Canada ready for 3-on-3 basketball World Cup debut
Saskatoon squad's long-term goal is to make it to 2020 Olympics
Canada has a team in the 3-on-3 basketball World Cup for the first time.
The team based out of Saskatoon has been relentless in attempting to earn a spot in this competition, and their efforts have finally come to fruition.
"We've been on the world tour for the past six years and have waited for this chance," said Michael Linklater, the squad's leader and best player. "This has been the goal for a long time."
This first-ever appearance was made possible largely by the efforts of Linklater, Michael Lieffers and Nolan Brudehl — the usual starting three — along with substitute Steve Sir. Jermaine Bucknor is taking the place of the injured Brudehl at the World Cup.
The 2018 FIBA 3x3 World Cup tournaments — there's a men's and a women's — are being held simultaneously in Manila, Philippines, where action begins late Thursday night (watch live on CBCSports.ca beginning at 11:30 p.m. ET). Canada does not have a women's entry, but the men open against Mongolia on Saturday at 4:40 a.m. ET, followed quickly by a game against Russia at 6:10 a.m. ET. The Canadians finish off pool play on Monday against the Philippines (4:50 a.m. ET) and Brazil (6:30 a.m. ET).
This is the fifth time the 3-on-3 World Cup is being held, with Serbia having won three of the previous four men's events.
Canada, ranked 14th in the world, will face two of the top six teams in the world in Russia (No. 3) and Brazil (No. 6). Only the top two teams in each of the four pools advance to the quarter-final knockout round.
"Being in this group is no surprise to us," Linklater said. "We're used to being put in groups like this because of our ranking, but we're confident and coming home with a medal is the plan."
Linklater is considered one of the most savvy and skilled players in the 3-on-3 game and was voted the most spectacular player in the world league just a year ago.
Linklater is Nehiyaw, from Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan (He'll be one of the award recipients at this year's Indspire Awards, which honour outstanding individuals in Indigenous communities and will be broadcast on June 24 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC, CBC Radio One and cbc.ca/watch.
He grew up in the inner city of Saskatoon and fell in love with basketball at the age of 11. The sport came naturally to him. Linklater spent a lot of time in those early days perfecting his dribble, drive and shot on streets and local outdoor courts.
He played high school basketball in the city, won a national university championship with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies and then went on to play professionally in the International Basketball League.
Now he finds himself back where it all began, playing street hoops, and he's having the time of his life as he prepares to represent his country at the World Cup.
"This is a childhood dream for me," Linklater said. "It means a lot to all of us to represent our country. We earned the right to be here based on our past five years of play. And we're putting Saskatoon and Canada on the map in 3-on-3 basketball."
'No place to hide'
It's only been a year since the International Olympic Committee announced 3-on-3 basketball would join the Olympic program in 2020 as part of the IOC's efforts to give the Games a more youthful and urban appeal.
The 3-on-3 game is pretty simple. It's typically played outdoors on a half court with one basket. Teams are allowed one sub on the bench. The shot clock starts at 12 seconds (half as much time as NBA players get). Shots made from inside the arc, as well as free throws, are worth one point. Shots made from beyond the arc are worth two. When the defensive team gains possession of the ball, they have to take it out beyond the arc. Games last 10 minutes, or until a team reaches 21 points.
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"There's no place to hide in the 3-on-3 game," Linklater said. "You have to be in better shape and have to excel in all aspects of the game."
Only eight teams will qualify for each of the men's and women's tournaments at the Olympics, putting a lot of pressure on Canada to improve its ranking and earn a spot.
Linklater could have never imagined the opportunity that now presents itself, but is making it very clear he wants to be in Tokyo competing for Canada.
"The Olympics for 2020 is the goal," he said. "It's changed the way we approach the game, in a more legitimate way. We're taking care of our bodies. Nutrition. Training. Going that extra mile for that opportunity."