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Canadian Men’s Basketball Facing Pivotal Olympic Qualifier

Canada men’s basketball faces a gut check in the upcoming Olympic qualifier, searching for a rebirth.

On Tuesday, the Canadian Men’s Basketball squad will begin its Olympic qualification quest.

On home soil in Victoria, B.C. In front of some fans, if Canada gets to at least the semi-final round.

This is one of the most pivotal weeks for basketball in Canada for quite some time. The men’s program is looking to secure a spot in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics for the first time since 2000 in Sydney.

The FIBA Olympic qualifier won’t be the raucous celebration originally planned for June 2020. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Victoria’s Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, the host of the qualifier, will have limited capacity. COVID-19 protocols, like many sporting events of the past year, must be adhered to.

Despite the differences, the goal remains the same. Qualifying for the Olympics, in a tumultuous year, will send shockwaves throughout Canada. It signals to the world that Canada is a rising basketball power, with a plethora of premier talent.

“Ultimately, we’re judged on our performance,” said Team Canada general manager Rowan Barrett to reporters on a Zoom call. Right now, our focus is on how do we succeed in the OQT and get our team to the Olympics. This is our first goal this summer. It’s a big one, and let’s go do it.” 

It’s no secret the indelible connection Canada has with basketball. Look no further than Almonte, Ont. native Dr. James Naismith, who discovered the sport. Beyond the game’s inventor, several individuals impacted the trajectory of basketball’s history in Canada.

Jay Triano. Leo Rautins. Stacey Dales. Steve Nash. These names are synonymous with Canadian basketball. While these figures are well-known and beloved in Canada, they are often overlooked on the international stage. Look at Canada’s Olympic appearances compared to countries like the United States or Spain, and it’s easy to make conclusions on the country’s talent pool.

Canada men’s basketball qualified for the Olympics nine times in the program’s history. The best result was a silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first-time basketball debuted as an Olympic sport.

From 1976 to 1988, the Canadian men qualified for four Olympic Games. Two of those, the team finished fourth, which included a landmark quarterfinal victory over Italy at the 1984 Olympics. Despite this, Canada couldn’t repeat its international success in the 70s and 80s, not qualifying for a single Olympics during the 1990s.

The program needed a star to step up and take Canada Basketball to new heights. Enter Steve Nash. He not only excelled on the court, but he made his fellow compatriots proud to wear the red and white. Nash brought a new respect to Canada Basketball, as he led his squad to the Sydney Olympics.

2000 was supposed to be a rebirth. Instead, the magic of the Canadian men’s basketball squad getting to Sydney was short-lived. Canada failed to qualify for the Olympics four straight times. Canada didn’t stop producing premier basketball talent, but when the top players don’t represent on the global stage, it’s hard to compete.

One can’t help but respect players who prioritize their own health and value when deciding not to play for Team Canada. It demonstrates, however, a shift in perception of the Olympics between the current generation and the older ones.

“We had much less options when I was coming up,” Nash said back in 2019. “Playing for your country, I think, in some ways meant more because there wasn’t as many opportunities for you.”

“That’s a part of the challenge, it’s part of the reason I came back and worked with the national team, when I was still playing actually, to try to elevate the program to a place where players were excited to play.”

This iteration of Team Canada is different. It starts at the top, with general manager Rowan Barrett, who played on that 2000 Olympic team. Appointing Nick Nurse as head coach enhances legitimacy, given his experience coaching the 2018-19 NBA champion Toronto Raptors. Above all, several marquee Canadian players expressed their desire to play on the team, recognizing its potential.

The squad may be missing players like Jamal Murray, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander or Chris Boucher due to injuries. But it has enough experience and pedigree to compete against the countries participating in the Olympic qualifier.

“There’s a lot [of reasons not to play],” Nurse said.  “We’ve been in the bubble in Orlando, a lot of these guys were there as well. We’ve played in front of no fans. We’ve gone through all these protocols. There’s been testing, like, 400 straight days of testing or whatever it was. And we’re back in pretty heavy protocols again, and not to mention contracts and body and rest and family, and the list goes on and on and on and on. So, yeah, what does it mean? It means everything that they’ve committed. It really does.”

Canada is two years removed from the Raptors winning the country’s inaugural NBA championship. Basketball fandom and participation is up from coast to coast. The Canadian women are shining once again on the hardwood, likely to earn a medal in Tokyo.

Now, it’s the Canadian men’s turn to rewrite a checkered recent history. Victoria’s Olympic qualifier is a chance to continue on the path to relevance, proving that Canada is a basketball country to the world.