Canada's international basketball influence is rising — just look at Germany

·5 min read
Canada's Lisa Thomaidis, seen above in March 2020, was recently named head coach of Germany's women's national team. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Lisa Thomaidis, seen above in March 2020, was recently named head coach of Germany's women's national team. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Lisa Thomaidis helped turn Canada's national women's basketball team from an upstart into a medal contender.

Now, the Dundas, Ont., native is hoping to do the same for Germany.

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Thomaidis, 50, was hired in April as head coach of the German women's national team, less than two years after parting ways with the Canadian squad.

"Growing up, for me, I would have never ever seen or heard of a coach that would have done that, a Canadian coach that would have coached abroad," Thomaidis told CBC Sports. "So I think just, I know I've had a few coaches contact me, some younger female coaches who are just excited because there's another pathway."

Thomaidis takes over during an important summer, with Germany competing in EuroBasket, the continental championship, for the first time since 2011. The tournament also represents the first stage of 2024 Olympic qualifying.

She said she first heard about the German job through Gordie Herbert, the Penticton, B.C., native who coaches Germany's men's team.

Growing footprint

That's right — two Canadians are at the controls of Germany's two national teams. Neither of Canada's national team coaches, Nick Nurse and Victor LaPeña, hold Canadian citizenship.

"That's kind of neat to think about," said Thomaidis, whose role helming the University of Saskatchewan women's team will not change. "It does say a lot. Obviously Canada Basketball is highly respected around the world."

Canada's worldwide basketball footprint is clearly expanding. Roy Rana, who grew up in Toronto, coaches Egypt's men's team. Players like Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have become NBA stars.

Canada's WNBA presence is growing too. Rookie Laeticia Amihere will join Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa on rosters for the upcoming season, and the abundance of Canadian NCAA talent means more — like UConn's Aaliyah Edwards and Notre Dame's Cassandre Prosper — are on the way.

WATCH | Amihere drafted 8th overall:

On Saturday, the WNBA will host its first game ever in Canada, with Carleton and Achonwa's Minnesota Lynx facing the Chicago Sky in Toronto.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently mentioned Toronto as a possible expansion city. The WNBA currently contains just 144 players — more teams would mean more opportunity for Canadians, not to mention the suddenly realistic possibility of playing at home.

"Our presence in the WNBA as Canadians, it's only going to continue to grow. And so then to have a team in Toronto, if that were to come to be, I think that is only going to continue to provide the visibility and the opportunity for young women to see that this is something that you can do in the future," Thomaidis said.

Herbert, who took over with the German team in September 2021, is also adding some Canadian soccer influence in Germany. He said he draws motivational tactics from John Herdman, who brought Canada to its second-ever men's soccer World Cup last year.

"He talked a lot about where they wanted to go and he talked about in the media and pretty soon people believed what he was saying," Herbert told CBC Sports. "You gotta come out with what you want to accomplish."

'Weird or surreal'

Herbert, 64, maintains extensive coaching experience around the world, including on professional clubs in Germany, France and Greece, plus a brief stint as an assistant with the Toronto Raptors. He also coached Canada's men during international windows when Nurse was unavailable, and he was an assistant during the team's 2021 Olympic qualifying loss to the Czech Republic in Victoria.

Yet even he could hardly believe that two Canadians are now leading German national teams.

"It's kind of weird or surreal. … I never thought this would happen," he said.

He said he recommended Thomaidis due to her own lengthy resume in the international game.

"I think it's a win-win for both parties. And I mean, Germany could not get a better women's coach," he said.

Michael Sohn/The Associated Press
Michael Sohn/The Associated Press

Thomaidis, meanwhile, said she's relishing the opportunity to take part in EuroBasket, which may be seen as the toughest regional championship. She'll head to Germany this week to begin a lengthy training camp ahead of the tournament, which begins in June.

"Honestly, it was 'Why not?' To coach internationally is obviously like the pinnacle of coaching your sport," she said. "When you see something in front of you that's challenging, that might be a completely different level of challenge that you've seen before, I think that was intriguing."

Similarities between Canada, Germany

There are parallels between Canada and Germany on both the men's and women's teams. Dirk Nowitzki is regarded in the same lore as Steve Nash, and the number of NBA players is similar — though Canada's, at the moment, are at a higher level.

Canada's men's team is ranked 15th internationally, while Germany is 11th. On the women's side, Canada ranks fifth and Germany sits 36th.

Thomaidis said she sees the women's team in a similar spot to Canada's around 15 years ago, when the program was just beginning to rebuild itself.

"Back in the day … they were always talking about fighting to try to get more training time to be able to compete with the big guns on the international stage. And this kind of reminds me of that," she said.

By 2026, when Germany hosts the World Cup, Thomaidis could be facing off against Canada from the opposite sideline. For Herbert, that reality could come even quicker, with the men's World Cup staring in August across Japan, Indonesia and the Phillippines.

He said it would be interesting facing off against Nurse given their shared history.

"Even though there's been a little bit of failure, you don't get anywhere without failure in life," he said. "I think Canada's on a really good way right now."