The people of Victoria, British Columbia were disappointed following Team Canada’s 101-103 overtime loss to the Czech Republic on Saturday. There is no doubting that. These are real, hardcore basketball fans, and the anguish was evident on the faces of young and old Victorian’s alike, acknowledging that Canada would have to wait at least four more years to qualify for an Olympic games.
But there was also excitement in the air. And happiness. And real feelings of hope, because to them, this tournament represented more than a semi-final exit for Canada: It signified being closer to the end of COVID than they have ever been, and a grander future for Canada Basketball. Even though their home team took a loss, everyone in Victoria just seemed happy to be back in person attending a live sporting event, the first in British Columbia since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago and one of the first in Canada.
After all, a basketball community as large and experienced as Victoria’s understands that these things happen: they know the history of the Canadian senior men’s team, the heartbreaking losses in single-elimination style tournaments, and they know intimately the last person to carry them to the Olympic Games in 2000: Steve Nash.
In fact, Nash is somewhat of an idol to them. The Victoria-raised superstar helped grow basketball in the west coast of Canada arguably more than anyone in the world during his time in the NBA and with the Canadian national team. However, there are other hometown heroes lost in the scuttle, at least to outsiders who aren’t intimate with the still growing basketball scene in Victoria.
Eli Pasquale is one of them. The Sudbury, Ontario native starred at the University of Victoria between 1980 to 1984, leading the Vikes to five consecutive national championships and leading the Canadian national team to a fourth-place finish at the 1984 Summer Olympics, their best finish since. Pasquale then went on to found Eli Pasquale Sports Group, a business that operates basketball camps for youth in the Victoria area, with one woman that I talked to estimating that he taught over 13,000 kids basketball. Pasquale passed away in 2019.
There is also Ken Shields, who coached the University of Victoria Vikes from 1978 through to 1989, helping them win seven consecutive U Sports championships and holding the record for most wins by a coach in U Sports men’s basketball history. He also coached the Canadian men’s national basketball team from 1990 to 1994, including a 7th place finish at the FIBA World Cup in 1994. But the last time the Vikes won a championship was in 1997, meaning the city hasn’t had a signature basketball event for over twenty years. Or… until this.
I talked to several people before and after the semi-final against the Czech Republic. In their own words, here’s how Victorian’s felt about experiencing their first live sporting event since March of 2020:
Richard and his 12-year-old son Max bought tickets prior to the pandemic like the thousands of others who purchased 27,000 tickets within days of them going on sale almost two years ago when Canada Basketball originally won rights to host the tournament. But when the raffle came, giving them a one-in-ten chance to keep their tickets given the change to operate with only 10 percent capacity, they felt relieved to win the draw.
Richard: “We bought these tickets a year and a half ago, and we’ve just been holding out hope that somehow we’d be able to get in the building and watch these guys play.”
Max: “I was really excited when we won the draw. We’re mostly excited that we’re gonna be able to watch Canada play. They have a ton of NBA players, like Nickeil Alexander-Walker. I like him. He’s one of their best.”
Ten-year-old Reece and his mother Sasha felt similar. Reece got into basketball after turning on an NBA game and happening to stumble across Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Now, he wears a New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett jersey to the game because of his Canadian roots.
But like a lot of children at the game, a love for the Toronto Raptors shines through. For many of them, Steve Nash was before their time, and the Raptors have replaced him as maybe the biggest basketball inspiration in this area.
Reece: “I started playing basketball when I was three or four. I’m a big Raptors’ fan. I was happy when they won the championship 2019.”
Max: “I was really happy when they won the championship. It was a big deal here.”
Hayden, a burly man with a walking stick who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge about local and international basketball, told me ahead of the game that he was optimistic about the outcome, but that anything could happen in these tournaments.
Hayden: “This is the strongest team they’ve ever put together, for sure. The 2000 team that made it to Australia was Steve [Nash] and company. They may have had maybe one other NBA player. But, I mean, obviously it was Steve carrying the job.”
Hayden’s nephew Ben didn’t care as much about the history, but he was optimistic about this Canada Team that carried eight current NBA players on its roster.
Ben: “Oh, very excited. I’m expecting a win, but hopefully a blowout.”
Hayden: “In International ball, the weirdest things happen. On paper, and from what I see, Team Canada should prevail today, and I’m looking for a Canada-Turkey final. But anything can happen. Canadian Basketball hearts have been broken too many times to boldly state that we’re going to do this, that, or and the other thing.”
Elizabeth and her son Jacob had a more casual take on the game ahead of them.
Jacob: “Honestly, I’m just here to have a good time.”
Elizabeth: “I’m here to see Nick Nurse.”
Father Grant and son Sam drove the 45 kilometres from Shawnigan lake to Victoria for the game and, even though they were disappointed with the result, thought it was a perfect way to get back into live sports.
Sam: “It was such a good game to return to in person sports. Being in the crowd, it felt amazing.”
Grant: “I thought Canada played a little bit flat but they picked it up in the last five minutes and the fourth quarter was really fantastic, and the overtime was really great. Which really made it a great experience for us.”
Despite the outcome, brothers Jared and Christopher couldn’t wipe the smiles from their faces after the game. Their father CJ had to keep them in their seats at times.
Jared: “I was hype, it was crazy. I couldn’t wait to see all the NBA guys. I like Nickeil [Alexander-Walker] a lot, and I like Kostas [Antetokounmpo], and Lu Dort for sure.”
“They needed to play better at the start of the game. And the refs kind of stole it.”
CJ: “They got outplayed a little bit I feel for a big part of the game.”
Jared: It’s very disappointing because that last minute, that was crazy. That was probably the best minute of basketball I’ve ever seen. And then they came into overtime and played well, but after that, they just fell apart a bit.”
I caught up with Sidney after the game when he was buying refreshments.
Sidney: “It’s frustrating. You know, Canada could never catch up. Once they did, they just couldn’t hold that close enough to get there, to go ahead. They were always coming from behind. And they got cold, couldn’t make the three, couldn’t make the foul shots. And some of the calls… the reffing was just atrocious.”
Standing ovation as Canadian team is introduced.
— Canada Basketball (@CanBball) July 3, 2021
Owen, who plays high school basketball in Campbell River, driving 265 kilometres for the game, lucked out in what was his first ever professional basketball game he got to attend in person.
Owen: “It was really fun. It felt weird at the start because it was so new, but the crowd started getting into it at the end, so it was really fun to be part of that.”
“I think we did pretty good and banging on the chairs and like, clapping our hands on defense, and yeah, it was just fun to be a part of it. I lost my voice today.”
— Oren Weisfeld (@OrenWeisfeld) July 3, 2021
Christopher: “Being in the crowd was really cool. Everybody was really involved. It’s also pretty cool because we also know a lot of people in the fans. It’s a big basketball community here.”
Grant: “It was really great to be in front of a live thing. The only disappointing thing is that it was so quiet because there’s hardly anybody here, but it was great to be part of a live experience.”
“I just wanted the stadium to be full. That would have been huge. I think that might have been the difference-maker in the game.”
Almost every adult I talked to spoke about how important tournaments like this one are to the youth, acting as an inspirational tool to help grow the game in the area, with hopefully many more to come.
Richard: “It’s pretty exciting to have a tournament here because we’ve never had a chance to see this caliber of basketball up close before. So it’s totally inspirational.”
“Like, I heard that when Steve Nash was a kid, his coach took him from Victoria to Vancouver, or maybe to Seattle, to watch an NBA game. And he got excited about that possibility… so to bring this here and have kids in Victoria have a chance to see the big guys play, it’s totally inspirational for the city.”
Jacob, who considered himself a casual basketball fan until his mother reminded him that he played high school basketball, agrees that this tournament could be meaningful for the younger generation.
Jacob: “I think so, yeah. I mean, you always want to try to one-up the next generation that was there before you. So, I mean, if these kids see this, they think: oh ya, I can do that. And then they can actually do it a little bit better than that, maybe”
Sam: “Well basketball is such, it’s such a huge community and Victoria. Like, we have such amazing camps around here with the Vikes and everything, and the fact that we get to have these games coming to our town hopefully a lot more, it just means so many kids can grow as a player and everything.”
Owen: “Oh yeah, big time inspirational. Seeing your own players from your own country play at that high of a level… it’s pretty cool.”
Grant: “I think having future FIBA tournaments, international-level tournaments here would be huge. Because Victoria has always had a great tradition of basketball and I think just to follow it up would be a great thing for the community.”
Jacob: “It certainly beats a ferry ride (to Vancouver).”