Front and centre in making those final decisions will be head coach Nick Nurse, who wants a roster with a blend between international experience, players who have been there and done that in FIBA competition, along with the young emerging talent that is set to get its first taste at the senior level.
So, how vital is Ejim to Nurse’s plans over the coming months? Nurse would send messages periodically to the pool of players in the mix to represent the nation over the past year, usually to check in on how they were doing, how they were feeling about their season, etc. As Nurse began to zero in on who would make the cut, he sent an email to Ejim asking if he’d be able to commit for the entire summer through August 7. After waiting a few minutes for a response, a notification flashed across his screen with a reply:
“You don’t have to ask me, man, I’m in.”
Nurse became the head coach after winning the 2019 NBA championship with the Raptors and so has only been a part of the program for a couple years, but recognizes the importance of having someone who’s been synonymous with Canada Basketball. The value of Ejim’s institutional knowledge is immense and his ability to make those new to the setup feel at ease has also shone through early at camp. After a hard session of practice on Saturday, their third in four days, the team gathered for its customary huddle to close. Bringing some levity to the scene, Ejim recognized that it was newcomer teenager Bennedict Mathurin’s birthday and gathered the other rookies to sing “Happy Birthday.”
“He’s a leader,” Nurse said of Ejim. “He’s been there a long time … he’s an awesome person and a great symbol of the program.”
Whatever the final roster in either Victoria or potentially Tokyo looks like, it has no impact on Ejim’s mindset. He knows his role to a tee and that’s to be the connector of the group, maintain a calm presence whether it’s a high or low tide, and put everything on the line for his country.
“Most of my basketball career has been about sacrificing in one way or another,” Ejim said. “I felt like I had developed that skill of being able to sacrifice but still being able to do what I do really well. Being able to allow other people to do what they’re good at and excel in something I’m good at as well.
“It never bothered me to be in that role because I had really made my career and excelled being in that role.”
It hasn’t been easy — the roster bobs and weaves because players have greater tugs, bigger obligations and less of a desire than those in the other countries. Maybe it’s simply peer pressure that has let other nations without substantially greater individual talent than Canada thrive for generations. Maybe that’s what has been missing. Maybe that’s what this group needs to start.
“It seems that North America is about the only place that there seems to be guys coming and going a lot,” Nurse said. “Those other countries, (the players are) there. They get asked to come, they’re there.
Nick Nurse is doing more than just coaching Canada’s national team in Olympic qualifying. He’s trying to build a program that players want to be a part of.
“And part of that is just their culture — their basketball culture or their culture in general. You know as well as I do, if Jonas (Valanciunas) decided not to play (for Lithuania), then he wouldn’t be able to walk down the streets of Vilnius very, very comfortably. I mean it’s just part of the expectation … So I think it’s a big question and big, big issue.”
It’s not a simple task to do what Nurse wants, it is nuanced and layered and complicated. NBA contractual situations, life situations and injuries play a role. But it’s more than that. It’s having a successful program for players to return to, for them to feel fully vested in, for them to look forward to each summer. And that’s where this program has failed.
Canada appeared in the 2002 FIBA World Cup, finishing 13th of 16 teams in Indianapolis, and didn’t get back until 2010 when they went winless and were 22nd in Turkey. They missed the 2014 World Cup and then placed 21st of 32 teams in China in 2019.
The Olympic experience has been even worse. Canada had a stirring run in Sydney in 2020, but that was the last time the country played in the Games. A 21-year hiatus just isn’t acceptable and it’s hard to keep players interested and involved if there is no winning included.
“If you looked at the countries individually, those guys in Australia pretty much know they’re going to be in there every year so they stay in it, they’re going to get a three-Olympic run, maybe,” Nurse said. “Spain, those guys are always in it … Everybody always loves a winner and everybody always loves to be around winning organizations, and I think that would also help us being successful.”
It was part of why Nurse took the job two years ago and why he remains in it today, heading into the biggest event the Canadian men have played in six years. Getting to the Olympics with this group might keep the core invested and involved.
Odds are, if Canada’s going to reach the Tokyo Olympics, it’s going to need everything Dort can provide. Unlike other countries that Canada will see in Victoria — like Greece, who have had the luxury of playing friendlies — it doesn’t look like Canada will be able to get any exhibition contests in before the games become real.
“Well, I don’t think we can,” said Nurse when asked how Canada might be able to replicate the kind of experience other teams are getting playing in friendlies. “We do the best we can maybe a little differently. Maybe you would go play one of those games and then you’d have film to say, ‘Hey, this is the physicality that will be allowed, this is a travel, this is always going to be a foul, this is always going to be whatever after a game like that.’ We may have to orchestrate some of those things ourselves. You can’t not talk about the rule changes, the style-of-play changes, how-the-game’s-reffed changes.
“So we’ll be showing film of that, we’ll be going through it, setting it up. So, to answer your question, the best way we replicate it is in our film room and in our practice games and scrimmages.”
This is why having a talent the level of a Dort – or other players like R.J. Barrett, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Trey Lyles, Melvin Ejim and Andrew Nicholson – is so vitally important for Canada. This isn’t a team with much experience playing with each other and will have to make up for it on the strength of its raw ability and the passion each player in camp is bringing to the program to try to qualify for the Games.
For Dort, beyond what his talents bring to Canada’s Olympic hopes, just getting a chance to be part of Team Canada is rather significant as he never played for the national team much growing up with the age-group teams.
“My first thing was just to represent my country,” Dort said when asked why he decided to suit up for Team Canada. “I’d just never played Team Canada in my whole life. I felt like it was a great opportunity for me to come out this year and to be able to represent my country.”