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How the historic Canadian men's Olympic roster came together


LAS VEGAS – For the Canadian men’s national team, the road to Paris started in a Las Vegas boardroom during the summer of 2021.

At the time, the program was fresh off the latest in a long line of heartbreaking setbacks: a two-point overtime loss to Czech Republic in a last-chance qualifying tournament, costing it a spot at the Tokyo Olympics. That this loss had come on home soil – after a group in Victoria, B.C. spent upwards of $3 million to host the tournament – made the sting even sharper.

In the wake of another embarrassing defeat, one that assured the country would go more than two decades between Olympic berths in men’s basketball, general manager Rowan Barrett and then head coach Nick Nurse were charged with determining what went wrong. The diagnoses was a familiar one.

Despite featuring eight NBA players – more than the rest of the teams in the tournament combined, and seven more than Czech Republic had on its roster – Canada was undone by its lack of chemistry and cohesion, something the competition had in spades. It’s the same thing that burned them during the previous Olympic cycle, when they dominated their way through the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament in Mexico City before losing to a Venezuelan team void of NBA players in the game that mattered most.

Canada was producing more NBA talent than any country outside of the United States, but it hadn’t been enough to overcome a lack of continuity on the national team roster. And so, with most of the nation’s best players gathering in Vegas for Summer League, Canada Basketball held a meeting. Over dinner, Barrett and Nurse shared their vision. To get back to the Olympics for the first time since Steve Nash led them there in 2000, they would require an unprecedented level of buy-in.

“It was a big meeting because it marked the shift that I wanted to make in our program,” said Barrett, who was also a member of that 2000 Canadian Olympic team in Sydney. “In a time when more and more of our guys are flooding into the NBA you can be tempted to keep trying to put together [different] teams each year. But we said no matter who’s coming through we need to create some continuity here. And that meeting marked that moment.”

Barrett spoke, followed by Nurse, and together they asked players in attendance and listening over the conference call to commit their next three summers to the cause. If injury, contractual uncertainty or a personal obligation prevented them from playing, the expectation was that they would at least attend training camp to lend support and stay in the loop.

Famously, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a rising star with the Oklahoma City Thunder, was the first to stand up and raise his hand.

Many of those players had warn the red and white before, either at the junior or senior level, and some had already made private assurances to the program, but suddenly, there was nowhere to hide. When the country’s best player, and one of the top young players on the planet, is willing and ready to sacrifice his time, others naturally follow suit. And that’s exactly what happened, one by one.

Word spread fast. Even a few of the players who couldn’t attend the meeting or join the call reached out to Barrett in the coming days and declared their intent to play. As the Canada Basketball leadership team was conceptualizing their plan, they weren’t quite sure how it would be received by a group of professional athletes with high-paying, high-pressure day jobs. But the GM and former Olympian was blown away by the response. It resulted in an impressive list of 14 committed players, commonly known as the Summer Core.

“When your best players are saying, ‘I want to be counted here and I don’t want to see people trampling on our flag’, that has to impact people,” Barrett said. “You just never know 100 per cent how it’s going to play out. And so, when you see the players standing up one by one and saying, ‘look, maybe I wasn’t here before but from now moving forward I’m going to be here’, it’s huge.”

“It says a lot,” said guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. “You get to see everybody commit, stand together, come together. It’s a really cool thing – just seeing peers, guys who’ve had success put everything aside for something greater than [themselves]. Representing your country is a huge opportunity and it’s not something that should be taken lightly. And so, that talk was just highlighting the importance of all those things. I think we understood what that meeting meant to the country and to our legacies, and we were committed.”

It was a monumental moment for the program, and if there was any doubt three years ago, there’s no denying its importance now.

Back in Las Vegas, where it will face the mighty U.S.A. in Wednesday’s tune-up game ahead of its long-awaited return to the Olympics later this month, the Canadian men’s team officially unveiled its 12-man roster.

It featured 10 current NBA players and 11 with experience in the league. It’s led by a two-time all-star and reigning MVP runner-up in Gilgeous-Alexander, and an NBA champion in Jamal Murray, and includes six former first-round picks and five former lottery selections.

Joining the two stars in a loaded back court are Alexander-Walker, cousin of Gilgeous-Alexander, and Andrew Nembhard – both coming off impressive runs to the Conference Finals with the Timberwolves and Pacers, respectively. Two of the game’s best perimeter defenders, Dillon Brooks and Luguentz Dort, man the wing, along with RJ Barrett, who follows in his dad’s Olympic footsteps. Team captain Kelly Olynyk headlines the front court next to Dwight Powell, another vet of the program, and Trey Lyles. Khem Birch and Melvin Ejim won the final two spots in training camp.

Notably, though, 10 of the 12 players on the Olympic roster were original members of that Summer Core, and six of them (Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker, Dort, Olynyk and Powell) will have played for Canada each of the past three years. In the end, Barrett and head coach Jordi Fernandez – who took over for Nurse last summer – made exceptions for Nembhard and Lyles, and would have been willing to do so for Andrew Wiggins if he hadn’t withdrawn a few days before the start of camp. But for the most part, the program stayed true to its word: you commit to us and, in turn, we commit to you.

Whittling down the roster wasn’t without its hard decisions. Cory Joseph, a stalwart of the program and original member of the Summer Core, wasn’t even invited to camp, as the team opted to go with the younger Nembhard at its deepest position. In need of size after Zach Edey – the Grizzlies’ recent ninth-overall pick – decided to (understandably) prioritize preparing for his rookie NBA season, they went with Birch, the former Raptors big man who has recovered from a nagging knee injury that derailed his pro career, over former first-round pick and camp standout Mfiondu Kabengele. They rewarded Ejim – who brings FIBA experience and veteran leadership at the back end of the roster – for his years of service, but regrettably had to cut Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb and Trae Bell-Haynes, who participated in both the summer and winter qualification windows during this and past Olympic cycles. Note: Kabengele and the Scrubb brothers will accompany the team to Europe for the rest of its exhibition contests as alternates, in case of injury.

As Barrett pointed out ahead of camp, 33 players represented Canada over the past three years – winter and summer. They owe those guys a debt of gratitude for helping the country qualify for the Olympics, ending its drought after 24 years, but only 12 of them can go to Paris and call themselves Olympians.

This is, without question, the most talented team that the program has ever assembled, but they’re well aware that talent can only take them so far.

“They care, they get it and they’re here because they want to [be here] and they’re sacrificing their time,” said Fernandez. “They know it’s not about them, it’s about the team and they’re showing it here in practice, every optional practice, every day. They’re trying to build that glue that is going to make us stick together.”

In their preliminary group alone, they’ll face a Greek team that features one of the tournament’s best players in Giannis Antetokounmpo, an Australian club loaded with diverse NBA talent, and Spain, a program with a rich basketball history and the second-ranked country in the world. After the round robin, which Canada kicks off against Greece on July 27, the top two teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals, along with the two best third-place teams. For Canada to medal for only the second time at the Olympics and first since 1936 – when it defeated the United States on a muddy, outdoor tennis court – the team would have to play six games, winning the last three, and taking at least two of the first three.

They will be tested early and often, and given the level of elite competition they’ll see once they get to Paris, their fate should ultimately be determined by how much they’ve grown together over the past three years. That they’re even in this position, with a chance to make history on the world stage and potentially finish on the podium, is a direct result of that fateful meeting in Vegas. If they can use that newfound chemistry and continuity to their advance, fulfill their great promise, and win a medal, it will be a credit to those that asked for and made the long-term commitment.

It could also determine how strictly the program adheres to this prerequisite and requires player commitments for future Olympic cycles.

“I think that we’ve gotta wait and evaluate this summer and see how it’s going because the truth is you can’t stand pat, things are always changing or growing,” Barrett told TSN on Wednesday. “I think what we have right now, though, is we have a number of athletes that have played at the senior level, they do have experience, and they do know the way we play, so that’s good. I think you have to look at each quad differently, see what it’s calling for and then make your decisions. But no matter what you do you can’t win without commitment.”