Miles from home, in the midst of the long, dark cold of her first prairie winter, the losses mounted, her already fragile confidence waned, and the dreams would come. In her first season as a head coach, Lisa Thomaidis would close her eyes after lonely nights spent trying to figure out what she didn’t know, and the same nightmarish scene would play out: She’d be on the floor trying to will the basement-dwelling Saskatchewan Huskies to a rare victory, and nothing would happen. She would look down the bench to summon a substitute and no one would notice. The refs wouldn’t grant her a timeout. The player she wanted to sub off would ignore her and keep playing. The player she wanted to sub in would look back blankly, unmoving.
The untested rookie coach who had moved across the country to take a job no one else wanted would find herself completely powerless, practically invisible. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, yeah, why would they have to do what I tell them to do? I’m only 26. I’m probably three years older than them. What do I know?’
“Imposter syndrome,” Thomaidis says, looking back, “is real.”
The idea is laughable now, and Thomaidis can laugh in the retelling. As she prepares to lead the Canadian women’s national team to their third consecutive Olympic appearance — her second as head coach — there is no need to fake anything, to hide past insecurities. She long ago earned the right to be heard. The only question about her status in the firmament of Canadian basketball is where she ranks among the best and most accomplished coaches the country has ever had.
That Saskatchewan Huskies program she took over with zero head coaching experience back in 1998? Under her guidance it’s now a perennial power, having appeared at the USports Final Eight in 12 of the past 13 competitions, with championships in 2013 and 2020. The Huskies have also won seven conference titles, and Thomaidis has twice been recognized as Canada’s coach of the year.
On the national team front, she’s worked her way up from humble beginnings, first as the video coordinator — or at least the person responsible for lugging the equipment through airports around the globe — under Bev Smith in 2000, and then as a key member of Allison McNeill’s staff that worked to bring the program from a low ebb all the way to the London Olympics in 2012. After McNeill stepped down following the Games, Canada Basketball launched a coaching search, but why did they bother looking? “I told them: ‘You can search the globe, but you won’t find anyone better [than Thomaidis],” says McNeill, who had 16 years invested in the program and didn’t want to see just anyone take it over. “And they did search the globe, I guess. But, yeah, they got the best coach.”
Thomaidis’s nine years on the bench have markedthe most successful period the women’s senior team has known since the mid-1980s, an era when the depth in the women’s game was not what it is now (with as many as 10 countries believing themselves to be serious medal threats in Tokyo).
“I mean, she’s got to be one of our greatest coaches ever in Canada,” says McNeill, who hired Thomaidis as an assistant when the program was languishing in the mid-20s in the FIBA World Rankings. “I think easily I can say that…. There’s no one in Canada that has more international experience than her…. There’s no on the men’s side with that kind of international experience. No one’s seen more trips, waited for more busses that don’t come, dealt with the food not being ready, seen the lines being painted in the gym when we walk in, games being rained out. She’s [also] got big tournament experience.
“Nothing fazes her anymore, but I don’t think it did, even in the beginning.”
The coach with nightmares about not being able to get anyone’s attention is now taking the fourth-ranked team in the world to Tokyo with an eye on earning Canada its first basketball medal since the men won silver in the inaugural Olympic tournament in 1936 in a game played outside, on dirt and in the rain.
When the ball goes up July 26 against Serbia to start group play, everyone will be watching Lisa Thomaidis — and hanging on her every word.
Thomaidis, 50, grew up in Dundas, a small, picturesque town west of Hamilton, Ont. Her mother, Sandra, was a music teacher, specializing in piano and ukulele, though those lessons were lost on her daughter. “Piano? I think I got as far as Grade 1,” says Thomaidis. “Ukulele? Shit, no.”
Her father, Christos, arrived in Canada from Greece, one of four brothers to make the journey. He worked as a school custodian in Toronto before moving to Dundas to start a taxi business and — inevitably, Thomaidis jokes — a restaurant. Sandra, “as Canadian as you can be,” was the culture driver in the house. So despite being one of the few kids in her class with more than two syllables in her surname, Thomaidis’s Greek heritage was largely secondary, the exception being the kalamata olives and feta cheese ever-present in the fridge.
It was not a sports-crazy house. There was no opposition from her parents to her spending her high school years chasing different games by the season, but even as Thomaidis kept growing taller and flashed athleticism along with her size, there was no consideration given to leveraging her potential. Her life’s work found her, rather than the other way around. She fell into sports thanks to an unusual cohort of like-minded girls at what was then Highland Secondary School.
“There was this group of us that just kind of went from sport to sport to sport, and had some pretty good success, and that was uncommon at the time — the school wasn’t known for any sort of athletic success,” says Thomaidis. “But we had these great Phys Ed teachers that wound up being our coaches in volleyball and basketball and soccer, and there was me who was six-two and another good friend who was six-one and another who was five-11 — it was kind of crazy. We probably had better volleyball teams [than basketball] and a couple of these peers went on to play post-secondary volleyball, and I think it was then that I realized, ‘Oh geez, you know, could I maybe play something beyond high school?’”
She enrolled at nearby McMaster University without a plan other than to walk on and try out for the volleyball and basketball teams. It turned out that basketball tryouts were first. McMaster had a strong program and had finished third at nationals the previous year, one of the best results in school history. But six-foot-two is six-foot-two. Thomaidis never made it to volleyball tryouts. She’d found a place to express her quiet brand of competitiveness and inner drive.
“It was a really solid crew,” says Thomaidis. “Kia Nurse’s mother [Cathy, née Doucette] was on that team. Vicky Harrison, Tish Jeffery … I just lucked into being on a team of some very strong, athletic, driven women. And then Theresa Burns ended up being my coach for three seasons, and I think it just flipped the switch in me in terms of being passionate about trying to be good at something and really putting everything into it. Before that I was pretty laissez fare, but from there my love for basketball really grew.”
Thomaidis played five seasons at McMaster, was twice a conference all-star and joined Burns’s staff immediately after graduating. When she connected with some national team members who were playing professionally in Europe when McMaster hosted the FIBA Americas championship in 1995, Thomaidis realized she might be able to head overseas as well. She suited up for two seasons of first-division basketball in Greece — a point of pride for her father and her uncles — before a knee injury cut short her pro career.
She returned to Dundas and was vaguely considering medical school when Burns and then McMaster athletic director Therese Quigley suggested she apply for the vacant head coaching position with the Huskies in Saskatoon. The competition was about to close, but Thomaidis got her admittedly thin resume in under the wire. She was hired on a three-year contract paying $27,000 per.
She was trepidatious: “I remember getting on the flight from Toronto thinking, ‘Well, I’ll be back here in no time.’”
What Thomaidis didn’t know then, and couldn’t know until she got out on the floor to lead a group of athletes not much younger than herself, was that she had stumbled into something she was perfectly suited to do, even if she didn’t conform to the bombastic, fire-breathing head coach stereotype. There was something about the required combination of big-picture vision and attention to detail that appealed to her, and something about her calm steadiness that made her a natural, even as a self-described introvert with a voice so lacking in basic ‘oomph’ that it’s become a running joke on the national team.
“Her ‘gym voice’ is the worst,” says Kim Gaucher the 37-year-old three-time Olympian who first met Thomaidis when the coach was an apprentice with Bev Smith on the national team in 2000. “We’d make fun of her because she’d be cupping her hands around her mouth to try and make it so her voice echoed a little bit more in the gym, and we couldn’t actually hear what she was saying. It was like, ‘Your mouth is moving, but there’s no sound.’”
Thomaidis’s demeanour soon became a strength rather than an obstacle, and if her nerves were churning and doubt rising, her players never picked up on it.
“I think people liked her; she respected you as an athlete before she even knew you, almost, so that helped,” says Ali Fairbrother, a fifth-year senior on Thomaidis’s first team in Saskatoon who joined her staff as an assistant after graduating. “But I remember her walking into that gym and thinking, right away: She’s got a presence. And I don’t know what exactly it is. Maybe it’s confidence? She sets a tone. I can’t really explain what it was, but it was just the second she walked into the gym I knew things were gonna change.”
Says Jacqueline Lavallee, who earned all-Canadian honours playing for Thomaidis, played on the national team and also went on to become an assistant coach with the Huskies: “You could tell right from the beginning. She exuded the professionalism and confidence — or at least she faked it well. She was coming into a broken program that really needed to change and I think, in Saskatoon, there was a lot of skepticism around a young female who was inexperienced…. There was a ton of pressure on her coming in for sure.”
In addition to her natural aptitude, Thomaidis had two things working in her favour: the bar was low, so any glimmer of progress was welcome and noticeable, and, being a shy person in a new city feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task at hand, she had little else to do but work and find ways to improve her team and her coaching skills.
“I think it’s my problem-solving mindset where you have to figure out a way,” she says. “You aren’t going to have the talent, so how can you outsmart these other teams that have more talent? How can I figure out how to help these women have some success? How can I help them help me?
“At the time, they were just thirsty for anyone to tell them what to do, and they would do it because they were competitive individuals who were willing to do anything to win. They had been so unsuccessful for so long, any little victory along the way was big. It was a perfect opportunity as a young coach because you could build it from the ground up, but not in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be able to get to where we are now.”
Success has a price in sports. As the Huskies program grew and Thomaidis’s national team role expanded, the seasons were longer and the bar kept getting set higher. There were always opportunities to do more. Coaches call it “going into the tunnel,” where they are so absorbed with the job at hand things that exist outside of the next practice, game or season fall away. And being so deeply entrenched in building two programs, Thomaidis always had another tunnel to dive into, another team that needed her.
When the world stopped in March 2020, Thomaidis returned home. The past two decades had been more like 40 seasons than 20, with the coach continuously shifting from the fall-winter-spring cycle with the Huskies to summers with the national team. Apart from moments with her beloved black lab, Ruby, dinners with friends in the Broadway district of Saskatoon (“a hidden gem,” she says) and some golf squeezed in on the rare occasion that allowed for it, Thomaidis had been living the basketball lifer’s life: gym, bus, game, plane, practice, film. And the 2019–20 basketball season was in many ways shaping up to be the ultimate expression of her career and the peak of all that time spent completely immersed in coaching.
On the floor, everything was playing out perfectly. In February 2020, her Canadian women’s team travelled to Ostend, Belgium, and went undefeated to win their Olympic Qualifying tournament and earn their ticket to Tokyo. A month later, she was in Ottawa as Saskatchewan tore through the field to win the national championships in early March. From there the plan was full speed ahead to Tokyo.
The virus had other ideas. Bit by bit, the sports world paused and then shutdown. On March 24, the Olympics were postponed. For the first time in longer than she realized, Thomaidis had time to think about something other than what needed to be done next. She could breathe. She could also grieve.
As her professional life was peaking, her personal life was in a deep trough. Her father, who had been battling cancer, passed away unexpectedly in October 2019, just days after Thomaidis returned from winning the FIBA AmeriCup in Puerto Rico. Four months later, shortly after returning from Belgium, she received word that her mother — also sick with cancer — had taken a turn and passed away also. Thomaidis was able to make her mother’s celebration of life on her way to Ottawa from Saskatoon before nationals, but then there were games to coach, a title to win, and a group of young athletes depending on her. Any successful person needs to be good at compartmentalizing, but this was too much.
“I was probably really close to burnout, if not in the midst of it,” she says. “March hit, and I was just starting to come down off of all of that and reality started to hit. It really dawned on me what was going on in my life at that point in time.”
The Olympics — the focus of decades of work — being postponed barely registered. “Honestly, it wasn’t that big a deal. I was like, ‘Okay, what else is going to happen now?’” she says.
But the time for forced rest and reflection? That was important.
“It was a real reset to my life, for sure.”
She went home to Dundas and stayed with her brother and his two daughters. Ostensibly it was supposed to be a couple of weeks so they could go through their parents’ affairs and tidy loose ends. Instead it turned into three months. With no competition or team to focus on, she found herself having a wonderful time hanging out by the pool, connecting with her sports-mad nieces (“Kia is their favourite player”) and allowing the pressure to lift, if only temporarily.
Her mother’s death was especially difficult to process, and being home with the time, space and support to work through it was vital. Her mom knew nothing about sports, but recognized her daughter’s passion. And once it became clear that Thomaidis wasn’t moving back from Saskatoon any time soon and that her summers would be busy with national team work, Sandra chose to support her daughter anyway she could. If that meant crashing a post-loss huddle at the Ryerson Tournament with tins of home-baked treats for the team, so be it. “I’d be like, ‘Mom, we’re in the middle of a meeting here. I’m still working.’ But she was just so excited,” Thomaidis says.
“But my Mom’s mission in life was to make people feel special and included…. She loved people and loved helping them,” Thomaidis added in an email after our interview. “She will always be the person I admire and look up to the most.”
Even during a pandemic, the wheels of basketball eventually began to turn again. But with time on her side, Thomaidis began to rethink her approach with the national team, too. For almost her entire career with the program, building had been enough. Canada had been competitive on the international stage before, but after finishing third at the 1979 World Championships, fourth at the 1984 Olympics and third at the Worlds in 1986, there was a prolonged downturn.
Canada missed the Olympics in 1988 and 1992, finished 11th out of 12 teams in 1996 and 10th in 2000 before failing to qualify in 2004 and 2008. Funding was minimal. It was difficult to get women to put aside lives and careers for more than a single Olympic cycle, and the results reflected it. Canada continually found itself competing against veteran teams that were better funded and prepared, and had more experience. Under McNeill, the job was simply to scratch and claw to make the women’s team relevant again. It took nearly 12 years, but Canada eventually broke through in London in 2012 with an eighth-place finish, missing out on advancing to the medal round after losing to Team USA in the quarterfinals.
When Thomaidis took over after McNeill stepped down, it was a completely different experience from her start with the Huskies. She was a known commodity, for one, and her team was expecting her to step into the head job seamlessly. “When I heard that she was throwing her name into the mix to be the head coach, I was really excited. I thought she would make an outstanding coach, and I thought that she would continue the growth of the program that had started when she was an assistant,” said Gaucher.
On the floor Thomaidis’s challenges were different than those facing her predecessors. She took over a team that was ready to make the leap from good to great. Success came quickly: a fifth-place finish at the World Championships in 2014, a gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015 and a win at the Tournament of the Americas in Edmonton that same summer to qualify for the Olympics in 2016. Heading to Rio with the core of the team competing in their second Games, there were expectations that they could push past their ninth-place ranking and find a way to the podium. But after dominating early in their quarter-final matchup with France, Canada stalled down the stretch. They held France to just 14 points in the fourth quarter but scored only 11 themselves as they went on to finish seventh.
It was a gutting loss and, given the glacial timetable of international basketball, one that lingers even five years later. Eventually Thomaidis decided she wanted to act boldly to minimize the possibility that Canada — now firmly among the medal favourites — could stall offensively in a pressure situation again. With USports competition suspended for 2020–21 and the time needed to take a deep dive available, she decided to act. Through Own The Podium, she connected with former Toronto Raptors assistant coach and current Minnesota Timberwolves bench boss Chris Finch, who had risen to prominence as a strategic thinker after leading Great Britain’s basketball program to a respectable showing at the 2012 Games in London.
“I think 2016 really opened our eyes. It was, ‘Hey, we made some changes and we made some adaptations, but it wasn’t good enough,’” she says. “I think losing that quarterfinal really forced us to reflect on that. I think I was looking for a long time like, ‘Who can be that kind of different mentor that I can access?’ and ‘Who’s so open with their ideas and their thoughts?’”
Under Thomaidis — and even going back to McNeill’s tenure — Canada had built its identity on defence. It had proven a reliable approach for a tough, committed, hard-nosed group, but against the world’s very best you need to be able to score. Finch and Thomaidis zeroed in on the need to turn defensive stops into offence. The goal was to emphasize the fast break and, crucially, to be able to flow into well-spaced, quick-strike offence before the defence can set when the initial push is turned away. The days of walking the ball up the floor or automatically pulling the ball out to the top and running a traditional half-court set were over.
“If you’re really good defensively — and they are, I watched a lot of their games — you need to turn some of that defence into offence. So let’s get out and run,” says Finch. “But you have to run with a purpose. When you push and you run and you want to be unpredictable, you still have some sort of structure you’re flowing into — otherwise it’s not seamless. You’re not always going to score when you run, and if you throw it back out and you set up and run your half-court, you’re up against the clock [and] you’re basically fighting yourself.”
Her willingness to look for different answers has been one of Thomaidis’s defining qualities in her rise.
“She has the growth mindset, 100 per cent,” says Miranda Ayim, Canada’s captain and one of the country’s two flagbearers for the opening ceremony in Tokyo — a reflection of the women’s team’s status. “She’s really, really open with her strengths and weaknesses, and embraces them. Over the years, we’ve seen her progress and really work on different parts of her personality, her coaching style, her techniques. She’s also smart enough to surround herself with a good team, which I think is one of the most important parts of a leader, is to really be supported by both people who complement you and who challenge you.”
But making technical changes heading into the biggest competition the program has ever had? During a pandemic? When the team hasn’t been able to train together for more than a year? It takes a certain kind of courage and confidence, something Finch picked up on quickly over regular Zoom calls and text messages this past winter.
“She’s a really, really good basketball coach. Her basketball mind is really sharp,” he says. “And I think it takes a really secure, confident and talented coach to be able to really think differently right on the eve of their biggest campaign.
“There’s a lot on the line for them, and she’s really looking and open to trying to maximize the group that they have, and that’s how we got involved with each other, because she was trying to look at things completely differently.”
The test will come soon enough. The women’s Olympic tournament is the most difficult in the world and easily the most prestigious. Team USA hasn’t lost a game at the Olympics since 1996, and has won nine of the past 10 gold medals going back to 1984, so top spot on the podium is almost conceded. That leaves teams ranked two through 10 to fight for second and third, with a puncher’s chance at gold. If Canada doesn’t take a medal now, there will be a three-year wait to get another shot — such is the reality of the Olympic calendar. In the meantime, players will retire. Maybe coaches, too.
This could be Canada’s best chance, with a team that has been building momentum towards this summer for a decade — or in Thomaidis’s case, more than two. It’s a different game and a different level of competition than it was during her years of lugging video equipment. Thomaidis is a different coach than the 26-year-old one terrified she couldn’t be heard, but this could be her last chance at an Olympic medal. “In coaching, there’s many times that your life’s work comes down to a few major moments, and this is going to have to be one,” says McNeill.
Thomaidis knows it, and is hardly running from the idea. “Pressure is a privilege,” is her mantra. Being head coach of the national team isn’t forever, and as she learned before the pandemic hit, coaching two programs with high expectations year after year has its limits, too.
“It’s not realistic or sustainable. You know, I’ve been very fortunate that both Canada Basketball and the U of S have been very accommodating, let’s say, in allowing me to do both,” she says. “But in the future it will be unsustainable to really be as invested as you need to be.”
Which makes this go-round even more special. Canadian basketball will be watching, hoping and listening. Thomaidis has their attention; has long had it.
“I just remember those first summers,” says Gaucher. “LT was a young, first-time assistant on the national team and I feel like she said maybe 10 words the entire summer. To see her at the helm and to see her growth as a coach — she’s incredibly knowledgeable, she studies the game so well and she’s had success at a bunch of different levels.
“So, yeah, it’s been really cool to see and be a part of it. It’s been neat to see her find her voice.”
The nights where she dreams about no one listening are well past. There are new dreams now.
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