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Canada Basketball bridges Olympic past, present and future to open camp


TORONTO – When the Canadian senior men’s national team opens training camp this weekend, exactly one month ahead of its return to the Olympics, it will be a long overdue celebration of the program’s storied past, exciting present and promising future.

Spearheaded by general manager Rowan Barrett and put together in a very tight window, Canada Basketball is preparing to host “Olympians Weekend,” a two-day alumni event that will coincide with the start of camp in Toronto, and the very first of its kind.

It will bring together members of the program’s last five Olympic teams – 1976 (Montreal), 1980 (Moscow), 1984 (Los Angeles), 1988 (Seoul) and 2000 (Sydney). The festivities begin with an alumni dinner on Friday night. Then, the entire group is invited to attend Team Canada’s morning and afternoon practices at OVO Athletic Centre, the Raptors’ training facility. It should be a packed gym.

On the court, Jordi Fernandez will be coaching the most talented group of Canadians the program has ever assembled, preparing them for next month’s business trip to Paris. The 20-man training camp roster features 13 current NBA players, including an MVP runner-up, two all-stars, one all-league defender, three NBA champions, nine first-round draft picks and seven lottery selections.

Meanwhile, 49 former players from five Canadian Olympic teams spanning four decades will look on from the sidelines. Many of them haven’t seen their old teammates in years, or in some cases even longer, but this is the first time that they’ll all be in the same place at once.

“It’s a big deal,” said Dwight Walton, the Montreal native who wore the red and white for 10 years, including at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. “I’m looking forward to seeing the people that have represented our country from past to present.”

“The [current] players, when they see us walk in, they’re going to feel something. Like, this is the alumni, this is the previous group of people that represented our country at the Olympics, and this truly, truly is a huge deal. Not a big deal, a huge deal.”

Barrett first broached the idea of reuniting a large group of former players months ago but had to put it on the back burner as he and his family mourned the tragic loss of his son, Nathan, in March.

He began reaching out to people again two weeks ago. One of his first calls was to Howard Kelsey, a two-time Olympian, Canadian Basketball and British Columbia Sports Hall of Famer, and, crucially, co-founder of the Canadian National Alumni Association. He wanted to know if it was doable – upwards of 50 people coming from around the globe, on short notice, in the middle of the summer, to Toronto, where finding last-minute hotel accommodations can be difficult.

That first call to Kelsey was made on June 14. With the help of his rolodex, they started to put out feelers. Within 48 hours, they had commitments from roughly 80 per cent of the guys – provided they could work out the logistics, which also proved challenging.

Two-time Olympian John Hatch would be coming from London, England. Long-time national team player and coach Leo Rautins spends the NBA off-season at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Karl Tilleman, who still holds the record for most three-pointers in an Olympic game (10, tied with Carmelo Anthony), lives in Phoenix. Big man Greg Wiltjer, father of Kyle, is in Portland. Three-time NBA champion Bill Wennington is in Chicago. Kings assistant Jay Triano, who played on three Canadian Olympic teams and coached another, would be coming straight from Sacramento after this week’s NBA Draft.

“We’ve always talked about different groups, but Rowan had the vision to bring us all together,” said Kelsey, who appeared in more than 400 games for Canada over the span of 11 years. “That’s a pretty big undertaking in two weeks. Maybe one team, because he was on the 2000 team he could’ve brought the 2000 team, but he brought us all, which I commend him for.”

The response was resoundingly positive. Of the 60 players from those five Olympic rosters, three are deceased (Eli Pasquale, Greg Francis and Bill Robinson), four had prior commitments (including Steve Nash) and another four couldn’t make it for medical reasons. The rest will be in Toronto this weekend. The family of the late legendary coach Jack Donohue will be represented, as well. It should be noted that the attending alumni have agreed to cover the costs of the weekend so that it doesn’t come out of Canada Basketball’s tight budget.

For some, it’s a surprise this hasn’t happened sooner – there was some talk about a 40-year reunion of the 1984 team that finished fourth at the Los Angeles Games, but something this big never seemed feasible. For others, it’s a bit surprising that it’s happening at all.

While many legends of Canada Basketball’s past have stayed in the loop, either working with or consulting for the program, some have felt passed over in time – not remembered or fully appreciated, certainly not involved. But one of Barrett’s goals when he became the GM in 2019 – inheriting the job from his friend and former Olympic teammate, Nash – was to bridge the gap between past, present and future.

This weekend could go a long way in healing those wounds and bringing everybody together. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray will be able to pick the brains of some of the old heads before starring on the world stage and getting their first taste of the Olympic experience next month. Zach Edey, the young centre who was just drafted ninth overall to Memphis, could learn a thing or two from guys like Wennington, Wiltjer, or the 7-foot-1 Jim Zoet. Bennedict Mathurin and Shaedon Sharpe, who will be spectators in camp with the hopes of being part of Canada’s next Olympic squad, were two and three years old, respectively, when Nash and Barrett led the country at the Sydney Games in 2000.

With the program falling on hard times during its recent 24-year Olympic drought, some people aren’t familiar with the long history of success that came before it, including some of the current players themselves. The men have qualified for the Olympics 11 times since 1936, including four straight between 1976 and 1988, a period in which they consistently ranked inside the world top five. They nearly medalled at the Montreal Games in 1976, finishing fourth, and then again in L.A. eight years later, when they lost the Bronze Medal Game to Yugoslavia by six points. The 1980 team was well-positioned to contend for a medal, but Canada boycotted the Moscow Games.

It was a different time, but those teams and those players have stories to tell.

“I think in the past a lot of players that have played felt that they had lost touch with the program,” said Rautins, who first joined the senior national team at age 16 and spent 15 years playing for his country before transitioning to coaching and eventually the broadcast booth. “And the new players don’t necessarily know the history, don’t know that we had a lot of success internationally, and we had a lot of good teams and a lot of good years, cycles. So, I think it’s great when you can bring the guys back that have committed a great deal of time and energy and effort to meet the [new] guys. None of these guys have been in an Olympics, so you’ve got Olympians coming back and sharing that experience. That’s pretty cool.”

“Whatever differences the players of the past had towards Canada Basketball, this is a coming together,” Walton said. “[It’s] a reunion, not a forgiveness, but just to show the past players how important it is for them to be a part of this program and for the current players to understand who came before them.”

The intention of this weekend is to honour the program’s all-time greats, but the hope is that they can also impart some wisdom and help inspire this next generation of Canadian Olympians before they set off on their mission – finishing on the podium in Paris and bringing home a medal.

“That’s what we’re hoping, to share some experiences and let them know that they’re carrying the torch, and how proud we are,” Rautins said. “I think every one of us that was watching last summer watched with so much pride [as they won bronze at the FIBA World Cup]. For them to realize how they’re touching the past and how different it was [is important].”