Canada's women's basketball team commanding attention as serious Olympic medal threats

Through three generations, Canada's women's basketball team has fought battles on and off the court. Funding and exposure were long considered insufficient. But with those issues slowly being won, the fourth-ranked squad can finally focus on one long-standing goal: the Olympic podium.

But qualification comes first; Watch Canada's games live on CBC Sports

Canada's Lizanne Murphy high fives a fan in the crowd after the Canadians defeated the U.S. for gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

You can't be what you can't see.

That's the mantra you'll hear from the Canadian women's basketball team, whether it's coming from 1984 Olympian Beverly Smith, 2012 and 2016 Olympian Lizanne Murphy, or 2020 Olympic hopeful Kayla Alexander.

The three players represent the through-line of a Canadian women's basketball program that has had its share of success.

There were third-place finishes at the world championships in 1976 and 1986, with a fourth-place Olympic finish sandwiched between in 1984. Smith was a key player in those early successes before returning for her stint as head coach from 1997-2001.

However, Canada failed to return to the Olympics until 1996, where it placed 11th, and by 2005 the national team had slumped to 24th in the worldwide rankings.

That nadir coincided with Murphy's debut, when the team began its slow ascent back to the Olympics in 2012 and 2016. Today, with the Tokyo Games six months away and qualification potentially six days away, the fourth-ranked team can safely consider itself a medal contender.

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Murphy recalls the 2010 world championships, where Canada finished 1-7, as relative turning point because of the precedent training camp.

"The joke in training camp was 40 days and 40 nights and we spent that much time together and that's what allowed us to have historic results," Murphy said. "And then moving forward you're able to have more training camps, better quality training camps and that's what ultimately makes the team come together and gel."

Those "historic results" were not immediately felt at those world championships, but less than two years later, on Canada Day in 2012, the team finally clinched its return to the Olympics when it gained a berth in the London tournament.

The eighth-place result there served as a launching pad for 2015 Pan Am gold in Toronto, and another gold at the 2016 FIBA Americas tournament. The Rio Games resulted in seventh place.

Murphy hung them up in 2017, and Alexander laced them up with the national team for the first time in 2018.

Alexander, 29, from Milton, Ont., burst onto the international scene at the 2019 FIBA Americup in September, where she was named an all-star after pulling down a tournament-high 10.2 rebounds per game and adding a team-high 15.6 points per game, too.

However, she suffered a knee injury in the semifinals against Brazil, keeping her out of the eventual gold-medal game loss to the Americans.

Alexander said recently she "should be good to go full force" for the team's upcoming Olympic qualifier in Belgium. Fourth-ranked Canada is grouped with the hosts (No. 9), Japan (No. 10) and Sweden (No. 22). With the Olympics in Tokyo, the Japanese side has an automatic bid.

In Belgium, each team will play the other once, and the top two squads outside of Japan will book berths for the Tokyo Games.

CBC Sports will carry live coverage for all of Canada's games, beginning on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. ET against the hosts.

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CBC Sports' Meg Roberts interviews Canada women's national basketball team coach Lisa Thomaidis ahead of the FIBA OIympic qualifiers in Ostend, Belgium. 2:35

All of Smith, Murphy and Alexander expect qualification, and probably a good shot at the Olympic podium, too.

Canadian women's basketball is on the rise, and with that comes increased exposure. You can't be what you can't see, but more and more the team is, indeed, being seen.

One benefit of returning to the Olympics in 2012 was increased funding provided by Canadian Olympic initiative Own The Podium, which identifies medal contenders and offers support through money and resources.

But playing in London also increased exposure, and less than a year later the city of Edmonton stepped up with an initial $2 million outlay and a permanent place for the team to call home, a reversal of the nomadic lifestyle both Murphy and Smith pointed to as a major hurdle to the team's success.

"It's more than just a game at that [Olympic] level. It is representing your country and representing the thousands of young girls that may have watched you then, but are certainly watching you now," Smith said.

Smith only had good things to say about her time with the team as a player.

"We didn't know any different, right? It was very relative and so representing our country in 1984 or 1978 when I first began was as big of a thrill, if not bigger as it is now," Smith said.

Smith, centre, oversees a practice during her time as an assistant coach in Edmonton in July 2016. (Dan Riedlhuber/The Canadian Press)

In 2001, Smith had taken the job as head coach of the women's basketball team at the University of Oregon and originally planned to continue in her role as national team coach too, but found the struggle for funding too much.

"I don't have the right energy for [the national team] because I'm looking at all the battles I can't win," Smith told CBC Sports at the time. "For so long, we've tried to do the best that we could with what we had and where we were and that's just not enough anymore."

Today, Smith still says that the funding has rarely, if ever, reached the desired level, but also understands the question marks surrounding a potential return on investment.

"What's happened is we are using our funding in a more efficient and more effective way and I think when I was coaching in 2001 we weren't doing a really good job of branding our young kids in the importance of fundamentals and the youth structure," Smith said.

Improved training and travel

Murphy played for Smith when the latter returned as an assistant in the four-year cycle leading up to the Rio Games.

Where Smith saw a grassroots problem, Murphy's time on the team presented more micro issues — specifically regarding training.

Murphy, who now works with the COC as a liaison to executives of the national sport organizations (such as Canada Basketball), said the team used to be reliant on other countries looking for competition against a solid, but underappreciated, Canadian squad.

Most of the time, those countries would be in Asia, which meant 30-plus hours for basketball players to be cramping their legs in a commercial airplane. Not to mention some of the weird flight connections.

The team also leaned on volunteer doctors and, at times, food provided by the players' parents.

"When we did get funding our travel just became so much easier. We took flight paths that made sense and didn't take 30 hours and didn't involve physical challenges that came along with that. We were able to have an additional physiotherapist come along with us," Murphy said.

And while the flight paths at the outset of Murphy's career may have confused some, the team's identity — or lack thereof — was blindingly clear.

Winning culture

Murphy said her first years on the team were spent trying to forge a successful, winning culture in the program. A vocal leader, Murphy was also often tasked with guarding the opponents' best players.

Those roles became not only the essence of Murphy as a player, but of the team as a whole.

"I did have a huge part in my leadership towards the end of my career continuing to bring that passion and that wild energy all the time," Murphy said, "but really parlaying that coming back to the team is so important and number one in everything you do."

Alexander got the memo.

"It's about team and I think because we play like that, we play for each other, it makes it easier. It's not like, 'how I'm gonna get my shot' or 'someone's not gonna cover for me on defence.' It's 'we're playing together for each other,'" Alexander said.

Alexander's journey to the national team was not a smooth one. She was cut twice at tryouts before being injured at a third and then finally playing with the team in 2018.

When Alexander returns to the court, the exposure will be there for a team full of young girls who once saw the likes of Smith and Murphy, then followed in their footsteps.

The question is no longer whether the team will be seen — that's a given.

The task in the coming months for Canada's women's basketball team is to be seen where it's never been seen before: standing on the Olympic podium.

"I feel like ... I was just getting a shiver thinking about that ... but I feel like the impact would be incredible. I think it would be great for young girls who are watching to say, 'wow, anything's possible if I put my mind to it."