You need to back up a bit to understand the 2000 Olympic team. 1998 was a rough year, with the world championships in Greece. There was dissension in terms of figuring out who was going to be the coach, which players were going to be involved in qualifying in 1999.
And that was the demarcation line. Some of the older guys didn't make the team and the younger core, the starting five and a couple other guys, the baton was passed to us. There was the coaching change as well, that summer. So, things were very different from ‘98 to ‘99.
Jay Triano wasn't coach yet. Steve Konchalski was actually the guy who put that core group of starters together. He recruited all of us. Well, Steve Nash was there in the program and Steve was going to play anyway, but Coach Konchalski got me from Virginia Commonwealth University. I was done with the program and he just reeled me back in and the rest of us followed suit.
What Jay inherited was a group that had been through the wars, had taken the beatings, had played a lot of international basketball together.
And now we were ready to take that step. We're all in our mid-to-late 20s, starting our peak years. So the timing was really good. When Jay got there, he had a fairly mature young group that knew each other inside-out and had been in a lot of games internationally together. The interesting thing is that group had been playing together for quite a few years, even in the junior program.
Everybody played somewhere in the winter to make a living, and when we came back, we were more mature, we understood each other and there was a mutual respect. So it was a very internationally savvy group that was able to qualify in 1999 for the 2000 Olympics.
We did a lot of our own team building. A lot of ‘everyday’ things. We all made sure that everybody stayed connected. You could sit in the locker room with anybody. You could have dinner with anybody. Everybody was participating in everything. I remember we were in Vancouver at Jay's house and we all played bocce ball for hours. A bunch of competitive dudes. You can imagine the smack talk that was going around!
When you go to war with people, you know what they're made of. You know who's going to stand in there, take blows and deliver blows and you know who's not. The guys that were there in ‘99? There was no question about who they were. We knew who we were. Individually, everybody had carved out their own lane professionally. But together we understood what it meant to play for Canada. It didn't matter what was going on in the winter or spring. We knew we were going to be back playing for Canada in the summer. That's just how it was. That was the commitment that we had. Without it being said, we just knew it.
That's more rare now. There's so much NBA talent now that there's different ways that players are being pulled. But you've got to remember, back then there was two NBA guys on our team, Steve Nash and Todd McCullough. The rest of us were grinding overseas. But we all knew when we got home, in April, whatever, we're back at it with the national team.
It's unfortunate that people didn't see us in 1999. They only saw the actual final game when we qualified because they aired it. But if they had seen us play throughout that whole tournament, they would have understood how good that team was.
International basketball is different than the NBA, but all of us had played so much by then that we weren't going to be shocked by anything. We weren't going to be thrown off by the fact that officials let this go, let that go, that players were flopping. Unbelievable how they flopped!
We knew how to play through and stay mentally engaged and make sure we weren't rattled. When I looked at other guys on the team, I wasn't worried. They were all going to show up when their number was called. So that created a level of confidence. Now we just had to execute the game plan.
I was a defender, so I would latch onto the perimeter guy who was a scorer. Usually we had some men in the frontcourt who were physical, who could score, but obviously, Steve Nash was the hub of everything we did offensively. So he was going to have the ball in his hands and he was going to dictate and create. Now, when we wanted Steve to score, I would have the ball in my hands and I would bring it up and let him run as a two guard and get him going offensively.
The collective idea was defensively, we had to be better than everybody. We had to get stops. We got to get into people and figure out ways to get multiple possession stops. And then we wanted to get out and run and see what we could get in transition. And then if not, we could settle it down and Steve could run something and we could get to an offensive play. But the mentality was: get stops, get out, get stops, get out. And you know, we were able to do that for a lot of the games of 1999 and the Olympics as well.
We had a five and two record and ended up seventh! So it doesn't make sense. But the way it's formulated, we lost at the wrong time and it changed our fortunes. But we did it in the Olympics as well. We got out, ran, defended hard, made it difficult, and we had a lot of success.
It was creative. If teams were shooter heavy, you didn't want to pack it into a zone and see them let fly from the perimeter. So we'd have to adjust. We played a lot of man-D, a little bit of zone here and there, but Jay trusted that we could execute game plans. And of course, you're directing and shading players to certain areas of the floor where the help is going to be. So your rotations are intact. So you do all of that stuff and then you adjust on the fly. But we played primarily man to man and and that was our bread and butter. Jay adjusted well and we adjusted well accordingly.
The first game was against Australia… playing Australia in Australia, the first game of the Olympics? That is a recipe for disaster. They are at home. They're going to get every call. The fans are going to be rabid. It just was not a great scenario. But in our group internally, we loved it! We loved the fact that we were going to get everything thrown at us the first game of the Olympics. That's what we're here for. We're going to experience everything. Let's get it going.
In the first half, Australia was giving it to us. They were getting what they wanted. It was too easy. Australia had their way and they made some adjustments at halftime. But in the locker room we were steaming because we were thinking to ourselves: This is not what we came here for. We didn't come here to let Australia just do what they wanted. To a man, you could almost see everybody say, ‘Enough. Let's go out there and play. Let's go out there and do what we do’.
And we were able to take it to Australia.
We came out the second half and executed at such a high level and were able to win that first game against Australia, which was huge. And you know, we talk about losses, but we lost a half there and we had to figure out in a few minutes at halftime how to get better.
So that was a moment you realize: Okay, you're at the Olympics, you see the rings, you go through the opening ceremony. Wow, this is awesome. But now the ball's thrown in the air and it's like, forget that stuff, it's time to play. This is what we're here for.
That win helped us focus and sharpen for what was ahead, because we beat Yugoslavia next and we hadn’t beaten Yugoslavia in years at that point. They were a very strong team, a difficult team. But we were able to get the W and when I think back to it, if we didn't have that adversity against Australia, I don't know if we would have been as sharp going into the Yugoslavia game. So the timing was perfect. It fed our confidence. We realised that we belong here. There's a reason we made it to the Olympics.
It was devastating when we lost to France and we got knocked out of contention. I remember I got chosen for urine testing, because it's random. I was walking with the tester from FIBA. And I just collapsed in the hallway. Everything in me gave out. A lifelong dream to get a medal in the Olympics was over. It just shut my body down.
I’m sobbing. I'm on the ground. And I had to go do this test. And I went, did it. Came back to the locker room and guys were just broken. When you think about putting everything into something. And then it's over. It took so much out of me. And rightfully so.
That dream was over. That's not a great memory. But it happened.
There's a picture of me walking off the court when we lost to France. My arm was around Steve and my hand was on his chest. And he's crying.
He broke down in the locker room. I broke down later on. Players were just…we were all a shambles. That's when you know people care.
When I bump into any of those guys from the 2000 team we don't harp on it. We just know we're all connected. You know, when we see each other, it's an unspoken understanding about what we accomplished. But we don't talk about it. We don't relish that moment. It's good to see people after a while and you hope everybody's okay, but we're bonded for life, from that perspective.
Years later, when I started doing coaching work with the national team, I'm not sure how many of those young players watched our Olympic run, but they definitely knew what we did. You don't ever want to be the coach who says “when I played, this is how we did it” so I didn't talk about that a lot. But the players I coached were very respectful of the fact that we accomplished something that they want to accomplish eventually.
And the Canadian men, playing in the FIBA Worlds this summer? I think the talent level is off the charts. I hope they've played enough international basketball together to get it done. They're way more talented than we ever were. Collectively. But there was something we had that they never had, which was that consistency of meeting up every summer and going through the grind together.
I think the conversations that they have should only be about the medals. That's the kind of talent that’s on this current team. It should only be podium talk. Slippage would be a bronze, for this team, in my opinion. They should be competing for gold because of their talent level. The only team that could beat them we would argue is the USA. But we would also argue that Canada could legitimately beat America at this juncture.
I'm really, really interested to see how this shakes down. Because as we know, talent doesn't always go hand-in-hand with winning. So I'd like to see it come together and see how good our country could be, because if it comes together, we are going to be a nightmare for years to come.
Top, large image: Sherman Hamilton at the FIBA World Cup, 1998. (Desmond Boylan/The Canadian Press)
This essay was based on an interview that CBC Sports producer David Giddens conducted with Sherman Hamilton.