After earning Bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Canada has put the basketball world on notice. But it’s only the beginning for a country that has aspirations of becoming a global powerhouse in the sport. In preparation for the 2024 Olympics in France, I take a look at some of the individual journeys of the eccentric personalities that comprise Canada’s Men’s Basketball team. You can find the rest of the series here.
If Kelly Olynyk could wear a hat on the basketball court, he would. Has to be a snapback. Has to be backward, with his long, flowy hair bursting through the little hole with the buttons, the rest cascading behind the brim. When I walked into the Utah Jazz morning shootaround at Scotiabank Arena ahead of their late-December game against the Raptors – it was the first thing I noticed.
“How many hats do you own?” I asked Olynyk after he just spent 10 minutes speaking with the media in Toronto. The 32-year-old is at a point in his career where he understands the nuances of dealing with the press, especially back home. There’s a natural calm to his answer – a veteran sure of himself.
“I used to own 700, but I donated 500 of them when I left Miami,” Olynyk responded. Funny enough, he was sporting a Miami Dolphins hat on that day.
I can’t fathom the idea of owning 500 or even 200 of any article of clothing, let alone hats – but then again, I’m not an NBA player.
Somewhat fittingly, if you parse Olynyk’s long journey through basketball, climbing the ranks in Canada, working tirelessly to become a dominant force in college at one of the best programs in Gonzaga, then playing for five different NBA teams through an 11-year career, and becoming a mainstay for his country’s national team for the last decade-plus – you’ll find that Olynyk has been wearing different hats on the basketball court for quite some time.
But these aren’t the traditional snapbacks he dawns on his off days. Olynyk’s hats on the court are invisible. But just like his other collection, they still change from game to game.
In one game it would read ‘playmaker’. The next it would read ‘veteran presence,’ the game after that ‘sharp-shooter,’ and so on.
Much like his 200 hats, Olynyk has been asked to play what feels like 200 different roles throughout his career – and it’s made him the ultimate teammate.
“He always has little stories,” said big man Omer Yurtseven in the Jazz locker room after Utah stormed back in the fourth quarter to pull off the comeback win over the Raptors. Olynyk had been wearing his playmaker hat on that night, dishing out seven assists in a start, and he was just coming off a dominant 27-point outing that helped the Jazz beat the lowly Detroit Pistons without their stars. On that night his hat was the ‘primary option’.
Yurtseven said that what K-O brings to the team is invaluable. “He’s always bringing the right energy — always pushing us and doing the right thing. He was in Miami too so he sort of has helped me transition to this new phase in my career.”
“Kelly’s played a lot of meaningful games. I think playing on a bunch of playoff teams is helpful for us because not everybody can say that,” said Jazz Head Coach Will Hardy, who was wearing a Team Canada jacket in his pre-game presser because he lost a bet to Jazz assistant and fellow Canadian Scott Morrison after Canada beat the US in the bronze medal game in the FIBA World Cup.
Olynyk’s fingerprints were all over that bronze-medal summer for Canada. An 18-point outing from him helped Team Canada beat France in its opening game of the tournament, setting the stage for a litany of upsets. In a game against Latvia, a cool, calm, and collected 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists for Olynyk came at a time when the offense struggled for the Canadians. It was a wildly successful summer for Team Canada, winning a medal and booking their ticket to the 2024 Olympics in Paris – something that has been a goal of the country and of Olynyk’s for quite some time now.
“It was a long road,” said Olynyk, who first arrived on the Canadian scene on the junior national team. “It didn’t happen overnight. It’s not like we’re like, ‘Hey, just try and qualify for the Olympics.’ It took a long time. Bumps, bruises, growing pains, heartbreak. Sometimes the cookie doesn’t crumble your way. And I feel like we should have been there two or three times already.”
He might have a point on that front. Every time Canada was on the precipice of qualifying, something seemed to happen. A loss to Venezuela in the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship, losing to the Czech Republic in the 2021 qualifiers. Heartbreak was common to Canadian basketball fans.
Olynyk as an individual experienced the same heartbreak as the team and its fans. Injuries plagued him throughout qualification tournaments in 2016 and 2021. But while that tested his resolve, it didn’t impact the type of presence he had in the locker room, both for Canada and in the NBA.
“Kelly is such a tremendous example for all of our players,” Coach Hardy told me before the game in Toronto. “He doesn’t complain about bumps and bruises. He doesn’t complain about little things, Kelly shows up every day with an attitude that ‘basketball is my favorite thing in the world to do. And I’m here to play.’ And that’s something that you want to rub off on everybody.”
“He’s not new to this,” said Canada’s General Manager Rowan Barrett when I asked him about Olynyk last month. “I think his veteran presence was huge amongst our team. He’s easy-going… Basketball runs in his blood.”
And while the right approach and a blue-blood history with the national team can take you far in this world – Olynyk has also always backed it up on the court, playing a selfless, team-first brand of hoops that matches the type of person he is off of the court.
“His game perfectly suits the FIBA environment,” said Barrett about Olynyk’s growth with Team Canada. “I usually like the passing and shooting skills, especially at his size. Being the power-forward/center who can do both… he’s a big, big part of our team.”
“K-O has a very unique skill set,” said Hardy, who has coached Olynyk for two seasons in Utah. “He’s a fantastic playmaker. He’s somebody that we use a lot to facilitate our offense. But mixing in shooting, and attacking one on one when teams do kind of hang up on everybody else because they know he’s a good passer. Just keep the defense honest.”
“It’s easy for us to have that connection because of the playmaking and passing, it’s natural,” said Jazz All-Star Lauri Markkanen when I asked him about Kelly. “He is a great teammate, the only thing is he takes up a lot of locker space.” Both he and Olynyk shared a laugh about that.
Olynyk chimed in on the playmaking aspect:
“It’s not really about focusing on being a certain type of player but just trying to find a way to impact the game. I’ve learned from when I was young that I could make plays as a passer and if that’s how I help my team win then so be it. But there’s no real emphasis on it.”
Sounds like a man who’s willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win. Even if it means wearing multiple, invisible hats.
“It’s easy sometimes to get caught up in the hard parts of this job,” said Coach Hardy when I asked him about Olynyk playing different roles for this team. “It’s easy sometimes for the guys to get caught up in maybe like, their role isn’t exactly what they want, or they feel like they’re struggling. But K-O is just such a tremendous example. And it’s something that I try as a coach not to take for granted. And that’s becoming more and more rare.”
What’s unique to Olynyk, which is rare in its own right, is that not only is he setting an example for his teammates in the NBA, but he’s setting the precedent for future Canadian hoopers to take the same approach. And what better stage to show that than an Olympic one?
“For us to be able to go to the Olympics and be on a world stage is super impactful,” Olynyk said. “Hopefully, it can trickle down and inspire the youth now. Your hopes, dreams, and wishes are that somebody is looking up to you and is going to be better than you one day. To take this thing further than you could ever dream.”
For years, Olynyk’s nickname has been Captain Kelly.
And given his demeanor, his approach, and his impact on Team Canada – it makes sense. Olynyk has been there through the peaks, the valleys, and everything in between, consistently being the voice of reason and rationale in the minds of Canadians who questioned if the country would ever return to the Olympics for Men’s basketball.
And they did.
In large part, thanks to the persistence of guys like Captain Kelly. The man of 200 hats and 200 roles.
The ultimate teammate.
Editor’s note: A previous version incorrectly stated that Kelly Olynyk was coached by his father Ken Olynyk on the junior national team. Ken did coach the junior national team, but not at the same time as Kelly’s tenure there.