmonton Oilers No.1 pick Darnell Nurse—is starting for the senior women’s team as a 17-year-old?

Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins—the much-hyped 18 year old from Thornhill Ont. who is the consensus favourite to be the No.1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft—gained more attention this summer for his role in the future of Canadian basketball than the women’s team even though he didn’t participate in a national practice, let alone play in a game.

Canada’s best men’s players from Steve Nash on down have always had to be judicious in how and when they play for their country as they balance their patriotism with the commercial realities that drive men’s basketball.

In comparison, the women’s team gathered in May in Hamilton; trained all summer in Edmonton and have competed in the Czech Republic, Serbia, France, Brazil, China and now Mexico as they pursue their dream of returning Canada to the elite of their sport.

And about their sense of entitlement? Umm, they don’t have one.

This summer, the City of Edmonton began an agreement to make the world-class Saville Community Sports Centre on the University of Alberta campus the program’s permanent home. To listen to Tatham it’s like a bunch of Cinderellas have finally been invited to the ball.

“They treat us amazing out there. It’s a great thing that’s happened to us,” she says. “Anything we need we get out there. The food is amazing. There is always water in our rooms. We have our own locker rooms—two of them—the facility is great. We get transportation. It’s amazing. They’re taking care of us. This is the most welcome we’ve felt in a long time.”

Hear that? Free water!

The sense of having found a home has translated on the court. The women are 16-5 so far this summer, and the best is yet to come.

“Our team is very talented. We’ve been playing all summer for this,” says Tatham. “This is our time. So we’re all going to go balls to the wall and leave our hearts on the floor and hopefully something great will happen in the end. “

It would be even greater if we took notice.

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