Playing basketball for Canada often means rarely playing basketball in Canada.
It’s part of the job description for so many of the nation’s elite men and women, who typically leave their homes to pursue elite opportunities in the United States early in their high school years, then spend time in American colleges and – if all goes well – register for jobs in the United States or Europe as professionals.
If and when they play under the maple leaf, the competitions are usually a long way off. The FIBA Basketball World Cup will take place in Japan and the Philippines next summer. If Canadian men go to the Olympics in 2024, it will be in Paris.
So playing for Canada on Canada Day in Hamilton as part of World Cup qualifying?
Sign me up.
At least that’s how Shai Gilgeous-Alexander saw it.
The Oklahoma City Thunder star last played for Hamilton at age 16 when he led St. Thomas More High School to the Midget High School Championship. He went to high school in the United States soon after, partnering with his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“I was maybe 16 [the last time I played in Hamilton], at secondary school. Long duration. Now I’m 36,” he joked (Gilgeous-Alexander is 23).
“[But] it should be good. Hamilton has a huge basketball fan base,” he added. “The kids are playing basketball. The guys are playing basketball outside. I didn’t know that until I moved to Hamilton. I realized how much they love basketball. The crowd should be good.
Canada takes on the Dominican Republic at the FirstOntario Center in downtown Hamilton. This is the penultimate match of the first round of the World Cup Qualifiers. Canada leads Group C with a 4-0 record and has already advanced to the second qualifying round. They complete the first round on Monday in the Virgin Islands.
As if playing at home in Hamilton wasn’t enough, playing with his cousin – now with the Utah Jazz – is another bonus.
“It’s going to be super fun. I haven’t done it since high school. Many played against him, obviously. Playing with him this time will be fun,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
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The cousins - who will likely form head coach Nick Nurse’s starting backcourt – won’t be the only players with friends and family in the stands. The majority of the squad have ties to the Greater Toronto Area and relish the chance to play in front of familiar faces.
“It’s amazing,” said national team veteran Dwight Powell, a native of Toronto. “Every time we have the chance to play here in Canada, it’s a little more – it’s much more special. … You feel it, there is definitely a difference. So to be able to play in front of even more people at home and you know, just down the street from where I grew up, that’s huge, and that’s a blessing. It’s an incredible opportunity. We hope, however, that it will help you in your research.
It was Alexander-Walker who helped encourage Gilgeous-Alexander to sign up to play as part of the three-year commitment Canada Basketball has asked its pool of players to build a more cohesive roster from summer to summer. It was a strategy that carried some risk – Andrew Wiggins, who played in the NBA Finals this month for the Golden State Warriors, for example, chose not to include his name among the 14 players who offered their name.
That’s not to say he won’t play, but according to men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett, he’ll only play if someone from the original 14 chooses not to or isn’t. available.
Alexander-Walker made his debut for the senior men’s team last summer at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria. The result was not what everyone wanted – Canada lost in overtime to the Czech Republic in the semi-finals and missed the Olympics for the fifth straight and seventh in the last eight Olympic cycles – but the experience remained with the 6-foot-6 23-year-old.
“It was great fun and taught me a lot,” Alexander-Walker said. “I think it’s really helped me in way more ways than I thought it would. Just the meaning and the passion and the fun and the joy that you get from representing Canada and having Canada on your chest, it’s a blessing to be at this level and to play alongside great players. NBA Champions – two NBA champions, actually [Wiggins and Cory Joseph] – guys who are going to do great things in this league, learn from them in this camp while you’re here, and then bring that to your team and grow and just the camaraderie every summer and rub shoulders with great Canadian players.
“… It’s exciting. Hopefully… we have everyone back and everyone healthy and to be able to have a race and a medal would be amazing.
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Canada’s plan was presented to its group of potential players in Las Vegas last summer during the NBA Summer League. It was head coach Nick Nurse who led the presentation, but he couldn’t start until he had his first player, Gilgeous-Alexander, on board.
“I was about to start a big speech about why we were here and what we were doing and he cut me off,” Nurse said. “And he said ‘I have to say something’, he got up and said ‘I’m playing’. I hadn’t even asked the question yet and it just shows you he’s ready to go.
It was a pivotal moment, given that Gilgeous-Alexander is tied with Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray (who is also signed but still recovering from a knee injury) and Wiggins as the best Canadian player in the league. NBA at some point.
Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t play last summer as he recovered from a foot injury and was in the process of negotiating a lucrative contract extension with the Thunder, but he’s now all in.
“He was super conscientious, super communicative about everything and his enthusiasm to play,” Nurse said. “I heard from him many times how excited he was to be here… so he’s been great, super professional and super excited to be here.”
For Gilgeous-Alexander, the time has come and he wants to take advantage of it.
“I just feel like I had the chance to play last summer [in Victoria] and obviously qualifying for the Olympics, which is obviously what everyone wants to do in the country, that just didn’t work out,” he said. “I didn’t want the media and outside noise to interfere with my teammates. I just wanted to be up front and let them know I’m there. I am involved. Everything went well and I will be with the team in the future.
The fact that he can start his journey with his cousin and in front of a rare home crowd makes it even more special.