Powell: Opportunity to play for Canada in Tokyo worth the seven-week sacrifice

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Battling back from a devastating Achilles injury, in a condensed NBA season that was already exhausting enough, Dwight Powell could have taken the summer off to rest.

But the chance to play for Canada at the Tokyo Olympics has him with the national team in Tampa, Fla., a commitment that will — if all goes well — last 53 days and take him through Florida, Victoria, B.C., Hawaii and Tokyo.

"When you are asked to spend seven weeks on someone else's schedule, it's challenging and especially in these strange COVID pandemic times," Powell said after the team's first practice Wednesday. "But when that reason is to compete for your country, it makes the decision a little bit easier.

"For the guys that are here, we are all on the same page in terms of we know what we are giving up . . . The sacrifice is secondary to the fact that this is an opportunity to represent our country and compete for something that we all hold very near and dear to our hearts. We know that we can make our families and our country proud."

Powell's presence is good news for a Canadian team missing NBA big men Kelly Olynyk, Khem Birch and Tristan Thompson, according to the FIBA roster released Wednesday. While Olynyk and Birch were on Canada Basketball's invitation list, they're both about to become NBA free agents.

Golden State guard and former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins is back in the national team fold for the first time since the 2015 FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament. Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans), RJ Barrett (New York), Oshae Brissett (Indiana), Dillon Brooks (Memphis), Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma City), Cory Joseph (Detroit), Trey Lyles (San Antonio), and Mychal Mulder (Golden State) are the other NBA players on Canada's roster for the Olympic qualifying tournament June 29 to July 4 in Victoria.

The Canadian team is practising at the Toronto Raptors' temporary practice facility in Tampa, as is Canada's women's team, which qualified for Tokyo in February 2020.

The players won't be able to leave the team between now and the end of the Olympics. If Canada wins the six-team qualifier in Victoria, the team will travel to Hawaii for final Tokyo preparations.

It's also a quick turnaround for head coach Nick Nurse, whose Raptors ended their season on May 16.

"You guys have asked me in the past 'Why do you do this job?' . . . National team basketball is amazing. And it starts with the commitment and the love that players put into it," Nurse said. "It's some national pride that's hard to surpass, the passion is really enjoyable to be around."

For Powell, the one-year Olympic postponement was perhaps the single silver lining in an otherwise horrible year. The 29-year-old forward from Toronto ruptured his Achilles tendon on Jan. 21, 2020. The realization that his Olympic dreams likely evaporated in that moment, he said, was "devastating."

But with the Olympics postponed a year, the opportunity returned.

"To have the opportunity to compete with Canada on my chest . . . it's rare, unique, an honour, really, to have that opportunity. It's kind of hard to put into words what it means exactly," the Dallas Mavericks forward said. "I think it's understood from a young age. It's a goal. It's a privilege. It's an honour.

"You're representing a lot of people who don't get this chance to wear Canada on their chest. We have a lot of love and gratitude for our nation. This is our best way to try to honour that."

The Canadian men haven't played on the Olympic stage since Steve Nash led them to a 5-2 record and seventh-place finish in 2000 in Sydney.

Rowan Barrett, the GM of Canada Basketball's men's program, was on that team, and fondly remembers the galvanizing experience of their Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico. When Canada acquired the Victoria qualifying tournament, the plan was to have a crowd of noisy Canadians cheering the team on. COVID-19 had other ideas.

As of now, COVID-19 protocols mean fans won't be permitted, but Barrett is hopeful.

"If we can get that home-court advantage, get the wind at your back, in the big game, and help put some pressure on the other team, it's what we face constantly when we go to play and so to be able to maybe have that for us this year would be tremendous," he said.

The other key player missing for Canada is Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray, who torn his ACL on April 12.

Nurse sported a beard for his media availability, but said it would be gone by the end of the day — "the barber's in the house." If the coach took any well-deserved down time after an NBA season that saw the Raptors rocked by a COVID outbreak in March, it was back to business Wednesday.

"There's nothing else better I'd rather be doing," he said. "I'm super appreciative of the guys that are here. We've been in the (NBA) bubble (last summer) in Orlando, a lot of these guys were there as well. We've played in front of no fans. We've gone through all these protocols. There's been testing, like 400 straight days of testing or whatever it was. And we're back in pretty heavy protocols again, and not to mention contracts and body and rest and family, and the list goes on and on and on and on.

"So the point is, what does it mean? It means everything that they've committed. It really does."

Canada opens the six-team qualifying tournament June 29 versus Greece, then plays China the following day. Group B has the Czech Republic, Turkey and Uruguay.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2021

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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