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Canadian men's basketball squad wins CP team of the year after historic 2023

Team Canada men's basketball Team Canada men's basketball - The Canadian Press

The Canadian men's basketball team took its place on the international stage in 2023.

Led by NBA star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Canadians won their first-ever FIBA World Cup medal, defeating the United States for bronze in September, and qualified for next year's Summer Olympics in the process.

The squad, which has climbed to No. 6 in the FIBA world rankings from 15th, capped the season by being voted The Canadian Press team of the year.

“I think that it speaks to the commitment of our players and the excellence of our players,” general manager Rowan Barrett said. “We're a player-centric program, … everything starts with them and I think you don't achieve something like this without players that are brought in that love their country and that are going to lay it all on the line for their country.

“I think what it ultimately says is that there's a system in place with everybody doing their jobs to help these players to go out and be brilliant on the court. And I think it's something that our players will take tremendous pride in as well as everyone else involved.

“But definitely our players will take tremendous pride in understanding that they're being recognized in their country for their sacrifice and their excellence.” 

With a quarterfinal berth into the World Cup, Canada qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics — the first time the Canadian men will compete at a Summer Games since 2000.

The victory over the U.S. was also Canada’s first time defeating the Americans at a World Cup, and the medal is Canada's first at either a World Cup or Olympic Games since claiming silver at the 1936 Berlin Games.

“I think what it means for the country is, clearly, that we can be excellent,” Barrett said. “We can compete with the best in the world.

“I think it's a performance that shows our country that we mean business, that we're here and that we do have the ability to compete with the best in the world. And I think that's something that all Canadians would, or should take pride in.” 

The Canadian men received 22 votes in a survey of sports journalists and broadcasters across the country. The Canadian women’s tennis team that won the country’s first-ever Billie Jean King Cup was second with 19 votes. The CFL’s Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes placed third with seven votes.

“The Canadian men’s basketball team, … was the team story of the year, highlighted by several great performances from players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dillon Brooks,” CBC Sports senior producer Tony Care said. “This despite playing without key stars in Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins.”

The shift came after Canada fell just short of a potential Olympic berth, narrowly dropping the semifinal of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria in July 2021 to Czechia.

Canada got three-year commitments from 14 players in May 2022, including the likes of NBA stars Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray. The Canadians went 11-1 in FIBA competition that year in qualifying for the World Cup.

“Canada’s basketball program has legitimate stars now, not just role players and hype guys on the end of NBA benches,” said Postmedia deputy editor Paul Chapman.

Then success came with a sudden coaching change in the summer. Nick Nurse, who was hired in 2019 and signed through the Paris Olympics, stepped down on June 27.

Spaniard Jordi Fernandez was the hired the following day. Fernandez is currently in his second season as associate head coach of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and was an assistant for Murray’s Denver Nuggets from 2016-22.

While Murray opted out of the World Cup following training camp to recover, with the tournament happening a mere six weeks after Denver won the NBA title, Canada proved to be just fine.

The Canadians defeated then-No. 5 France, then-No. 1 and defending World Cup champion Spain before falling to No. 2 Serbia en route to taking bronze and finishing the tournament with a 6-2 record. Canada’s only other loss was to No. 12 Brazil in the second knockout round.

“It was amazing,” Murray said. “For everybody, that's a great accomplishment. That's a country accomplishment. They did it for the country.

“I still showed up to training camp. I was still around the guys. I felt the vibe there. And they did a great job. And I think we're on the come-up and we've got enough guys to go out there and compete for gold next year.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2023.