For Canada’s National Men’s Team, It’s a Family Affair

The surprising web of connections on this year’s World Cup Team.

The following is a guest piece by Alex Adams. You can find him on Twitter here.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander calls it “a dream come true.” 

“Not a lot of people continue to get to play with their family,” he said at the recent Team Canada training camp in Toronto. Gilgeous-Alexander is a point guard with the Oklahoma Thunder and made his NBA All Star team debut last season. He recently finished with 26 points for Canada in a win over Team Germany in a friendly. It’s been a long road to this point.

He and his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, grew up pushing each other in the driveway in Hamilton, Ontario. Also a guard, Alexander-Walker is now with the Minnesota Timberwolves. It has always been competitive between Shai and Nickeil; “We’ve almost fought before, almost punched each other in the face,” said Gilgeous-Alexander when he was a rookie about his driveway battles with Alexander-Walker. 

Their childhood rivalry built a fraternal bond between them.

“Me and Nickeil are like brothers, and if anybody knows us they know that about us,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. 

Alexander-Walker feels the same.

“Since birth, that’s like a twin brother to me, couldn’t be any closer. One of my best friends, if not my closest friend.” Their bond and battles helped the cousins get to the NBA: “Having a ‘brother’ my age and is damn-near just as good at basketball… Growing up with a guy like that will give you a competitive edge.”

Both men dreamt of wearing the maple leaf as boys.

 “Definitely playing for the national team was something (Gilgeous-Alexander and I) thought about,” Alexander-Walker told Canada Basketball, last year. 

One of the challenges for Canadian basketball—and part of the price it pays for having so many NBAers on the roster—is that it may be difficult to gel as a team in just a few weeks, as it needs to do in preparation for the FIBA World Cup in Indonesia and the Philippines, which run from late August to early September. But this year’s team may not only be the most talented Canada has ever mounted on the international stage—it is also perhaps the most richly connected.

As Shai and Nickeil were battling it out for driveway basketball supremacy, RJ Barrett’s childhood was spent chasing his dad around European basketball courts, and honing his skills. Barrett, who plays for the New York Knicks, is on this year’s Team Canada. His dad, Rowan Barrett, who once played for teams in Europe and Israel, is now Team Canada’s GM. In the same win over Germany in which Gilgeous-Alexander scored 26, Barrett dropped 31 on 13-for-14 shooting.

“[RJ] would always be out on the court after [my] games, shooting, you know, coming in after practice,” Rowan Barrett told CBC in 2018. Besides his overseas career, Rowan Barrett played for Canada at the 2000 Summer Olympics, and a teammate was Canadian basketball royalty: Steve Nash. Not coincidentally, Nash happens to be RJ Barrett’s godfather. RJ hopes to emulate the success of his dad and his godfather with a good showing at the 2023 FIBA World Cup and RJ is “trying to get back to the Olympics.”

RJ had “no choice” about playing for Canada, cracked Gilgeous-Alexander, because his dad is GM.

And the connections don’t end there. The Scrubb Brothers, Phil and Tommy, who both currently play in Europe, have always suited up for Canada whenever they could. They were a part of the legendary Carleton Ravens program and won five straight CIS championships together. They played for Canada in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, when almost none of the Canadian NBAers showed up. Phil has played 72 games for Canada while Tommy has played 31 games.

“I’ve got cut before [from the national team in 2015 prior to the Pan Am Games and FIBA Americas Championships] so I don’t take it for granted,” Tommy told Sportsnet. “I don’t expect it to come for the rest of my career, so I want to take advantage when they ask me to play and just enjoy it.” 

Amazingly, in 2019, Thomas Scrubb, scrubbed his honeymoon to join the Canadian team in training camp. It not only means a lot for the brothers but their “parents were big on [them playing for Canada] growing up,” said Phil. The two have held the fort for Team Canada for so long; it’s a small piece of justice that they’re still here with the cavalry finally on the roster, ready to push for the Olympics.

Other players on this year’s team may not be family, but they go way back. Kyle Alexander and Jamal Murray went to high school together at Orangeville Prep, and Murray played AAU with Dillon Brooks. “We’ve all seen each other grow up, have a feel for each other. Not just on the court but off the court. That’s big,” said Murray at Canada’s training camp last week. 

Basketball is still relatively small in this country when compared to the U.S. With a large contingent of Team Canada coming from the Toronto area, many of them played together or against one another as kids. And many have played for Canada at youth levels before advancing to the national team. Gilgeous-Alexander and Barrett were on the bench in 2016 in Manila when Canada failed to qualify for the Olympics. 

“Me and RJ, we were with the senior men’s team a little bit in ’16. I think that’s when we were first around each other. So we’ve known each other for a really long time, built kind of a connection, a friendship,” said Shai.

Similarly, Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell have bonded over the years playing for the national team and rave about each other.

“Playing with Kelly’s fun, he’s so skilled and so smart,” said Powell. “And I feel like we’ve been playing together long enough that we can play off each other very well without having to talk it out necessarily.” 

Many national teams heading into the FIBA World Cup have played together for years and have the on-court continuity that Canada may lack, as this team as currently constructed has never played together as a group. In 2021 Barrett and Lu Dort were there but Olynyk and Gilgeous-Alexander were not. In 2022 the opposite was true: Barrett and Dort missed the qualification games while Shai and Olynyk played Brooks and Murray have not played for Canada in years. 

But what Canada’s team lacks in time on court together, they hope to make up with the depth of their personal connections.

As RJ put it, “it’s like family.”