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Great Britain men’s basketball could use Canada’s support (and a whole lot else)

NBA forward Luol Deng (second right) put off wrist surgery to represent Great Britain in London (Getty Images)

With this country not being part of the Olympic men's basketball tournament, Canadians could do much worse for a team to adopt than Great Britain.

It works on any number of levels. There is sentiment: Team GB's best player, Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng, has made to represent the country he moved to after his family fled war-torn Sudan, putting off wrist surgery in order to be a role model who might inspire young Brits to swap kicking a white ball for dribbling and passing a brownish-orange one. Then there's the satirical, curmudgeon level. Ever been ticked off by Canadians who always get on the bandwagon of one of the contenders during a major soccer tournament such as the World Cup or the Euro and invent some tissue-thin, tenuous rationale for it, rather than just admit they want to back a winner since Canada's men's team is a perpetual lost cause? What better way to point out the hollowness of all that than getting halfway emotionally invested in a soccer nation's basketball team?

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Plus there is little chance of heartbreak going in, since Great Britain isn't very good. They are 43rd in the FIBA world rankings, 30 spots lower than anyone else in their pool. Only the saving grace of Deng kept the margin to fewer than 50 points in their 118-78 loss. Adopting them is like adopting the 2003 Detroit Tigers midway through their 119-loss season. Or the 2008 Detroit Lions when they were on the way to the NFL's first 0-16 season. Or Detroit in general, really.

But they will represent, which is what the Olympics are all about.

There is also one of those threads connecting Team GB to Canada. Forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu was a cult hero during his turn as a Toronto Raptors bench player not too long ago.

From Sean Fitz-Gerald:

Britain is 43rd among the 82 countries included in FIBA's world rankings, 19 spots below the Canadian men, but as tournament host it received a special exemption to compete in the London Olympics. The hope is the team will use that exemption to capture the hearts and minds of a few more British sports fans ...

"I feel like we hold the future of British basketball in our hands," Mensah-Bonsu said. "It's a fairly unknown sport in this country. I feel like it has a chance to excel in the country, and I think that with some success in these Olympics, the notoriety will come, the funding will come, the fan support will come."

Some players in the United States — including two-time Olympian Dwyane Wade — have begun to wonder aloud whether players should be paid to play at the Olympics. It was a question posed again on Wednesday, not long after Mensah-Bonsu had settled in behind his misspelled nameplate, a relative unknown in his own country.

"I'd pay to play at the Olympics," he said with a smile. (National Post)

"Special exemption" might not do justice to how far behind the pack Britain is on the parquet in men's hoops. The sport's governing body, FIBA, was initially hesitant about waving Britain into the tournament. Please keep in mind only 12 teams take part in the hoops tournament, four fewer than the world championship, which is held halfway between each Olympics, so those spots are at a premium. Prior to Deng becoming their floor leader, Britain had never qualified for the worlds or the Olympics. It had qualified for the European championship only once, so it had to prove it wouldn't be completely overmatched. Since Deng came of age, they have made the successive EuroBaskets for the first time.

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Their prospects are not great. Guard Mike Lenzly, part of an already thin backcourt, and big man Dan Clark are both the equivalent of game-time decisions for Britain's opener vs. Russia on Sunday. Recent Portland Trail Blazers singing Joel Freeland is nursing a bad knee. So a team which went 2-10 in pre-tournament play is already a little decimated.

It adds up to a team only a hopeless romantic who's weary of seeing Canadian pretenders in soccer get built up by the ever-hopeful hoser media disappoint. (I see 'we' lost in women's soccer.) Plus there's what the British basketball federation did to get the high-salaried Deng in the lineup. And what Deng's done to represent the country where his family settled. The public generally doesn't appreciate that playing international basketball often means travelling in a style that's far from the lap of luxury.

From Alexander Wolff:

Deng thought nothing of slogging through the backwaters of European basketball with the British team during its four-year odyssey to qualify for London. At one point he played on a court girdled by gun-slinging guards in Belarus; at others, he folded himself into budget airliners to travel with the team to qualifiers in Bosnia, Holland and Switzerland. But then he has known much worse.

... In January, after he tore a ligament in his left wrist, the Bulls prevailed upon Deng to delay surgery until Chicago had played out its unsuccessful championship run. Then, with the season over and the Olympics looming, it was Deng's turn to dictate the terms: No way was he going to have the surgery now and miss the Games. Playing in the London Olympics, modeling top-level basketball for a generation of young Brits who might someday pick up the country's banner, was Deng's way of repaying the debt he feels to the nation that took him in. "I don't see how he wouldn't be playing for Great Britain," says U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, Deng's coach at Duke. "It's not unusual that the NBA calls for [supplemental insurance]. What's unusual is Luol. He's a beautiful guy who's a world-class player when he's healthy. He's not just a great story, he has a great spirit. And what you want in a program is that kind of commitment."

And that's why British Basketball ultimately matched that commitment with one of its own. In 2008 Deng had just signed a six-year, $63 million contract with the Bulls. "That first year it cost us more to insure Luol for a month than it cost us to run the whole program for a year," says Ron Wuotila, the national team's general manager. "People were shocked by our willingness to put that money up, but we were at a make-or-break moment. Chris Spice [Britain's performance director] was the bravest of all. I was scared off by the numbers, but Chris said, 'We only get one shot at this.' " (Sports Illustrated)

Imagine that, the insurance coverage for one player exceeding the program's whole budget. That's a different world from the one LeBron James and the Dream Team travel in.

How can you not find some time for these guys, along with cheering for Teresa Gabriele, Kim Smith, Courtnay Pilypaitis and Canada's underdog women's basketball team? It's also a way to get back in the habit of following the men's hoops from a Canadian perspective, since saviour Andrew Wiggins is on the way.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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