Canada enters men's Olympic qualifying with bright future on horizon

Will Canada’s men’s basketball team finally qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2000? Michael Grange joins Tim Micallef from Victoria, BC to break down the FIBA qualifying tournament.

It’s time.

It’s time to put the ghosts to rest. To quiet the doubters; to put the past in the past, and embrace what should be an incredibly bright basketball future.

After heartbreak and pain and decades in the international basketball wilderness, it’s time for the Canadian men’s national team to complete its quest and advance to the Olympic Games for the first time in 21 years and just the second time since 1988 – an era that seems so distant, kids who grew up idolizing Vince Carter and have kids of their own don’t even know it happened.

You can hear the frustration – maybe even the desperation – in the voice of national team captain Cory Joseph, who has been suiting up internationally for Canada since he was a teenager, but in almost a decade with the senior team, has yet to taste tangible success.

The close calls and disappointments – in 2013 at the FIBA Americas and even more painfully in 2015 in Mexico City and then in 2016 at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the Philippines and then once more in 2019 and the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China – have left scars.

“We definitely remember it and it still stings,” says Joseph of the burdens he and some of his national team teammates have had to carry. “So we’re trying to get rid of that feeling; I’m trying to get that feeling off.”

No amount of scar tissue is enough to dull off Joseph’s love of the game that has shined through every time he’s taken the floor in 10 NBA seasons.

“Basketball is fun,” he says. It’s his mantra, almost.

But enough that even he can’t help but approach this latest inflection point – another Olympic Qualifying Tournament, but this time one where they are playing at home and have the benefits of a good draw and a good schedule – with a proper note of caution.

“We definitely have a lot of talent,” said Joseph of Canada’s 12-man roster that should feature an all-NBA eight-man rotation bolstered by some capable European pros beyond that. “That is very well known … we definitely have a good shot here. We put together a great group of guys, but … I have been here for a while; I’ve had talented groups before and we couldn’t get the job done.

“So we got to be extremely focused and put it all together and get out there and just play extremely hard. I think if we play together and we play hard, I think our talents can show.”

For once it’s Canada that doesn’t have the outrageous travel schedule or time change to overcome. Consider Greece, who Canada opens the tournament against on Tuesday night before hosting China on Wednesday.

On paper they are the sixth-ranked team in the world, but they won’t be at full strength in Victoria, not even close, according to head coach Rick Pitino.

He laid it on pretty thick, but it can’t be ideal that they travelled for 24 hours to make it to Victoria, as Pitino joked (but not really) that they had to take a 5:45 am flight out of Athens because “the federation wanted to save $20 a person”. He went on to elaborate on just how many of their projected starters they would be without due to injury and kidded about how disappointed he was that Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo carried his team to the Eastern Conference Finals and thus was unavailable for Greece for the OQT.

China is without some of its key veterans and should be a walkover, while on the other side of the draw from No.21-ranked Canada -- No.10-ranked Turkey and No.12 Czech Republic have only four current NBA players on their rosters combined.

Everyone else in Victoria figures this is Canada’s tournament to lose.

“Obviously, Canada is the favourite of this group in my mind,” said Czech captain and Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky. “When you put them on paper, I would say they are the second-best team in the world if you would go just by names.

“Most of their NBA guys have a great role on their teams, some of them are stars so it’s going to be interesting to see how are they able to put the group together and how are they going to be able to perform at home.

“I’m wondering, I’m looking forward to seeing that.”

Everyone is.

The fly in the ointment here is that the next time this version of the national team plays together will be the first.

There are six players on the roster who played for Canada in Mexico City when they lost a spot in the 2016 Olympics to underdog Venezuela on free throws with the clock expired, but Canada’s coaching staff has completely turned over since then.

Joseph is the lone player on the roster from the 2019 World Cup, the only time Nurse has coached the team.

Some of the players he will be relying on – Luguentz Dort of the Oklahoma City Thunder; Nickeil Alexander-Walker of the New Orleans Pelicans and Trey Lyles of the San Antonio Spurs – have never played a senior game for Canada.

Others – Mychal Mulder of the Golden State Warriors or R.J. Barrett of the New York Knicks – have never played a meaningful one.

Their only ‘game’ coming into the tournament was against Canada’s U-19 team. The competition in Victoria will be a big step up from that, as talented as Canada’s youth teams are these days.

Oddly, that might work in their favour, too.

“We haven’t been able to scout them, they haven’t played any games,” said Pitino. “We’ve played three friendly games and they have not played any games so we’re going into this a little bit blind in terms of scouting what they do.

“We certainly know their talent, we certainly know that their coach is outstanding, but we don’t know what they’re going to run offensively, defensively as scheme. We can just go from the Toronto Raptors or from other past Canadian teams but I don’t think that’s much of a help.”

There’s no way anyone would prefer to head into a tournament this short – it only takes four games to win it; but you can lose it in two -- and with this much on the line and without having some kind of exhibition schedule, but between COVID protocols and border restrictions, this is how it had to be.

They’ll have to figure it out.

“I think that I'm happy with how the team came together in the end,” said Nurse. “I think it's pieced together well. I think that there's some really committed, passionate guys along with talent. I think there's a deep team here. I think there's some guys that play really specific roles and play those roles well, you know, that's what makes a team a team.

“They've really practiced hard and well. I think they’ve been super-focused. No games or prep games or anything like that, so we're gonna find out a lot more tomorrow about who we are and who we can become. But very pleased with where we are sitting here today.”

It’s how that will feel on Sunday after – hopefully – the tournament final that will matter most.

Finally – a year delayed – we have a six day, six-team drag race where Canada’s basketball past, present and future are hurtling in the same direction. The only option is to crash or win.

Winning would mean a berth in the Olympics. Winning would mean the ‘golden era of Canadian basketball’ could finally start.

“I've been at this for a long time,” says Joseph, 29. “I started about 14, 15 years ago with the [youth] team; 10 years ago with the senior team. Been trying to get [to the Olympics] ever since.

“So it would mean a lot for us to make it, for sure. I think it would mean a lot for our country. I think our country is kinda thirsty for it. I'm definitely thirsty for it. So, it would mean a lot for everybody that's involved in this whole nation.”

Yes it would; yes it would.

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