Canadian men's basketball search for silver lining as program hopes to rebound from Olympic downfall

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Andrew Nicholson, right, defends against Czech Republic's Ondrej Balvin during Saturday’s 103-101 semifinal defeat, at the hands of the Czech Republic, that ended Canada’s Olympic dream.  (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Andrew Nicholson, right, defends against Czech Republic's Ondrej Balvin during Saturday’s 103-101 semifinal defeat, at the hands of the Czech Republic, that ended Canada’s Olympic dream. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

VICTORIA —Championship Sunday in Victoria was supposed to be a day of celebration, breakthrough and relief for the Canadian men's basketball team.

Instead, it's become yet another agonizing chapter — a day laced with lingering doubt and questions of what comes next for the program.

They've been here before.

Shortly after Saturday's 103-101 semifinal defeat, at the hands of the Czech Republic, that ended Canada's Olympic dream, R.J. Barrett took to Twitter, promising better things ahead.

"Don't worry Canada we'll be back and we're gonna make it," he wrote.

Less than 24 hours later, Canada Basketball CEO Glen Grunwald met with the media in Victoria and tried to provide calm and perspective.

"It was a tough loss. We had high hopes and we didn't achieve our goal," he began. "We're not discouraged. We're disappointed but we're not discouraged."

WATCH | Despite Wiggins' wizardry, Czechs shatter Canada's Olympic hopes:

For fans of this team and this program it's more frustration and despair after yet another disappointing performance from a men's Canadian basketball team that hasn't qualified for the Olympics in 21 years.

This time was supposed to be different. Proclamations of this being the golden age of basketball and more talent than ever was heard all week in Victoria leading into the playoff round.

Eight current NBA-ers on the squad. Commitments from players, including Andrew Wiggins who many doubted would ever wear the red and white again, seemed to position this program perfectly. It was all going so smoothly.

But when it came to a single game elimination showdown with the strong, tall and experienced Czechs on Saturday, the Canadians were outclassed.

This year for us was two steps forward and one step back. There's some long-term learning and some growth in our program." - Glen Grunwald, CEO Canada Basketball

Sure, there was that remarkable rally in the last 45 seconds to force overtime. But then, when it mattered most, up five points with a little more than two minutes left, Canada couldn't make a clutch shot down the stretch.

The Czechs outscored the Canadians 9-2 in the last two minutes of OT.

"I hope what they got out of this is motivation. Both the guys who were here and the guys who couldn't be here," Grunwald said.

WATCH | Glen Grunwald, CEO of Canada Basketball, discusses his optimism:

"They need to stick with it. This year for us was two steps forward and one step back. There's some long-term learning and some growth in our program."

But how do you keep a core group of players together? Grunwald acknowledged that's the key to success moving forward.

"North America is different from Europe. And FIBA is Eurocentric. We're NBA-centric here in North America. That's just part of the fact," he said.

"We'll be communicating with the players and their circle of influence and making sure they understand the importance of all of these tournaments."

Optimism remains

Instead of planning for Tokyo, the men's program now has to plan its path to Paris in 2024 — that starts with World Cup qualification games this fall. It's a relatively new Olympic qualification system. The easiest path to the Games includes qualifying for the World Cup and then making it to the playoff round to earn a spot at the Olympics.

But getting star players to commit to the qualification games leading to the World Cup and even at the World Cup has plagued the program.

"It's a process that we're going through," Grunwald said.

"We provide a great experience. We know it's important to them. And we need to develop more players so that we have a big pool of players. We need a big group of players in order to qualify for the FIBA system."

We've talked to Nick Nurse and I'm very hopeful Nick is going to stick with us - Glen Grunwald

For as much disappointment as there is now, Grunwald says he's optimistic about the future.

"Rome wasn't built overnight, and the Canada Basketball program wasn't built overnight either," he said.

"We know the future is bright for Canada Basketball and basketball in Canada."

Tough decisions to Nurse

There will no doubt be a massive debrief about what happened in Victoria leading up to and during the Olympic qualifying event. Part of those discussions include Nick Nurse and his future with the program.

"We've talked to Nick and I'm very hopeful Nick is going to stick with us. I think it's one of the strengths of our program that we have a coach like Nick Nurse who really cares about it and works hard about it," Grunwald said.

One of the things Grunwald also expressed during his post-mortem with the media on Sunday was how challenging this past year has been to get players to commit and play in the midst of a pandemic.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press
Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

"The fact that we made the progress we did during a pandemic to me shows the strength of our organization and the commitment of our players and staff. It gives me great encouragement," he said.

"We'll go back and evaluate and see what worked and what didn't. Again, the complications because of COVID-19 put a lot of stress and strain and caused a lot of uncertainty."

Learning lessons. There have been a few. Perhaps too many. But this time Grunwald hopes it pays off in Paris.

"You got to stick with it. Maturity, experience all counts. Playing together counts," he said.

"Our longer-term goal is to be consistent podium finishers on both the men's and women's side."

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