TORONTO — At a recent meeting of Canada's under-23 basketball teams, players were asked to raise a hand if they'd ever played for Canada at home.
Two of the 30-plus players in attendance raised their hands.
This week's inaugural Globl Jam tournament isn't just an opportunity to bridge the gap in Canada's national program between the youth and senior squads, but a rare chance for the country's most talented young players to don the Maple Leaf at home.
Aaliyah Edwards, one of the two who have played at home — in Olympic qualifying games in Edmonton — relishes the chance to be a role model for young girls who'll be in attendance.
"It's amazing, because we get to inspire, motivate and encourage young women and show them that they can get to this level," said the Connecticut Huskies forward. "We're able to show them a high calibre of basketball, right here at home, and it's gonna be so fun to compete in front of friends and family, who are used to seeing me on TV."
The new FIBA-sanctioned tournament tips off Tuesday at Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. The Canadian men play the U.S., Brazil and Italy while the women face the U.S., Belgium and France.
The event helps fill a gap that exists between the under-19 age group and the senior squads, which usually include a small number of U23 players — R.J. Barrett on the men's side, for example, and Edwards and Shaina Pellington for the women.
"We've got over 200 NCAA'ers in Division 1 who are Canadian, so we've got this age group that's coming up that pretty soon aren't going to have enough places to play," said Michael Bartlett, the CEO of Canada Basketball. "So, if we're playing the long game … we’ve got to give them opportunities.
"Except for some exceptions on the women's side, very few of these players will be in Paris in 2024 (Olympics), but many of them will be on the 2028 Olympic team for L.A., so tournaments like this give them more shots to play at home, more shots to learn how to win the difficult games against teams like the USA and France and other global powerhouses.
"It's on us to make sure that they're ready to make that leap. We’ve always kind of left it up to the athlete for their own professional career development to be ready for us. (But) it's our job to get them ready for us."
Ryan Nembhard, who earned Big East freshman of the year honours this past season for the Creighton Bluejays, has never played for Canada on home soil.
"It's always great to be able to put on your country’s jersey, and it’s a great feeling being at home … I’m super excited," said the 19-year-old guard from Aurora, Ont.
Nembhard and Edwards, plus a handful of players from each team, attended a community event on Monday morning in Regent Park in the Toronto's east end, where they put a few dozen young kids through basketball drills.
While Canada has traditionally struggled in securing commitments from NBA players to turn up for Olympic and World Cup qualifying games, Bartlett hopes giving U23 players more opportunities at home will foster a stronger sense of culture within the program.
"I'll bet if we have a generation of athletes who play more at home, when it comes to ask them to make a difficult decision to go overseas and play with us in a key qualifier, their loyalty to the program is deeper," he said. "I think their loyalty to the country has always been strong. You've got to get them loyal the program and that's a two-way street."
While there's no FIBA rankings for U23, Canada is No. 4 on the global boys youth (U18) rankings, and No. 8 on the girls side.
"We're now good enough at all age groups that we have a chance to win every time we play," Bartlett said. "At the end of the day, this country loves basketball and loves sport and loves winning at sport … so let's play at home more."
Canada Basketball announced next year's Globl Jam will also be in Toronto.
Carly Clarke is the head coach of Canada's women's team, which tips off Tuesday against Belgium. while Toronto Raptors assistant Nathaniel Mitchell will make his Canadian head coaching debut with the men, who open Tuesday against Brazil.
Women: Shy Day-Wilson, Toronto; LaShae Dwyer, Toronto; Aaliyah Edwards, Kingston, Ont.; Yvonne Ejim, Calgary; Taya Hanson, Kelowna, B.C.; Phillipina Kyei, Calgary; Latasha Lattimore, Toronto; Rosalie Mercille, St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que.; Shaina Pellington, Pickering, Ont.; Merissah Russell, Ottawa; Sarah Te-Biasu, Montreal; Tara Wallack, Surrey, B.C.
Men: Keeshawn Barthelemy, Montreal; Charles Bediako, Brampton, Ont.; Marcus Carr, Toronto; Quincy Guerrier, Montreal; Kur Jongkuch, London, Ont.; Thomas Kennedy, Windsor, Ont.; Liam McChesney, Prince Rupert, B.C.; Emanuel Miller, Toronto; Leonard Miller, Toronto; Ryan Nembhard, Aurora, Ont.; Addison Patterson, Milton, Ont.; Stefan Smith, Ajax, Ont.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 4, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press