Canada hasn’t won a significant senior men’s basketball medal since 1936. The team hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 2000.
The time is now for both droughts to end.
Canada plays its first game of the 2023 men’s FIBA World Cup on Friday against France. By the end of the tournament, if it places top two among all Americas teams, Canada will have booked its ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Jay Triano, who coached that team 23 years ago in Sydney, Australia knows what a return to the Olympics would mean.
“It would just be the best thing ever for us to get back in the Olympics and then do well in the Olympics. I think that’s very much on the table for this group of players,” he told CBC Sports.
The assembled team in Indonesia, where Canada will play the group stage, is among the most talented in the world. Betting sites have Canada among the favourites to win the tournament.
Star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of two players at the World Cup to make an all-NBA team last season, along with Slovenia’s Luka Doncic.
WATCH | Triano confident Canada will ‘do well’ at World Cup:
Former Canadian men’s basketball coach Jay Triano expresses his thoughts on the Canadian Men’s basketball team. He believes the team has the squad to go far at the FIBA World Cup and qualify for the Olympics.
Potential despite turmoil
Gilgeous-Alexander, the Hamilton, Ont., native who plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, said his team’s limits are endless.
“Anything we put our mind to. We’re for sure talented enough. It’s just about us coming together as a team, building the camaraderie on and off the court and we’ll be fine,” he said.
Coming together will be crucial. Head coach Nick Nurse abruptly parted with the team in June and was replaced by Sacramento Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez.
Like other nations, player turmoil has been a theme in the past month: star guard Jamal Murray and veteran Cory Joseph both dropped out over the past month, while Andrew Wiggins declined to make a three-year commitment in the leadup to the Olympics.
Still, most of the core group who committed to the team through Paris will be present.
“There’s definitely a culture that we’re starting to build and I think that’s the reason for the commitment to have the same guys over and over again play together,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
“The best teams overseas, they play together for so long and they’re so connected with each other. We just want to level the playing field.”
After France, Canada will play Lebanon and Latvia in the group stage. The top two teams then advance to the second round, where they’ll merge with two teams from another group — one of whom is likely to be the reigning world champion Spain. The top two teams from the newly formed group move onto the quarterfinals.
The Canadians proved their mettle over five exhibition games, including a statement overtime victory over Spain on its home court.
Despite the dropouts, Canada was left with a roster that makes sense as a unit. Its starters include a pair of go-to scorers in Gilgeous-Alexander and R.J. Barrett. Dillon Brooks is the defensive stopper at forward, while Dwight Powell and Kelly Olynyk form a heady frontcourt full of experience together in FIBA.
Off the bench, Lu Dort is a natural fill-in for Brooks as a feisty three-and-D wing and Gilgeous-Alexander’s cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, is a capable backup guard. Kyle Alexander and Zach Edey, the seven-foot-four reigning NCAA player of the year, provide depth down the middle.
Fernandez, a 40-year-old Spaniard, brings a plethora of experience in international basketball to make it all hum.
“I just think top to bottom, it’s a pretty good roster. And I have all the faith in the world that Jordi will find a way to get them to mesh together,” said Triano, who works with Fernandez on the Kings.
Unlike men’s soccer, the Olympics are the biggest and most coveted international tournament in basketball.
It’s why the American squad for the World Cup is headlined by Anthony Edwards and Brandon Ingram instead of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Alexander’s sister Kayla competed for the Canadian women’s team at Tokyo 2020.
“My sister talked me through just the level of what it’s like to be at the Olympics and how much of a blessing it was, how cool of an experience it was. And I would love to experience that for myself and put on for my country in that way,” he said.
Gilgeous-Alexander said it would be a “dream come true.”
“Everyone wants to play for the Olympics. You grow up watching the Olympics, all the historic things that happened there,” he said.
Besides the U.S., Canada’s Americas competition includes Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela. Argentina, which fell to Spain in the 2019 final, failed to qualify.
Still, other than Mexico and Canada, every Americas team in the 2023 tournament advanced to the second round. The competition isn’t exactly filled with pushovers.
Of course, Canadian basketball fans need not be reminded how fraught the road to the Olympics can be.
Once again, though, all the pieces seem to be in place. It’s time to finally make good on all that promise.