Canada Basketball on rebound with congress

Umar Ali reports on how inaugural Canadian Basketball Congress, held this past weekend in Toronto, tried to address to some of the issues plaguing Canada's national basketball programs.

The landscape of basketball in Canada has changed drastically over the years.

From the success of the national program in the 1970s and 1980s, coached by the late Jack Donohue, to the arrival of the NBA and the achievements of one of Canada's own, Victoria's Steve Nash, on the game's biggest stage, it would lead one to believe Canadian basketball expanded as the game itself increased in popularity.

Yet the fortunes of basketball in the Great White North appear not to have developed as expected over the years. In fact, it is even seen to have regressed.

"Three years ago, the picture of Canada Basketball was not a rosy one," said Wayne Parrish, the federation's chief executive officer and executive director.

"The organization had made some significant financial missteps and was mired in the quagmire with a deficit of $1.3 million, a stillborn membership program, the prospect of declining government funding, one remaining unhappy sponsor that was bent on fleeing as soon as its contract expired and modest prospects on the international stage."

In response, Canada Basketball held the inaugural Canadian Basketball Congress at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto last weekend to address some of the issues plaguing the national basketball programs. 

"It's just an opportunity to get together and speak about the issues that we face [in] the national team programs as well as the development and progress of the sport," said USA Basketball executive director Jim Tooley. "As I understand it, I think Canada Basketball would like to unite their stakeholders in this country that are operating basketball programs so that they can galvanize a group to move forward and progress with their national team programs."

Among the "shareholders" in attendance were the directors of provincial programs, Team Canada officials and coaches, NBA Canada officials, Toronto Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo and head coach Jay Triano, representatives from Canadian university programs and a lengthy list of the who's who in Canadian hoops.

The congress was given the opportunity to hear from three of the most influential men in international basketball: FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann, FIBA Americas secretary general Alberto Garcia and Tooley.

There were a number of topics on discussion — building a sports culture, paradigm shifts, recruiting women and visible minorities and introducing new Canadians to the game — yet the ultimate goal of the event may have been to act as a means to unite the various factions.

"It seems to me there are two agendas," Baumann said. "One is certainly that basketball in Canada has potential, but the structure of the federation, as well as its stakeholder's institutions, [are] maybe not as coherent or consistent as it could be … I think, next to it, there is a whole system of institutions which are not directly part of the federation, but have a great impact on the growth of the game.

"The second part could be specific things like having 3-on-3 as a community development of the game. That's good.

"But if the first part doesn't work, it's going to be purely community-based work, it won't lead basketball to the next level. It will still require all the people that really have a stake in the institutions, as well as those that are on the margin but have bidding for the growth of the game, to work together."

In spite of the divide between the various parties involved, Canadian basketball has emerged from its dark days and has not been in a better place in quite some time.

Remarkably, Canada Basketball enjoyed its third consecutive year in the black. It also developed a national membership program with some $300,000 in revenuesacquired three major sponsors in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., Bell Canada and Nike International and launched a successful lobby that resulted in the Canadian government establishing $6 million in new incremental funding for team sport.

Additionally, the sudden emergence of quality Canadian players in U.S. high schoolS and in the collegiate ranks suggest there may still be hope of Canada returning to its glory days on the court. Last year, Canada was in elite company as it was only one of five nations to have its three men's and women's national teams — cadet, junior and senior — participate in world campionships. 

Though the conference did have its share of radical ideas — Triano suggested the CIS consider adopting professional players to establish the nation's first professional league — there was no single solution on how to improve the sport within the nation.

Considering where the program was a few years back, however, the steps towards respectability may already be underway.