This might just be the start of something.
Midway through the fourth quarter of what was a laugher between the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks, it was hard not to sit back and just smile. Mississauga, Ont.,’s RJ Barrett and Oshae Brissett, Montreal’s Chris Boucher and Oakville, Ont.,’s Ignas Brazdeikis all stood on the hardwood floor of an NBA game.
Two are brand new additions to the league through the 2019 NBA Draft, one is plying his trade courtesy of a two-way contract, and the other is a reigning G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year making an ever-growing case for a regular rotation spot at the highest level.
Ask Steve Nash what he would have wanted out of his stellar NBA career upholstered by two MVP trophies and that sight wouldn’t have been far from the top of the list. Right at the top, though, likely would have been seeing the absolute best Canada has to offer wearing the red and white, battling for a medal, perhaps even a gold.
It’s a moment the nation felt robbed of at this year’s FIBA World Cup, when after a star-studded initial roster was announced, virtually every NBA name save for Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk and Khem Birch was nowhere to be seen come training camp. At a tournament worth more rankings points than the Olympics itself, Canada’s best failed to see the point. FIBA’s scheduling didn’t help either.
After decades of the Olympics and the World Championships being spaced out by two years, a major rebranding pushed the gap to a year. That left NBA players deciding if they wanted to play 82 games, plus potentially playoffs, go to China for the tournament, then get back to the grind of another NBA season, then possibly try to give it their all at the Olympics. While most Europeans couldn’t care less about that level of physical toll, both the United States and Canada saw their most talented crop opt for load management.
But now Canadians can dream that more-probable-by-the-day dream once again.
Birch challenged his compatriots to step up to the plate and Dillon Brooks, Olynyk and Boucher did just that. On Tuesday came the big fish as Jamal Murray said yes. Then Shai Gilgeous-Alexander followed suit, as did his cousin Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Brissett confirmed he didn’t want to miss out on the fun either. By the time Barrett announced his desire to represent Canada at the last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria, the hype train had left the station.
This feels like a moment. Canada has been puffing its chest out to the basketball world since the Raptors became NBA champions in June, and continue to do so as they ride the high as defending champs. Any momentum that was quelled in September has been reignited just a couple months later.
At 22, Murray will be looking to help his Denver Nuggets at least one-up their Western Conference semifinal appearance last year and Boucher will be looking to play a meaningful role as Toronto chases another ring. Gilgeous-Alexander is an early contender for the Most Improved Player award in his second year in the league.
This is clearly a golden era for Canadian men’s basketball, but the difference on the international stage is that they are trying to make up for lost time. Missing out on the Olympics on the heels of their heartbreaking absence in 2016 would be a major failure for the program, and so despite all the hype, this is now a last-ditch attempt to meet expectations.
The basketball talent this country possesses should absolutely be competing in Tokyo, not itching for 2024. Ifs, ands, or buts are all it will be for the men’s hoop dreams until realized, and the hard part awaits. They must win a tournament featuring Greece, China, Uruguay, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Only Uruguay — who isn’t in Canada’s group — is considered meek opposition.
“I think it’s a very challenging group, but it should be,” Canada and Raptors coach Nick Nurse told media before Toronto beat the Knicks. “We’re gonna have to earn our way. It’s a hell of a goal and a worthy thing to accomplish.”
Canada will have the men best suited to accomplish the Olympic dream, a champion head coach, and home-court advantage. The good problems Nurse anticipated having when he took the job are finally here, where difficult cuts will have to be made, especially when remembering the key names like Kevin Pangos that did give it their all at the FIBA World Cup.
But this is the day Canada wanted and needed: its stars talking like they’re ready to walk the walk. They’ll have one week to deliver on that talk, but if they do, it’ll be the beginning everyone’s been waiting for.
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