For the first time in a long time -- and for many people of a certain age, ever -- everything felt good about Canada Basketball this year. The trajectory of the long-suffering men's senior program was upwards. More good players were committed than ever, the absence of a few not leaving the team high and dry as in years past. To put it simply, there was optimism for a change.
But after looking like one of the best teams at the FIBA Americas tournament through three of its first four games, it all came apart for Canada. With successive losses in three straight days to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Argentina, the national team choked it all away
. It was a collapse comparable to some of the Canadian men's soccer team's work of the past, not the least of which meant it effectively knocked this country out of next year's World Cup.
Blame who you need to: The players who were there for not learning international basketball intricacies fast enough or suddenly going cold from beyond the arc. The players who weren't there. The coaching. The Venezuelan power authorities. The fact is there are always multiple layers to losses, and these add up to an abject failure given Canada's talent going in. The red and white had half of the NBA talent in the tournament on its roster, and was probably the best defensive team in Caracas (in the first of the three final gut-wrenching losses, Canada held host Venezuela to 38% shooting).Not just for the experience
But defence isn't about stats, it's about stops. And other countries have discovered that NBA talent doesn't necessarily transcend to success at the international level. The case can also be made that three of four of Canada's NBAers at the tourney (and the best ones in Tristan Thompson, Andrew Nicholson and Cory Joseph) were an average age of 22 years old.
"We didn't come here thinking we're just going to get experience. We came here hoping to win," coach Jay Triano told media on a conference call after the final loss to Argentina. "It didn't happen, but the experience was gained and I think the future is still bright and I hope that the rest of Canada continues to back these guys and not turn on them because we didn't qualify."
And there's the rub -- Triano's last sentence. What makes the fact Canada probably (more on that below) won't make next year's FIBA World Cup in Spain the most hard to swallow is the stalling of that upward trajectory. It's unlikely that the die-hard community of Canadian basketball fans will "turn on" the national program. Canada's body of work in non-hockey sporting competitions is peppered liberally with tales of heartbreaking failure and choke jobs off of unusually heavy media coverage.
The fear is that the already-thin attention they get from the casual sports fan -- and more importantly, the associated corporate support for a cash-starved program -- will begin to dry up once again, just as the plane was getting off the ground. I don't need to delve into why Canadians don't support basketball in large numbers. As four minutes on Twitter will indicate the reasons from some are myriad: From an all-to-frequent national trait of one-dimensionality to racism to some bizarre, half-baked connection with anti-Americanism. I could care less about those, as the presence of basketball nets at every school in the country for close to a century can attest.
The explosion of development of talent in Canada will continue unabated, no matter what the haters say. And while those folks will inevitably bash the likes of Anthony Bennett and Kelly Olynyk for not suiting up this summer, I will continue to have no doubt that they and others with a greater skill set will do so in the future.Long road to relevance
The concern is that stalled momentum. This was a chance to keep the team and the sport on that path to increased relevance. As it stands now, the Canadian senior men's team will likely not play a meaningful game until the Olympic play-in tournament in the summer of 2015. Sure, there's a chance we could earn one of the four "wild cards" into the World Cup, but it's a somewhat dubious process -- sound familiar, soccer fans? -- that involves paying FIBA something in the neighbourhood of $1 million as an initial application fee.
Canada's competition here will be the likes of China and Brazil. So you might understand the corporate money thing now. Steve Nash, whose joining the program as senior men's GM was the sole reason more partners signed on with Canada Basketball as sponsors, will certainly need now to weave some more financial magic.
Yet unfortunately for the time being, too many people in Canada will instead rip Nash, the 39-year-old regressing Los Angeles Lakers point guard, for not playing for his country this summer -- rather than hoping he, the GM, finds that money from a corporate sector more interested in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
"Man this hurts," Steve Nash tweeted just before the end of Canada's loss to the Dominican Republic.
It sure does, Steve.
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