If professional sports are unfair, international competition can be downright irrational. After all, expectations can quickly get out of whack when the hopes of an entire nation rest upon the shoulders of a few select athletes.
The expectations are high for the Canadian senior men’s basketball team ahead of the 2023 FIBA World Cup. And the truth is, they should be, even though the club hasn't been to the Olympics since 2000 and has never medalled in a World Cup.
For as many obstacles as Team Canada is set to face at the upcoming World Cup — with the team falling on the wrong side of the bracket, an inexperienced FIBA roster, and a brand new head coach — there are just as many, if not more, reasons to believe that this Canadian team has everything it needs to finally break through on the international stage. More specifically, that they can finish in the top-two out of the seven teams from the Americas in order to qualify outright for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
They have as much going for them as any team in the entire tournament.
It’s not just that Canada has elite talent in the form of seven NBA players and a number of high-level European pros, or that they have built up chemistry after playing with or against each other since childhood, or that they have veteran leadership and know-how, or that the program finally has all the resources it needs to set its athletes up for success, or that many of the other best international players are sitting out of the tournament. It’s that all of these things are happening at once.
After years of disappointing results and heartbreaking losses for the Canadian men’s basketball team, things appear to finally be breaking right just in time for the World Cup.
“It feels like good things are going to happen,” head coach Jordi Fernandez said about Team Canada after getting the job just one month before training camp and two months before the tournament. “And I’m going back to creating your habits and building a culture and creating an identity. You see in the day-to-day basis of what we’re trying to do, it just feels like something good is starting.
“Easier said than done. Right now we’re working. Soon enough we’ll have to show it.”
For Canada, it starts with the top-end talent, even in the absence of Jamal Murray. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best players in the entire tournament, not to mention one of the most clutch scorers at the end of games. RJ Barrett and Kelly Olynyk are proven FIBA players who know how to deal with the increased physicality of the international game. And they will be supported by backup guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, centres Dwight Powell and Kyle Alexander, and defensive stoppers Lu Dort and Dillon Brooks.
“It’s a good group. It’s a really good group. We had a pretty good group eight years ago, but everybody was younger,” Olynyk said at training camp, referring to the 2016 Olympic qualifying tournament where Gilgeous-Alexander and Barrett got their first taste of senior team action. “Now we’ve got a good group with some experience, so it’s promising.”
One of the most underrated aspects of the roster is the chemistry they have built over the years. While it wasn’t ideal to have previous head coach Nick Nurse replaced by Fernandez just one month before training camp, Canada Basketball has demanded a three-year commitment from all their players, who spent last summer training together and winning 11 of 12 games in World Cup qualifying to finish as the No. 1 team from the Americas.
Plus, this is a group of primarily Greater Toronto Area-born hoopers that have played with or against each other since childhood, with the core group all born between 1996 and 2000. Alexander-Walker and Gilgeous-Alexander are first cousins, Phil and Thomas Scrubb are brothers, Brooks and Barrett both grew up in Mississauga, and down the line it goes.
“Yeah, there's definitely a culture that we're starting to build, and I think that's the reason for the commitment,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It's the same guys over and over again and playing together. And that's the best teams — the best teams overseas, they play together for so long and they're so connected on the court. And we just want to level the playing field.”
“It helps a lot,” Gilgeous-Alexander added about their friendships translating to the basketball court. “There’s a relationship. So in the game, if you yell at a guy, you know it’s coming from a great spot. It’s camaraderie at the end of the day and the greatest teams have that."
However, as much as existing relationships matter over the course of a summer of international hoops, there are going to be times when respected, veteran voices need to speak up. And this team has that in spades, too, with Olynyk and Powell having played 86 combined games for Team Canada, and even Gilgeous-Alexander and Barrett playing with the senior team since 2016.
“It means the world to me because they have the experience, but also they have shown commitment,” Fernandez said of his veterans. “... The guys with that experience, we need them because they will help the younger guys that have never done it in this set up.”
The Canadians have fallen into the wrong side of the bracket due in large part to their lacklustre No. 15 world ranking, placed in Group H alongside France, Latvia, and Lebanon, and on the same side of the bracket as powerhouses like Germany, Australia, Slovenia and 2022 European Champions Spain, who they will likely have to play if they make it as far as the second group stage.
But the Canadians will be well prepared, training for a week in Toronto before flying to Europe for what was far and away the most competitive slate of international friendlies in the history of the program, going 3-2 against Germany, New Zealand, Germany, Spain and the Dominican Republic. On Monday, they landed in Jakarta, Indonesia, after taking a mix of chartered and commercial planes along the way.
On the other side of the bracket are the United States and Dominican Republic, two teams that could pose a real threat to Canada’s goal of finishing in the top-two from the Americas in part because of how weak their side of the bracket is. The United States brought a roster stacked full of NBA players, while the Dominican Republic added Karl-Anthony Towns — who hasn’t played internationally since 2013 — to a roster that already beat Argentina in World Cup qualifying.
However, even with that in mind, Canada has stumbled upon some luck, with many of the best players in the world sitting out of the tournament due to injuries, rest or simply because the Olympics are happening as soon as next July. The absent superstars include Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Serbia’s Nikola Jokic, France’s Victor Wembanyama, and Spain’s Ricky Rubio, to name a few. Even the heavily-favoured United States are vulnerable, lacking top-end talent while being youthful and inexperienced in international play.
One thing that Canada has over the United States and most basketball powerhouses is the hunger to finally get over the mountain top and the knowledge that comes with their past failures, the most recent being an overtime loss to the Czech Republic in the the semifinal of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in 2021.
“Yeah it was tough. We didn't really know what to say,” Dort said about the team’s mindset following the loss. “... But at the end of the game we all had a conversation in the locker room of like: if we want to do this for real, we all got to commit to it and come every summer. And I feel like the message really passed well as all the guys are here right now.”
“That’s how you learn in life,” Fernandez said about Team Canada’s past experiences. “When you get slapped in the face and you feel like you should accomplish something and you don’t get it, now you have another opportunity and you show up again and you do it with a better attitude, you do it with a better commitment, and we’re just seeing it here.
“It’s not how I feel, it’s what we all see.”
Many longtime fans of the Canadian team won’t believe it until they see it despite all the evidence pointing in the right direction. After all, there have been times where it feels like this team is cursed, losing in the most dramatic way in the most dramatic games. And there is no doubt that this World Cup is going to be competitive even for the most talented teams, with the win-or-go-home nature of the knockout stage inevitably leading to upsets.
But this team has as good a chance as any to not only get out of its group, but to find itself on the podium — its upside is that high.
“As competitors, you always want to win. And that's the main thing. I don't feel like we have anything to prove. We just want to win,” Alexander-Walker said of the team’s mindset heading into the World Cup. “And I think it's a pride to represent your country. But I think that's where things get tricky: when you start to play to beat other people and not to win. And it sounds like the same thing, but it's just a little bit different when you're not really focused on the main thing.
“And I think for us that’s just winning gold, representing Canada and doing that.”