CBC Sports Oral Histories: How a basketball team captivated a nation, and inspired a new generation

CBC Sports Oral Histories: How a basketball team captivated a nation, and inspired a new generation


By Myles Dichter, CBC Sports
June 27, 2021
 

"Joy and pain."

That's how Rowan Barrett describes the Canadian men's basketball experience at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Barrett, who played on that team, now serves as its general manager.

The team hasn't been back to the Olympics since that eye-opening summer in Australia, when an early run of success gave way to a heart-breaking defeat.

Canada still hasn't earned an Olympic basketball medal since 1936, a silver won on a clay court amid pouring rain in Nazi Germany.

Here's a look back at those 2000 Games, which began with a big win to get them a spot in Sydney.

 

 

Doug Smith, Toronto Star reporter: They beat Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico to get to the Olympics. That's probably one of the top five Canadian wins of all time.

Barrett: The game wasn't even close in the second half. That game leading into the Olympics, that's your last memory. And so you're thinking a lot about that when you're going into whatever the games are in the Olympics.

Jay Triano, Canadian head coach: After that it was like, OK, who's going to be part of this team at the Olympics? What changes can we make? What changes should we make? … We decided to slowly make our way from a training camp in Vancouver.

Barrett: We played the U.S. team on the way in Hawaii. And then we went to Asia, and I think we played against Yao Ming and China.

Michael Meeks, forward: By the time we were stepping foot on Australian soil, we'd been there multiple times leading up to the Sydney Games. It was a familiar environment to us. There were no surprises. There were no distractions. It was pretty status quo.

Canada's Michael Meeks dunks the ball for two of his 16 points against Puerto Rico during semifinal action at the Pre-Olympic Basketball Tournament of the Americas at July 24, 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Canada's 83-71 win assured them a trip to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Canada's Michael Meeks dunks the ball for two of his 16 points against Puerto Rico during semifinal action at the Pre-Olympic Basketball Tournament of the Americas at July 24, 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Canada's 83-71 win assured them a trip to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Smith: Once Canada qualified, I think it was fun that they were going to be in there. I don't think anybody knew that they would be that good. That was [a] relatively new era of the Dream Team, too. So basketball at the Olympics had a greater focus because of the American teams there.

Triano: We had the players’ attention for sure, because we were 1-3 in the four games preceding the Olympics.

Meeks: I wish I could actually say that it was awe-inspiring, but the Olympic Games, the way I approached it, it was like another tournament. I didn't let the stage get in the way of what I was doing every single day for the last 15 years before that.

Barrett: Whether it's a defensive stop, it’s a rotation, whether it's a rebound, whether it's a shot or a screen or whatever it is at that moment, we felt really confident that our group could do that in that moment.

Meeks: [Each day] I got up, went to the weight room, got a lift in, ate breakfast, came back to a team meeting, got on the bus, competed, went back to the village, went to go eat dinner, came back, team meeting, went to bed, and repeat.

There's such a fine line when you get to that stage of being able to have a medal around your neck or going home without one.

Canada’s opening game of the Olympic tournament was against the higher-ranked host team, Australia.

Barrett: We had gone to Australia the year before. We had played this team five times in their own country. We played them multiple times in different cities. We played in Sydney. I think we played in Adelaide. We played them so many times that we'd beaten them. They beat us. We beat them.

Triano: I remember our sports psychologist, David Cox, coming into the locker room before the first game and he said, ‘We got this, we got this.’ I said, ‘What do you mean we got this?’ And he said, ‘[The Australian team] are out there signing autographs and waving to the crowd and everything. Our guys are all locked in. There's no emotion on their face. They're locked in.’

Barrett: I just remember, like, OK, we're going to beat these guys in front of the whole country, on TV, like I think all the pressure was with them.

Smith: Australians are rabid basketball fans, and the Canadians didn't seem at all bothered by it.

Canada's head coach Jay Triano, left, and Steve Nash hug after their win over Puerto Rico at the Pre-Olympic Basketball Tournament of the Americas on July 24, 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Getty Images) Canada's head coach Jay Triano, left, and Steve Nash hug after their win over Puerto Rico at the Pre-Olympic Basketball Tournament of the Americas on July 24, 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Getty Images)
 

Triano: I remember walking in the room and everybody just sitting there staring straight ahead. I was like, ‘Hey, you guys, smile, relax, we’re at the Olympic Games, let's enjoy this. I don't want you [to be] afraid. Don't go in there scared. Let's just enjoy where we are and what we get to do right now. We're more than prepared. I can't give you any rah rah right now. I can't give you any X's and O's. We've talked about all that. Let's just go and enjoy the moment.’

Barrett: They matched up differently in that game than they had any other game previous. I didn't look at it like these guys had something they're pulling out of the hat. I looked at it more like you don't think that you can [stop] what we do. So you're changing what you do to play against us.

Smith: [Canada] won by 11. They won relatively easily and that's when I thought maybe this Canadian team was going to be a bit of a story.”

Triano: We played very well in that opening game and it kind of set the tone for the rest of the tournament for us.

Smith: I remember being in a bar after the game. They show highlights of the game and all the highlights were of Australians doing something. And then they finally said, ‘Oh, yeah, they lost to Canada.’

Barrett: [Steve] Nash was amazing that game. Nash had 15 assists, I mean, the ball was humming all over the court. He was making the decisions, just picking them apart.

 
 

Nash also added 15 points in the 101-90 victory. Meeks led Canada with 27 points, while Barrett was second with 21 points.

Smith: [Nash] was absolutely the star of the team. But he was just one of the guys. And I think that gave everybody a galvanizing sort of thing. Steve's out here playing 38 minutes and laying it on the line and not using his position as an NBA star to demand any extra treatment.

Triano: We had to buy him a first-class ticket to the Olympics to show the [NBA] players association. We take off on the flight to go and he's sitting in a middle seat in economy with people around him. I said, ‘Dude, we had to buy you this seat.’ And he was like, ‘I know. I gave it to the seven footers. They're going to break it up and take turns sitting in the first class.’

Barrett: We're really good friends and we were from the first day I ever met him. I think he was 16 and I was 17, 18. And it just clicked immediately. A great guy that clearly cares about the team [first].

Simon Whitfield, 2000 Olympics triathlon champion: I met him in the village and had an opportunity to sit on the front steps of our dorm and chat to him. Here I am thinking that this is about to get real serious and the wonder of what is going to happen. And he was able to just put a bit of a spin of ‘just enjoy it,’ but also make fun of it a little bit, because in the end it's just sport.

So many of us began to model how we were as an athlete on what Steve was doing as a basketball player, but also as a leader and community-involved athlete.

Meeks: You really, truly felt like he always had the team's best interest in mind. And then on top of that, he's a great player. He made you look good. He made the game easy for you. And people like playing with people who make the game easy for them.

Triano: He found a way to keep everybody involved. And I think that's the sign of a true point guard.

Barrett: He had so much ability. It's almost like you had to guilt him into using it because he was so concerned about everyone else and making sure everyone else was doing well, that sometimes he wouldn’t always bring all of his abilities to the game. And it's like, wait a minute, Steve. No, no, no. You're the best shooter on this team. I don't know that we can win if you only take seven shots.

Smith: It turned out to be pretty prescient in the way his career unfolded. He was very much about being a team guy first, and he was that with Canada.

Barrett: The trust, the calm that you feel when he has the ball -- I can't describe that. But knowing that he has the ball, bringing it up the floor, there's always a feeling like we're OK.

 

Canada’s next game was a 99-54 rout of Angola, a team effort with Barrett chipping in 21 points.

Triano: It was a 9 a.m. game. I talked to our guys about it being like we were hockey kids because we all grew up with hockey in our country. And when did you have ice time? You had ice time like 5:30 in the morning and kids in Canada get up to go get ice time if they have it at 5:30 in the morning.

Smith: Angola was an easy win.

Triano: Sure enough, we go out and we beat Angola by [45] in a game that started at nine o'clock in the morning because we were physically and mentally prepared to play a game at nine o'clock.

Two days later, Canada earns an impressive 91-77 win over Spain. Meeks leads the way with 24 points on perfect 8-for-8 shooting, including four three-pointers and four free-throw makes on as many attempts.

Smith: Spain was a bit of an eye opener.

Meeks: I think I had like 27 points and didn't miss a shot. Just felt like 50. It was like momentum that was building. It was like our time was coming.

Triano: They're big, I said, so we have to be fast. And I pointed to the big guys and, ‘You guys got to be faster.’ If we get into a half court with that kid, he's really big and strong and he's good. And I just remember our bigs were the first bigs down the floor. We threw the ball over top. We got layup, layup, dunk because our bigs ran the floor.

 
 

Now with a surprising 3-0 record, Canada drops a 77-59 decision to Russia. But the Canadians' final round-robin match against Yugoslavia would decide the group winner.

Triano: The game against Russia hurt us. We lost by 18 and Russia played well and we did not have a good game. We had our first subpar performance. So what are you going to do? Is that going to be who we are? Or are we going to bounce back?

Smith: That was very much a David and Goliath thing. Yugoslavia was stacked. That was a very, very good team.

Triano: I remember they scored a three to kind of scare us a little bit. And Steve came right back down and hit another three and they came down and made a shot and then Steve came right back down and hit a three. So any time they made a little bit of a push on us, Steve kind of hit another shot to kind of give us a little bit of a cushion.

Barrett: That's the world champs. I mean, that's a huge game. And once again, I'm thinking if we get down into the last few minutes and this game is close, we're going to beat these guys. And it's exactly what happened, like word for word.

Triano: One of the final possessions in the game, I said ‘I need five guys on the glass. We're not running.’ And I remember looking and the shot went up. I swear there were 10 Canadian hands on the one basketball for that rebound. I just knew right then the game was over.

Barrett: I just think that that confidence, having gone through some of those wars, even though we weren't maybe, on paper, the more talented team, that's what happens in team sports, right? You have to actually play the games.

 
 

Canada clinches top spot in its group with the 83-75 win over Yugoslavia, carried by Nash’s 26 points and eight assists. It sets up a quarter-final against France, which finished fourth in its group.

Smith: Who are they going to play in the semifinals? Because having beaten Australia, Spain, Yugoslavia -- France was good. Everybody knew France was pretty good, but they certainly weren't seen as a serious threat.

Barrett: We were believing that, look, we stick to our principles, we do the things that got us here, we keep going, we execute the game plan and we'll get the outcome. And so that was the focus.

Meeks: We were as good as any team in the tournament and if things were going our way we were going to win and even if they weren't going our way, I felt like we just had enough experience entirely to weather any storm.

Smith: It was, ‘OK, we've got to get this one and then we're going to have two games to play for medal for the first time since 1936.’ I don't think they took France lightly, but it wasn't as imposing a team as Yugoslavia was, for instance.

Triano: What I don't think we expected was that they would be so physical. Especially with a guy on Steve. They played a guy that, to be honest, barely showed up on our scouting report because he'd only played like seven minutes in the five games prior.

Meeks: Makan Dioumassi, and he was doing a pretty good job just beating the crap out of Steve and the refs really letting him get away with it. And probably we played into that a little bit.

Smith: In his face, in his chest, the entire game. And I don't think that guy had played before that very much. I don't think he ever played again.

Meeks: We struggled to find our rhythm and they were able to disrupt our rhythm, which was kind of tough because I think the way we were rolling through the tournament up until that point, we pretty much controlled the game, the tempo, the pace.

France leads by 15 at halftime.

Barrett: Jay would never lose his cool. It was surgical with Jay. Like, ‘we're going to do A, B, C and D, and this is what's going to get us the outcome.’ He was really, really good in moments like that.

Triano: When you're at the Olympics, there's really no need for motivation and rah rah. It was more technically and tactically, how can we be better?

Jim Bilba (left), Cyril Julian (top), Makan Dioumassi (right) of France and Todd MacCulloch of Canada watch the ball go through the hoop during Olympic men's basketball quarter-final between France and Canada. (Getty Images) Jim Bilba (left), Cyril Julian (top), Makan Dioumassi (right) of France and Todd MacCulloch of Canada watch the ball go through the hoop during Olympic men's basketball quarter-final between France and Canada. (Getty Images)
 

Smith: They tried to get Nash off the ball a little bit more just so he didn't take the physical pounding all the time. But international games are so fast and they're only 40 minutes.

Meeks: With France, we were punching in the face. But they were just like, yeah, we know you guys are going to punch us in the face, but we're going right back at you.

Triano: It seemed like once we got around [Dioumassi], we would make a pass and it would slip out of somebody's hands. And it was like one of those games where it just seemed like nothing went right for us for a long stretch.

Meeks: I never really felt like we were able to put France on their heels. If we would have come down and hit a three, they would come down and hit a three.

Triano: Rowan didn't have a great game and Steve didn't have a great game. And now all of a sudden we're struggling and France is playing with a little bit of confidence and they got on a roll.

Smith: The Yugoslavia game was right down to the wire. They had a way of winning them. And you thought, OK, they’ll get them, they’ll get them in the end. And then it just didn't happen.

France wins 68-63, knocking Canada out of the Olympics.

Barrett: [It] still stings today.

Meeks: You could dwell on those losses or those little things, but nothing you could do is going to turn back the hands of time to make it happen. So the only thing you could do is [focus on] what's coming up.

Smith: Nash didn’t stop and talk. He walked right by us for the first time ever. He was so crushed by the loss.

Barrett: I was dreaming about this since I was in elementary school and finally there is the moment to do it and the door gets shut on you. You're going to feel some type of emotion.

Triano: There's nothing you can say or a quote that I could give that could even measure the despair that we had. I mean, we were shattered.

Smith: In the immediate aftermath, it was devastation. They couldn't understand what had happened, what it meant.

Barrett: I think that there was some people with tears, some without tears, some probably in shock. I don’t remember a whole lot being said in the locker room, but I remember the sounds. The sounds were painful. Either the weeping or the silent.

Triano: You think back to all the hours and the dedication and the work that you’d put in, and especially with our team, because they were so close, it hurt each other as much as it hurt themselves and had their dreams taken away. So it made it really, really difficult to walk into that locker room. There weren't any dry eyes, really.

Barrett: The joy and pain of an Olympic Games.

 
 

Canada finishes its tournament with a measure of revenge, beating Russia 86-83 in the seventh-place classification game. The Canadian men’s team hasn’t returned to the Olympics since.

Meeks: My thinking coming out of that was, I hope we get another shot at this.

Triano: To this day, that group is family. We had a reunion last summer where we all got on a [video call] because of [COVID-19]. And we talked and we laughed and we joked about the games and we’re still tight friends.

Smith: I think to some members of the media and members of the public, [the France loss] was the defining moment of that group. And I don't think it should have been. I think the Yugoslavia win should have been.

Barrett: I think about standing there and listening to the anthem play and looking at our flag, thinking about the nine- and 10-year-old children that were drawing us on bristol boards and drawing stick figures with a jersey on with our number. ‘You're my favorite player. I love you.’

I think about that kind of thing, how you can really captivate a nation.

Smith: I think that, combined with Vince [Carter]’s impact in Toronto, helped galvanize a group of young kids to play basketball. Because they saw what they could do for the country and they had seen every day for two seasons what Vince Carter could do in the NBA.

Barrett: It's one of the greatest experiences that I've had in sports. We're hoping that another generation of athletes will now get the experience. That’s what we want for our country, get back onto that world stage and perform on that stage.

Smith: You see a whole generation of players who would have been seven or eight years old, now they’re 27, 28, who grew up with the game and were turned on to it in part because of what that Canadian team did over two weeks.

Triano: It showed that we belonged on the world stage.

Team Canada waves to the crowd before their final game of the Olympic tournament, and 86-83 win against Russia at the Sydney SuperDome on Sept. 30, 2000. It's the last Olympic men's basketball game Canada participated in since. (Getty Images) Team Canada waves to the crowd before their final game of the Olympic tournament, and 86-83 win against Russia at the Sydney SuperDome on Sept. 30, 2000. It's the last Olympic men's basketball game Canada participated in since. (Getty Images)

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.