When people think of basketball in Canada, they tend to think of Steve Nash, with good reason; he’s an incredible talent who’s done a lot to raise the profile of the sport in the country. However, there’s much more to it than that; Nash hasn’t played in a major tournament for the national team since 2003. That’s understandable, given his age and health concerns and the way he spent a decade carrying the team back when their supporting cast was much worse (his first big tournament was in 1993, when the Canadian team featured such luminaries as William Njoku, David Turcotte, Rob Wilson, Cordell Llewellyn and Rowan Barrett), and Nash certainly shouldn’t be blamed for no longer suiting up for Canada. However, it does mean that the Canadian basketball team is about much more than just Nash.
Basketball in Canada was considered a joke internationally for quite a long while, despite a Canadian inventing the game. Part of that was thanks to much lower interest and participation rates in Canada than in the U.S. or many European countries, as well as a lack of elite development infrastructure. Despite that, though, the national team still found some remarkable success, finishing second at the 1936 Olympics and fourth at both the 1976 and 1984 Olympics. They did struggle when professionals were brought in in the early 1990s, as they didn’t have a lot of guys playing at the highest levels of basketball, but contrary to popular legend, they never called Bart Simpson and Milhouse Van Houten up.
Despite popular perception, Canada’s never actually been all that horrible at basketball. Most of the cultural references to the contrary come from Canada’s close proximity to the U.S. (which obviously has much more basketball talent to work with and does much bettter on the international stage) and the stereotypes about Canadians spending all their time on hockey. It’s true that basketball’s far from the top sport up here, either in interest or participation, but it does have a significant profile, and that profile is growing.
That’s perhaps illustrated by the talent on the current national team. It’s now coached by former Syracuse star and current television commentator Leo Rautins; former coach Jay Triano is now the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, and the first Canadian-born NBA head coach. At their most recent big tournament, the 2009 FIBA Americas Championship in San Juan, the team placed a respectable fourth. That team featured a considerable array of talent, including the Miami Heat’s Joel Anthony; they would have had Samuel Dalembert as well if not for an earlier feud with the coaching staff. They also had several players who had performed well in European leagues, including Carl English and Jesse Young, and they got huge performances from college players like Syracuse’s Andy Rautins (Leo’s son) and Canadian powerhouse Carleton University’s Aaron Doornekamp. As this preview of the team from The Painted Area shows, they didn’t have too many guys who could overwhelm you offensively, but they made up for it with solid defence and team play. A fourth-place finish there is nothing to sneeze at.
Moreover, the future looks bright for Team Canada. There are more Canadians playing at a high level in the NCAA than ever before, and the Canadian university game has itself come a long way. Developmental leagues have improved dramatically (thanks in large part to Steve Nash‘s Youth Basketball League), interest in the Raptors and the NBA has shot up, and basketball’s profile in Canada is rising all the time. There are still major issues to address, such as if it’s best to develop high-school talent at home or abroad, but basketball in Canada is getting better by the year, and that’s a good thing. If Bart and Milhouse still want to make the national team, they’d better hope for a quick growth spurt; their window is closing fast.