The following is a guest piece by Alex Adams. You can find him on Twitter here.
“In the end, you’re defending the flag. And we don’t want anybody trampling on our flag.”
Rowan Barrett, GM of the Canadian men’s basketball team knows it is put-up-or-shut-up time for Canada at the FIBA World Cup, where they could qualify for next year’s Olympics in Paris. Even beyond qualification, the World Cup is an end in and of itself; through the first few games of the tournament, Canada looks like a medal hopeful. The team has taken a gigantic step toward its goals with a stunning 30-point win over highly ranked France in their first game of the tournament, along with a more predictable — but record-setting — win against Lebanon. This puts them in great position to make it to the quarterfinals.
The leadership of Basketball Canada, which also includes CEO Mike Bartlett, have been laying down a framework designed to create the high-quality roster Canada will need both to make the Olympics and succeed once it gets there. Barrett and Bartlett are both in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Canada plays in the first two rounds of this year’s World Cup.
If Canada made the Olympics, it would be the first time since Barrett himself was playing for Canada alongside Steve Nash in 2000. That run brought Barrett “a lot of happiness and a lot of great memories.”
Barrett’s hope is that a new generation — with more NBA talent than ever — can drive a Canadian breakthrough: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray, Kelly Olynyk, Andrew Wiggins and Barrett’s own son — RJ Barrett – give Canada the potential to make its mark internationally.
But playing for Canada has not always been a priority for highly paid NBA players. For differing reasons, Wiggins and Murray have both skipped this year’s World Cup.
Bartlett says they are trying hard to entice players with first-class hotels and charter flights. “They could be doing something else with their time right now. That’s the reality of it, you have to be very hypersensitive to that. Or to the reality that a player can choose to do something else. And we have to respect that.”
Basketball Canada has tried to get buy-in from players, asking for a three-year commitment. Barrett says he wants players to come “because you’ve prioritized it, it’s important to you, in the midst of this busy life.”
The Toronto Star’s Doug Smith, who has covered Canada Basketball and the Toronto Raptors longer than anyone else in the country, acknowledges the challenge to getting the best NBAers to commit to play for Canada: “Mostly [the trouble had been] getting any kind of commitment. Players had very tenuous ties to a program with little history of success and saw the national team as something they did when they felt like it, not because they absolutely wanted to. Asking for, and getting, three-year commitments from a key core group was the best move they’ve made in years.”
There’s a positive feedback loop inherent to the changes Barrett and Bartlett have implemented. As players commit more of their time, the program wins more. Thus players are more willing to commit more of their time. France and Lebanon saw the results of that structural shift first-hand.
“I think we all recognize not only the sacrifice we’re making, the sacrifice they made,” says Canadian starter and Dallas Mavericks regular, Dwight Powell, of past and current Team Canada players. “And I think we feel that and we owe it to the organization, to those guys, to ourselves, and to kind of the history that we’ve had of wanting to reach the goals we wanted to reach and not quite getting there. So there’s a lot packed into all of this and hopefully we can translate it into competing and winning.”
The message Bartlett says they are trying to send is that “we owe you as much loyalty as we’re asking in return. We owe you brag-worthy experiences. We owe you the best resources, the best coaching, long training camps so that you can be ready.”
The current roster, led by Gilgeous-Alexander is already making waves. The hope is that their success will lure even more talent to the team, that the positive feedback loop can be extended forward. That medals can yield more commitment, more interest, more talent, and more medals.
“This is a basketball country,” says Bartlett. “It’s a sneaky basketball country.”
Canada can qualify for the Olympics at this year’s World Cup by being one of the two top finishing teams from the Americas. Assuming the United States takes one of those spots, Canada needs to edge out countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. Like Canada, the Dominican Republic has been one of the best teams in the tournament.
But Smith says making the Olympics would have a major impact on the prospects for the national team.
“It would certainly enhance the program, its marketability, its chance to keep and get players to commit and I would hope it would show future generations that it means something to represent the country.”
“That Olympic piece is that one last piece,” Bartlett says. “Qualifying is no longer actually something we celebrate. It’s just an expectation.”