Sights and sounds from Canada’s training camp

On Team Canada's training camp, the joy and unity that emanated, and why it matters going forward.

The Canadian men’s training camp, assembled in Toronto in advance of the Olympics, felt like a high school reunion, with smiles, laughs and hugs all round. 

The cousins from Hamilton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are tied at the hip, immersed in every drill together, going at each other with happy grins; RJ Barrett tagging along in the family fun. 

Meanwhile, Kitchener’s finest, Jamal Murray and his dad are locked in conversation and only stop to let little brother Lamar join in. Turn to your left and it’s the old heads of Kelly Olynyk, Dwight Powell and Melvin Ejim with veteran ease smiling when drills end, and then back to seriousness on their faces when they reconvened.  

LeBron-stopper Dillon Brooks is treating each shot like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals — or the Olympic gold medal game. He’s focused. Amidst the activity, like a conductor, Jordi Fernandez is inconspicuously in the background behind the scenes, dapping up players, conversing with players off to the side. 

In the onlooking crowd, one can notice all the unusually tall men taking in the sights and sounds. A middle-aged former Chicago Bulls centre Bill Wennington highlights the contingent of ex-Canadian national players who made the Olympics in the 1980s and 90s — and took a trip on their own dime to lend their support and maybe a modicum of advice to the next generation of Canada’s men’s basketball Olympians. 

A member of the current generation, Dillon Brooks, appreciated the support. Brooks did something every Canadian player dreams of, scoring 39 points against the USA to beat them for a bronze medal at last summer’s FIBA World Cup in the Philippines. 

“We ate lunch with the guys; a lot of these guys were playing like a long time ago,” said Brooks. “They gave us little tidbits here and there. It’s good to have them around and motivates us to do better.”

It has not always been an easy passing of the torch from one generation to the other in the Canadian men’s basketball program. Canada’s head coach values the reunification between the generations of Canadian basketball players.

“I feel like a lot of the generations at some point there was some sort of disconnection [with Canada Basketball] and now it feels like everybody’s back together,” said Jordi Fernandez.

Despite the smiles, there have been some intrigue and setbacks, as is seemingly unavoidable with Canada’s national team. On Day 1, Andrew Wiggins pulled out of training camp, with the Warriors calling it a mutual decision made by Wiggins and Golden State to pull out. But Canada’s general manager, Rowan Barrett, saw things differently. 

“This is not an Andrew decision. This is from the team,” said Barrett. 

It wasn’t the only drama. Zach Edey, the two-time NCAA national Player of the Year did not show up to camp, and later announced he was pulling out.

“I have a duty now to properly prepare for all that is coming my way with being drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies,” said Edey. 

Later in camp, Canada Basketball would cut Oshae Brissett, marking the first time ever an NBAer had been officially cut from the national team. In a peculiar way, cutting an NBAer provided another testament to the stratosphere into which the program has ascended.  

Even with the absences of Wiggins and Edey, the cohesion and talent on display is what Canadian basketball fans have yearned for. 

When Gilgeous-Alexander says “I drive, he shoots — simple as that,” in reference to playing with Murray, the hairs on your back curl up imagining those two combining in the backcourt in Paris.

Meanwhile, Dillon Brooks and Lu Dort are running to each corner, flinging shots from each side of the 3-point line. Every day as the media assemble at the OVO center, the yelling and screaming from inside practice echoes louder and further. The interweaving of talents, the building of a team — a requirement for Canada in a tournament with the United States — seems to be coming along nicely. 

Making the Olympics is one thing, performing well is another. 

“Right now, we’re in a preparation stage where we’re excited,” said Dwight Powell. “I think there’s been a lot of excitement over the year and those sorts of emotions but now you put your mind into the preparation stage, it’s about competition.”

Canada is molding itself into a team to be reckoned at training camp. Some teams have talent but poor chemistry, or vice versa; the great teams have both. Canada has unquestioned elite talent with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray, and co. What training camp has demonstrated is that Canada also has the special sauce of unity and joy that pushes a team from good to great, with that extra layer of chemistry.