Canadian hoopsters need to step up

Burlington's Brady Heslip is one of many up-and-coming U.S. college players who could give Canada's...

Burlington's Brady Heslip is one of many up-and-coming U.S. college players who could give Canada's Olympic program a much-needed boost. (REUTERS)

RICHARD ZUSSMAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:19 PM ET

This year’s NCAA tournament has been a global showcase for Canadian talent. Baylor’s Brady Heslip draining threes, Marquette’s Junior Cadougan running the point and Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre controlling the paint. But as a country how close are we to winning on the international stage?

Canada did not qualify for the 2004, 2008 or 2012 Summer Olympics and the program is currently without a head coach. But our country is starting to peak, talent wise we are bursting with more skill than we have seen since the early 80s.

“We are on the cusp of something that has the potential to be quite phenomenal, this is something that has been building for a number of years,” said Canada Basketball’s president and CEO Wayne Parrish.

Canada Basketball has set the goal for the 2016 Olympics as not just a reappearing act in the world’s biggest basketball tournament but to be standing on the podium at the end of the competition.

There are a lot of steps between now and then. First, there needs to be a new coach appointed as head of the national team. That person is widely rumoured to be former Canadian coach and former Raptors coach Jay Triano although any announcement about his involvement won’t come until he has completed his commitment with USA Basketball. Steve Nash is also expected to step into a leadership role similar to the one Wayne Gretzky assumed for Team Canada in the 2002 Games.

“It is difficult to say now what role Steve will play. It has always been our ambition that Steve would play a more prominent role,” said Parrish. “It would be wonderful to think that we could come together.”

There are very few basketball players that have bled red and white like Nash. One of them is Canadian basketball legend Leo Rautins. The former national team head coach, who no longer has official ties with Canada Basketball after resigning last year, agrees Canada has a lot of talent. But he says Canada is a long way from success on the podium unless significant changes are made to the national program.

“You have to hear players saying, ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ If they begin to say this then we have a chance, if it doesn’t happen we don’t have a chance (to win any medals),” said Rautins.

And right now we aren’t hearing those Canadians stepping up to say ‘I want to play for Canada in the Olympics.’ According to Rautins, for Canada to win a medal in the 2016 Olympics it will take the elite group of players to step up now and not in 2015. According to the former pro they need to start developing together and playing in international competitions. The U.S. team that will compete in this summer’s Olympics is a roster full of NBA all-stars. Currently there are barely enough Canadians on NBA rosters to make up a starting lineup.

“There is a lot more than talent needed to win a medal. You aren’t going to win without talent and there is enough talent in Canada to compete. But if the talented players don’t have experience at the highest competitive level you are not going to win,” added Rautins. “Without playing you aren’t going to win. We aren’t the U.S., we don’t have 12 NBA all-stars. They put the best in the NBA together for three years and barely survived against Spain (in the 2008 Olympics).”

The expectations of fans in Canada are also out of whack. Many basketball fans in this country feel NBA players wearing the red and white is the recipe for instant success. What is lacking in this country is the understanding that international experience and depth play a bigger role than just suiting up in the NBA.

“No other country would do that, take a player with very little experience because you are in the NBA and claim we are going to win now,” Rautins explained, using the example of first round draft pick Cory Joseph and his role in Olympic qualifiers last year. “I think our basketball community needs to get more educated on what makes it a successful program.”

What helps make a program successful is money. According to Rautins the top teams from the Americas get between $2 and $5 million for their national men’s teams. The Canadian program gets $1.6 million, for all 10 teams.

“The team sport system (in Canada) is at times laughable. There is no understanding of success of team sport in this country. There is too little appreciation of the importance of funding. Basketball may be one of the most popular sports in the country from a participation perspective but where is the funding that reflects it?”

Parrish acknowledges the issue is a chicken and egg conundrum. The team needs to do well to get Own the Podium money, but to do well they need money now.

The first competitive games for the next crop of young Canadian basketball players will be in the summer of 2013. Borrowing an idea from Rautins, a start may be suiting up a competitive team in 2012 that would play exhibition games against the best national teams in the world.

The countries getting ready for London will be looking for competition and Canada’s best players not in the NBA could put together a competitive team.

But to get to that point it would require two things: the players stepping up to play and the money from both private and public sources. Only if these things happen will Canada make a name for itself again on the world’s top basketball courts.

 


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