Olympic miss gives Canadian men’s basketball team fresh fuel for future

Arash Madani discusses what’s next for Team Canada's national basketball team and if Nick Nurse will return as head coach.

The most encouraging sign for the future of the Canadian men’s basketball program in the moments after another head-scratching and ultimately heart-breaking loss that extended their Summer Olympic drought to five and counting took place on social media.

RJ Barrett is the model young professional citizen. He’s been in the public eye since he was a teenager and has grown up knowing first-hand the pitfalls that await those young, famous, reckless and with an internet connection.

While emerging as the No. 1 high school recruit in the word, then in the star chamber of Duke basketball and then in the maelstrom that is the New York Knicks, Barrett has always kept it business.

It’s no easy feat.

But there was a crack on Saturday night as Barrett, his teammates and the entire basketball scene digested another inexplicable loss with an Olympic berth on the line as Canada at first fell behind by double figures to the Czech Republic, stormed back in miracle fashion from down nine with 44 seconds to play to force overtime and then failed to hold on while up five with the ball and two minutes to play in the extra period.

That Czech’s winning basket came on a banked-in prayer and while Canada’s wide-open 12-footer at the buzzer spun out after being halfway down sort of captures the spirit of the whole thing.

If there is the metaphorical equivalent of a goat that needs to be sacrificed to the Swiss Gods of FIBA for Canada’s luck to be changed, someone needs to inquire.

It was more than a tough loss. It was a kick to the ribs of a program that has been brought to its knees almost too many times to count.

Tempers were running hot. Barrett -- who was fantastic from start to finish in the semifinal and was probably Canada’s best player in the entire Olympic Qualifying Tournament -- chased the refereeing crew down the tunnel after the horn, clearly in a borderline rage, finger-wagging.

And later, on his Twitter account, the 21-year-old clapped back at critics.

He was measured in his response, but the message was clear: ‘just watch me; I’m gonna stuff those words down your damn throat.’

And if you love Canadian basketball and you want to see the men’s program earn a place on the international stage commensurate with the talent the country clearly has in spades, you just had to love it.

Because the only thing that will allow Canada to break through internationally is exactly that: a pride in the jersey and a blood-in-mouth passion to prove those that don’t believe wrong.

Because Canada has players. Everyone knows it. Czech star Tomas Satoransky wasn’t blowing smoke when he said before the event started that -- on paper -- Canada was probably the second-best team in the world.

What it needs if they are going to make the Olympics in 2024 and beyond is for the most important players in the program to find a way to make Canada’s performance internationally as high on their agendas as the rest of their professional obligations or -- at least -- have the national team in view when planning how to meet those obligations.

They need to commit to playing at the World Cup and some of the qualifying window in advance of the World Cup in order to gain the mileage necessary to be road worthy in make-or-break games like those that took place in Victoria this weekend.

Because the margins in international basketball are much smaller than most realize. Team USA overwhelms with its NBA talent, but even with a well-stocked roster of all-stars or near all-stars at the World Cup in China in 2019, they finished seventh.

Meanwhile, teams like Germany, Italy and Slovenia -- all with minimal NBA representation -- were able to punch through at the other OQTs on the weekend and earn a spot in Tokyo.

There will always be room for optimism with Canadian basketball because it seems safe to presume that there will always be a pipeline of quality talent.

Even as the senior team was crashing out in Victoria, the U19 team -- featuring as many as five potential future first-round NBA draft picks starting in 2022 -- is rising at the World Championships in Latvia.

The NBA class of 2021 wasn’t deemed especially strong from a Canadian perspective, but now it looks like Canada might have two more first-rounders come July in AJ Lawson and Josh Primo.

But the men’s program will rise or fall based on the commitment and passion of their best players.

That’s been the secret on the women’s side, where they are heading to their third straight Olympics because the likes of Kim Gaucher, Miranda Ayim, and Nat Achonwa have been with the program a decade or more and before that players like Shona Thorburn, Tamara Tatham and Lizanne Murphy made a point of putting in years to lift it from an afterthought internationally to where it is today, ranked fourth in the world heading to Tokyo.

Which is why it matters that Barrett was so mad after the horn and couldn’t stay off his phone when the trolls started in.

Barrett will be in his prime for three more Olympic cycles, potentially

Does he seem like he’s going to tap out before he gets a chance to represent Canada on the biggest stage like his father and his godfather, Steve Nash did? I don’t think so.

Will he ignore the lessons learned here in Victoria? I highly doubt it.

Or how about Nickeil Alexander-Walker? He came into the tournament smoking from the minute he hit the floor and was playing all-in and fearlessly to the final horn. He’s only 22. Hopefully his 22-year-old cousin, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander -- nursing a foot injury at home -- was watching and thinking ‘I want some of that.’ Jamal Murray, out with an ACL tear, is 24.

Luguentz Dort is 22 and proved to be as maniacally competitive playing for Canada as he does while terrorizing opponents for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The wonder he expressed at even having the opportunity to play for Canada after being largely a rumour for most of his rise as a young player from north Montreal was sincere, refreshing. The hope is now that with a taste of it, he’ll be hungry for more.

This is to say nothing of the efforts of long-time contributors Dwight Powell or Cory Joseph or Andrew Nicholson or Aaron Doornekamp.

They deserved a break though for the years they’ve put into the chase.

And who knows, if their fellow old(er) heads Kelly Olynyk or Khem Birch hadn’t been in a contract year, maybe it would have come this summer.

But there’s no choice but to look forward now and if RJ Barrett is mad and Nickel Alexander-Walker is crushed and Luguentz Dort wants more, Canada’s basketball future may well yet burn brightly.

Let anger be the fuel.

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