Uncertainty over AmeriCup qualifiers could leave Canada in uncharted waters

The Canadian men's basketball team practice at the OVO Athletic Centre in Toronto, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. (Cole Burston/CP)

No matter how closely you follow international basketball and the fortunes of the Canadian men’s team in particular, you can be excused if you don’t have the upcoming FIBA AmeriCup qualifiers high on your radar.

A head’s up: Canada is in Group A and is scheduled to play Cuba and U.S. Virgin Islands on Nov. 29 and 30, respectively. As long as they finish in the top three in their pool – a near certainty — Canada will advance.

Big picture? It is a steppingstone to a steppingstone to a steppingstone. If you squint hard enough you can see the 2024 Olympics from here.

But you have to play to get on that long, winding road and, according to multiple sources, there are serious doubts within Canada Basketball about even sending a team to compete later this month, given the logistical and safety challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What that – unilaterally not sending a team to a FIBA-mandated competition – could mean is uncharted territory.

One possibility is Canada forfeiting both games in the November window and hoping to win the two they would play in February, knowing that an upset – however unlikely – could end their 2024 Olympics bid four years early.

For now, the hope is that FIBA will decide to postpone the event – a final decision on whether to go ahead or not is expected to emerge from their general meeting scheduled for Friday – and relieve Canada from having to act on its own.

But if the event proceeds, it is almost certain Canada won’t be there.

“It’s not happening,” says one source.

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In theory, twelve of the 16 teams competing – Buenos Aires, Argentina is another site while a third site remains undetermined just three weeks out — will advance to the 2022 AmeriCup, which in turn is a qualifier for the World Cup qualifiers that are in turn part of the qualification process for the 2024 Olympics.

It’s a long way from the glamour of the World Cup or the Olympics, but it is a necessary step. As it stands, countries that don’t participate or otherwise don’t advance will have their 2024 Olympic dreams dashed before the field for the 2020 Games (postponed and now scheduled for the summer of 2021) is even determined.

Canada – even with a roster devoid of its NBA players or top European pros – would normally be considered a shoo-in to the next stage and beyond. Outside the United States it may be the most talented basketball nation in the world.

But they have to play, unless FIBA either postpones or cancels the event or grants some kind of exception to countries that can’t field a team due to the pandemic.

The hurdles to Canada fielding and staffing a team are significant.

Canadian-based professional and college-level basketball has been at a standstill since mid-March, and under current rules, a team gathering in Toronto – the men’s team’s home base — wouldn’t be allowed to practice.

Players and staff coming from Europe or elsewhere would be required to quarantine for 14 days in Canada before leaving for the Dominican Republic and likely be subjected to quarantine upon returning to either Canada or their club teams.

Even if Canada did send a team, it’s possible it wouldn’t be staffed with trainers or medical personal who are generally volunteers and not in position to give up two weeks to quarantine upon their return, in addition to the time in the Dominican Republic.

The time commitment alone is a big ask when quarantines are factored in, but safety is front and centre too.

Canada Basketball is responsible for the wellbeing of players and staff when they play internationally and given the fluid and uncertain nature of the pandemic, it’s hard to imagine they’re in a position to offer any guarantees.

So, while Canada hasn’t made any formal statements, the behind-the-scenes chatter is that they have effectively decided they can’t send a team. Tellingly it hasn’t announced a tentative roster yet and there has been no call out to internationally based talent.

What remains to be seen is if the event will go on at all, and if it does – without Canada – what impact that will have on the national team going forward.

Publicly, Canada Basketball officials are toeing the line:

“Everyone wants to get back to normal, get back to playing and we’re working on it,” said Canada Basketball chief executive officer Glen Grunwald. “Everyone is co-operating and working together, but the main thing is to make sure we can do it safely and prudently. We’re still working on and ideally it will work out, but obviously there is a chance too that it won’t.”

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From the FIBA’s point of view, it’s all systems go, even with case counts rising in most jurisdictions.

“How confident am I of playing in November? At this stage, I’m confident,” Carlos Alves, executive director of FIBA Americas, told me in a recent interview.

“Why? Because we have a very structured process, we’ve been working process we’ve been working on the past four months which enables us to at least have more control into the safety of the players, safety of the staff, avoiding potential risks of contamination of the pandemic.”

Their confidence stems from the implementation of what FIBA is calling a bubble, but lack the layers of safeguards in place when the NBA sequestered its players and staff at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando or what the NHL did in Toronto and Edmonton as those leagues were able to successfully and safely finish their respective seasons.

According to Alves, the plan requires arriving players and staff to have had two negative tests for COVID-19 within a 72-hour period before leaving their home country to be admitted to the Dominican Republic.

Upon arriving, participants will be transported to the event hotel and be tested again, remaining in isolation until that result is also negative.

Anyone that tests positive will remain isolated before returning home.

But sources who have evaluated FIBA’s bubble find plenty of holes.

There is skepticism that there will be the ability to test daily and get timely results once on-site and concerns about the fact that the general public will have access to the event hotel.

Also current regulations – in Toronto at least – prevent a full team from practising before the event.

The full picture looks something like this: A player (or coach or trainer) planning to participate in qualifiers who is currently working outside of Canada would have to leave their club team in time to quarantine for two weeks, depart for the Dominican and then have to follow whatever quarantine rules are in place when they return to their club.

Participants already in Canada would have to quarantine upon their return from the Dominican.

All of this to play an event that is at the bottom of the FIBA competitive pyramid to qualify for a tournament that isn’t scheduled until 2022.

“It’s crazy, what are they are trying to do,” said one source who asked not to be named. “It really is. First of all, we’re not talking about the Olympics. We’re talking about qualifiers for the AmeriCup championship. No one has that reserved on their PVR right now.

“And the costs of doing it are dramatic and come at a time when (federations) are hurting (financially). FIBA wants to play the games – I think — because they have broadcasting obligations and advertising obligations.”

Alves said steps have been taken to alleviate most issues, including gaining exceptions to quarantine rules in many countries for players returning from competition – though not from Canada.

He conceded that complications presented by the pandemic could still jeopardize the event even with all the precautions.

“Yes, we’ve had federations tell us we’re not comfortable,” he said. “Our job is to put forward a process, procedure, protocols, that everyone – the 16 teams – will feel least some level of confidence to play. We have not had a case where a federation has come to us and said they are absolutely not playing.

“Can something happen between now and Nov. 27th? Absolutely, it’s just common sense. But at this stage, we’re confident we can play.”


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