U19 win points to bright future for Canadian basketball
Historic World Cup title turns heads
Michele O'Keefe is still giddy from the weekend.
The CEO of Canada Basketball has just returned to her Toronto office on Monday morning after an overnight flight from Cairo, Egypt, where the Canadian men's under-19 team won the FIBA World Cup tournament for its age group.
O'Keefe had the honour of handing out the gold medals to the team after a 79-60 victory over Italy in the final.
You can forgive her excitement. Basketball in Canada has never experienced this kind of international success. In fact, it is the first time that a Canadian team — men or women — has ever won an official world title at any level.
"I'm sitting here and I feel like I'm playing whack-a-mole because things are all over the place. We've never been world champions. We don't actually have a plan", O'Keefe says with a laugh over the phone.
In the short term, the plan is to capitalize on the glow this win has created.
"We have a call with our sponsorship group to figure out how to leverage this," O'Keefe says. "It was fantastic that people across the country could watch this — the team was trending on Twitter.
"To accomplish what we have never accomplished before is spectacular. As for the future, I'm hoping this could be a real solidifying moment for the basketball community in this country."
This event was a coming out-party for many on the Canadian team. Tournament MVP R.J. Barrett was dominant, highlighted by his performance against the Americans in the semifinals.
Playing against players as much as two years older than him, Barrett scorched the U.S. for 38 points, baffling whoever the Americans tasked with defending him.
"The reality was, one kid really went crazy, and then the rest of their kids did what they did, so hats off to them," U.S. head coach John Calipari told reporters. "Congratulate Canada, they deserved to win the game."
Barrett still has one more year of high school, but he's widely regarded as the No. 1 college recruit in the high school class of 2019, with Calipari's University of Kentucky a widely rumoured possible destination.
"Everyone has talked about R.J. Barrett for the last couple of years," she says. "But I think a couple of other players like Abu Kijab (committed to Oregon) and Danilo Djuricic (Harvard), Lindell Wiggington (Iowa State) stepped up. While they have all had a little attention along the way, I think now people are looking at Canada in a different way."
O'Keefe acknowledges that some may try to diminish this Canadian victory, pointing to the star players missing from the American roster. For example, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball — the top two picks in last month's NBA draft — were both eligible to play but were instead suiting up against much better competition in the NBA Summer League.
But teams playing in international tournaments rarely have their perfect rosters.
"All of [the U.S. players] are expected to be eventually drafted to the NBA in the next of few years," O'Keefe says.
"I think now we are at a point where our Canadian athletes are better prepared to compete and to win."
O'Keefe says Canada Basketball has put in place many programs to identify, nurture and develop the best players in the country. Canadian teams are no longer just happy to be competing. Success is now expected, not just desired.
"I had a conversation with the coach of Argentina on the way home last night," O'Keefe says. "And he said 'We've watched it happen over time. We would beat you and then you would beat us by 10, then beat us by 20, then beat us by 30 and it's continuing and we have watched it develop over time."
The question now is what will the success of this younger generation mean for Canada's senior national team?
That squad has struggled in recent years. It failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics and has had difficulty maintaining a consistent core of players willing to represent Canada in the necessary tournaments around the world.
"Right now we are vulnerable because we have such a small number of men ready at the senior level," O'Keefe acknowledges. "Having this next generation of guys, with this experience of being world champions, gives us another 12 guys at the table chomping to get to the next level."
The groundwork is already there. If all the parts fall into place (always a big if), it's conceivable the Canadian men's team at the 2020 Olympics could be composed exclusively of NBA players, including Jamal Murray, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Nik Stauskas.
O'Keefe cautions that it's likely only a handful of players from this U19 team will be ready to contribute in 2020, when Canada aspires to reach the podium.
"The U19 team has had an experience unlike any of other Canadian national team at that age, so hopefully they will be prepared faster."
For now, those in the Canadian basketball community, and fans of the game in this country, can take a moment to enjoy a Canadian first.