Back from Russia, Chery ready to help Canada qualify for FIBA World Cup

EDMONTON — Guard Kenny Chery is training with his Canadian national teammates, getting ready to face Venezuela and Panama in FIBA World Cup qualifiers.

But about nine months ago, he was a world away from Edmonton. He was trying to get out of Russia.

Chery was playing for BC Avtodor Saratov. But, when Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, he realized it was time to get the heck out.

“The circumstances were tough," said Chery after Canada wrapped up a practice session at Edmonton’s Saville Centre. "I had to find my way. I had to think about myself and my health and my safety. So, I made the right decision for me and my family and my career."

That meant a move to Turkey, where he now plays for Petkim Spor.

"I'm blessed, I get to play the game of basketball and do it at a high level,” said Chery, who grew up in Montreal. “It wasn’t easy (to leave Russia) because we had a great year, I had great teammates, we had a great fan base out there. Things were going really well and, just to break that contract and see that season go to waste, it was pretty frustrating."

Chery is one of the Europe-based veterans who make up the majority of the Canada squad that faces Venezuela Thursday and Panama Sunday at the Edmonton Expo Centre. With the NBA in full swing, no Canadians playing in the world’s biggest league are available, so the Canadian side is stocked with veterans plying their trade across the Atlantic.

Canada is 8-0 in Americas zone qualifying play, and with one more win will clinch a spot in next summer’s World Cup, to be co-hosted by Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.

Canada has already likely done enough to qualify. Even if the team was to lose the rest of its qualifying games, the Canadians would also need every other result on the out-of-town scoreboard to go against them to miss the World Cup.

Many of Canada’s NBA players will be available for the World Cup, so the players who are in Edmonton for these two qualifiers might lose their spots to the big stars next year.

It’s a weird spot — helping the program qualify for the World Cup, but knowing you might not be on the team when that World Cup rolls around.

Canada has yet to face Venezuela (7-1), but went to Central America in late August and stomped Panama (2-6) 106-50. Two NBA players, Kelly Olynyk (18 points) and Dwight Powell (plus-32 in his 15 minutes on the floor) played in that game.

Melvin Ejim, who scored 15 in the August rout of Panama, said that he and his fellow European-based players can’t worry about roster decisions that will be made next year.

“I think no matter what position or what timetable we’re on with the team, I think we all know we’re all part of the program,” said Ejim, who plays for Unicaja in Spain. “For some, it just happens to be in specific windows, or tournaments, or events.

"We have a family mentality. We have togetherness. And that’s what we try to keep to. People know who we are, and, when you get to a certain level, people know the reputations that players have, what they bring to the table and how they can impact the team.

"Leave it to the coaches to make the tough decisions.”

Associate head coach Nate Bjorkgren said Canada can’t afford to think about those decisions the coaches will make next year. The focus is on clinching the spot, not about what will happen with the team once it gets there.

“You can’t look too far ahead of what the roster may or may not be. All of our focus is here on Venezuela," he said. "I'’s the game that’s ahead of us and it’s the game that we’re looking at.

"What’s great about this group of guys is that you see it here in practice today, they’re very committed. A lot of these guys have been through a number of these games in the windows over the last year. We’ve played eight games in these current settings and windows, and there’s a good chunk of guys who have been on every single team that we’ve had."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2022.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press