Sleeping giant: Why Canadian basketball is just beginning its awakening

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R.J. Barrett is among the next wave of Canadian basketball talent, but more could be coming in droves as the country's development system continues to grow. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
R.J. Barrett is among the next wave of Canadian basketball talent, but more could be coming in droves as the country's development system continues to grow. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

In 1976, it took an autograph and favour from an Olympian to help a younger Canadian player reach the national team.

Fifty-five years later, those broad strokes remain true. But an increased development structure has allowed the Canadian basketball pipeline to explode.

That Olympian was Liz Silcott, who played for Canada at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The younger player was Denise Dignard, a long-time national team member and current director of women's high-performance for Canada Basketball.

Dignard, a high schooler in Port-Cartier, Que., at the time, used babysitting funds to pay her way to a top basketball camp in Lennoxville, Que., 828 kilometres away.

The counsellors at that camp, including Silcott, were 1976 Olympians.

"They signed my picture at the end of camp, 'See you on the national team one day.' Well, that's all I needed to be inspired," Dignard said in a recent interview with CBC Sports.

Silcott took special notice of Dignard, asking for her address and phone number to provide to the Quebec Basketball Federation. That was the springboard Dignard needed to land a national-team tryout and an eventual career in the sport.

Nowadays, Dignard is in charge of ensuring young women like her don't slip through the cracks — and that once they're in the Canada Basketball system, they develop as players and human beings.

The organization's recent #MadLove campaign strove to reach that next generation through handwritten letters from players and others.

"It just brought tears to my eyes because I know how powerful our athletes and the female athletes can be towards inspiring the next generation of people, whether it's that [they] want to go on to play at a high level or towards them just believing in themselves and striving to be the best that they can be and reaching new heights like many generations have before us," Dignard said.

Beyond social-media campaigning, the current state of Canadian basketball could serve as inspiration on its own.

There were Canadians on each team of the women's NCAA Final Four, and impactful men's players littered throughout the tournament. There have never been more Canadian NBA players, and Canadian WNBAers like Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton are on the rise.

Nationally, the women's team is an Olympic medal contender, ranked fourth by FIBA. The men's ceiling is just as high, though their Tokyo attendance remains in question.

Development begins at younger age

Rowan Barrett, a 2000 Olympian and general manager of the men's team, said that seeing NBA players from Canadian schools and communities impacts the next generation at a young age.

"Many of our players have been on record saying that they remember watching Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady and going down to the stadium and saying, 'OK, that's who I am. I'm not a hockey player. I'm taller than everyone else and I'm athletic,'" Barrett said.

The 58-year-old Scarborough, Ont., native has seen the Canadian player development system progress first-hand, as his son R.J. was a recent top pick of the New York Knicks and was also part of the country's first men's FIBA tournament champion at the 2017 U-19 worlds.

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He knows that while role models play a crucial role, practice is equally important. To that end, Canada Basketball began opening junior academies around 2012 throughout the country— the biggest is in Ontario — with the idea of getting players into their system by the time they're 11- or 12-year-olds.

"That helps them because if you're in seventh grade, by ninth grade you could be playing on our national teams. So now they're getting a couple of years prior where they're understanding the system, understanding how it works, understanding what's required of them, and playing in our style and our system," Barrett said.

Junior academy sessions take place over eight weekends, with students also learning off-court skills such as social-media training.

Alumni of the program include R.J. Barrett, fellow Knicks pick Ignas Brazdeikis and NCAA stars Andrew Nembhard and Marcus Carr.

Dignard said the women's program will soon open up junior academies of its own to supplement its age-group programming that begins with U-16 high-school teams and continues through college and the pros.

Around 2010, the women's team added December and March training camps in addition to the typical summer instalment.

"The increased touchpoints, the ability to be able to bring them together has made a huge difference. You have best on best. It's excellent," Dignard said.

Improvements at high school level

Due to the recent introduction of these youth programs, the payout is only just beginning, as evidenced by the increasing NCAA success.

Michael Meeks, a 2000 teammate of Barrett's, national team assistant coach and men's youth development manager, said the recent surge is a sign of things to come.

"It's still in its infancy. There's so many things that our environment can do better. And thankfully, we have an environment that's always trying to do better in terms of resources, financial infrastructure, opportunities like professional paid jobs for coaches and trainers. I think it shows the potential that is still untapped here in our country," Meeks said.

At the high school level, the emergence of the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA) has provided one pathway to keep top Canadian players in the country. As players like Jamal Murray have shown graduating from Orangeville Prep in Ontario, it's possible to stay in Canada and become an NBA all-star.

Meeks, left, and Rowan Barrett, right, compete at the 2002 FIBA world championships.
Meeks, left, and Rowan Barrett, right, compete at the 2002 FIBA world championships.(Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images)

The OSBA provides top competition and schedules with an eye to development. For example, other high school programs may stuff four games into one week, where the OSBA would have three practices and two games.

But for every Murray, there's a Caleb Houstan, a Mississauga, Ont., native and top prospect just graduating from Montverde Academy in Florida.

"I still think that the best kids in Canada would probably be better served, at this current time, going to where there are just more kids. But our goal and our focus is to strengthen the environment here so that that can happen here," Meeks said.

CEBL impact

The same calculus is currently happening for players about the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL), an emerging pro circuit which requires rosters to be 70 per cent Canadian.

Backed by Canada Basketball, the CEBL is a local option for basketball pros who may otherwise be forced to play on another continent.

John Lashway, a CEBL executive and former senior vice president of communications with the Toronto Raptors, said he had conversations about a national league as far back as 1995 at the outset of the franchise with now-Canada Basketball president and former Raptors executive Glen Grunwald.

"It's an opportunity for young players to have something local to aspire to. Most kids dream of being in the NBA, but they're smart enough to know they're not going to get there." Lashway said.

The CEBL is built on similar principles to Canada Basketball's development program, such as involving the community to foster interest in basketball by creating gyms, nurturing coaches and referees alongside players and simply providing another basketball pathway.

Funding shortage

It also faces the same main problem: funding.

Three years into its existence, the CEBL is not profitable. For Canada Basketball, Dignard said the women's program could use funding to help reach the podium, while Meeks said the men's team needs more money to compete with the powerhouse that is USA Basketball.

But funding often follows success, and the summer of 2021 presents a golden opportunity with the Tokyo Olympics and fourth CEBL season ahead.

A trip to the podium would solidify that Canadian basketball is just arriving.

"There's just this great vibe from people who have contributed to the women's game and developing young females. There's just this huge Canadian pride and it just really speaks to the power of contributing to help a young person to achieve their goals and dreams," Dignard said.

Barrett, meanwhile, projects the number of Canadian NBAers to grow as large as 40 within five years. There were 17 to begin the current season.

"Knowledge is power, right? There's much more information at the fingertips for parents, for athletes and a pathway in front of them that they've seen that they can walk."

In 2021, Canadian basketball hopefuls are much closer than 828 km away from the next step.