Canada Basketball qualifying tournament goes beyond just Olympics


Canada's coach Nick Nurse gestures during a Group H match against Lithuania for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in Dongguan in south China's Guangdong province on Tuesday, Sep. 3, 2019. (CP/AP)

At first the issue was if they could pull things together quickly enough in the short amount of time they had. Then it became: would it happen at all?

Now the last remaining question facing the local organizing committee for the most important basketball tournament played in Canada since the World Championships were held in Toronto in 1994 is: what is it going to look like?

Oh, and who’s going to win?

In a little less than two months we’ll have an answer for the last question. The deciding game for the last-chance Olympic Qualifying Tournament is scheduled for Jun. 29 to Jul. 4 in Victoria, BC.

The hope is that the tournament – nearly two years in planning after being a year delayed due to the pandemic – will go off without further hurdles, barriers or hiccups and that the Canadian men’s national team will win the six-team competition and advance to the Olympics for the first time since 2000.

That’s what inspired Clint Hamilton to pull together a bid to host the event in mere weeks in the fall of 2019 when he learned that otherwise Canada would have to hit the road for the last-gasp qualifier in a conversation with Canada Basketball president and chief executive officer Glen Grunwald.

“I was calling Glen on another matter,” says Hamilton, who is the athletic director for the University of Victoria in addition to serving as chair for Friends of Victoria Basketball. “My assumption was that Canada Basketball and maybe Maple Leaf Sports were making a bid to host the Olympic Qualifier and I asked Glen about it and he said ‘no, it doesn’t look like we’ll be doing anything’ and I said, ‘can you give me a couple of weeks?’

“It was amazing how things fell into place. Of course, when we did that no one anticipated the pandemic and the impact that’s had on the world of sports.”

Hamilton is well-acquainted with what the glory days of the men’s national team looked like – he played for Ken Shields at the end of the UVic dynasty and tried out unsuccessfully for iconic national team head coach Jack Donahue in 1986 – and is convinced helping the current pool of talent on the men’s side find success internationally could be a turning point for the sport in Canada.

“The reason we went forward brazenly to get the event is we believe this could be an inflection point for the game, building off of what the Raptors did [in winning the NBA title in 2019],” he said in a recent interview. “We want this to be a celebration. We wanted basketball fans to be part of what we think is going to be a spectacular basketball competition.”

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The pandemic postponed the 2020 Games by a year and subsequently the OQT was pushed back as well. Visions of raucous, sold-out crowds of 7,400 at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre willing Canada to victory have been streamlined as well.

“It’s disappointing,” says Hamilton, who still holds out hope that some fans will be allowed in the building. “But we’re excited about delivering the event and we’re excited about what Team Canada will unleash in that event.”

The important takeaway is that both Grunwald and Hamilton are confident that the tournament will go ahead as planned even though the Federal Government shows no signs of waiving COVID-related border restrictions which in theory would require extended quarantine periods for teams from Greece, China, Turkey, Uruguay and Czech Republic, not to mention Canadian athletes and staff living and playing outside of Canada.

The government has made an exemption for participants in International Single Sport Events providing they approve of the measures taken to ‘minimize the risk of the introduction or spread of COVID-19’.

“Each team has their protocols, and the expectation is that they will arrive in Canada COVID-free,” says Hamilton. “From there they are in a very tight bubble that brings them into the living, training and competition environment and we have access to daily testing in a way that we can ensure there is no outbreak … that allows the exemption to the quarantine rules for the single sport events to occur.”

It’s no guarantee. The same exemption was in place for the Women’s World Hockey Championships which were scheduled to start in Nova Scotia on May 6th, but evaluations of the direction of pandemic are necessarily fluid and the province cancelled the tournament with barely two weeks’ notice due to concerns about the rising case count in Nova Scotia.

In B.C., the rolling seven-day average for new cases has been declining since mid-April. The hope is the trend continues and hosting athletes and support staff from Asia, South America and Europe won’t contribute to additional outbreaks.

“All the travel considerations, how those teams move [upon arrival] really eliminates interaction,” says Hamilton. “It’s a strict, strict protocol and it includes the venue itself and the different access zones for the people needed to deliver the event.”

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Along with either diminished crowds or none, a series of outdoor events planned under the banner of “We the West Basketball Festival” featuring everything from a 3-on-3 tournament, wheelchair basketball, a mural competition and what was planned to be the largest outdoor concert in the history of Victoria on Canada Day – will likely have to be at the very least altered or scaled back.

There is a financial element too. In order to host the OQT, Friends of Victoria Basketball – which includes Canada Basketball board member and co-founder of digital commerce platform Shopify, Scott Lake – had to provide FIBA with a $3-million guarantee. Some of that upfront money has been offset by contributions from local, provincial and federal government, but missing will be the volume of ticket sales originally planned.

“We knew our business plan depended on sponsorship and fan attendance, but we didn’t’ know we’d be in the grasp of a global pandemic,” said Hamilton. “We’ve had to evolve with that but it absolutely has impacted the financial side of the equation significantly.

“We’re hoping we can deliver the event with as little financial fallout as possible. [But] any vision of running the event with any kind of financial legacy, well, we’re well past that.”

There have already been some more intrinsic rewards, however, with hints of more to come.

After Victoria was announced as the host for the OQT, Hamilton says he was moved when various national team players made the effort to reach out and thank the organizing committee for making the commitment to allow them to play at home.

“When we won the bid within a week or two we had a number of emails from players reaching out, indicating they appreciated us looking to create a homecourt advantage and that was really, really wonderful to see,” says Hamilton, who also referenced the public pledges to play for the national team made by several of Canada’s NBA players

“Think about it: when you’re a local organizing committee and you take this big step and you know what you want to do to help Team Canada … I can’t understate how inspiring it is to see how the players responded.”

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