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Hardwood over hockey: The rise of Canada basketball

Hardwood over hockey: The rise of Canada basketball Photo:

Boos rained on the Barclays Center stage as David Stern, with a wry smile, approached the podium. Presiding over his final NBA draft, the former commissioner spoke up over the swan song of jeers.

“With the first pick in the 2013 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select…”

Stern looked up from the white placard in his left hand and paused. Printed on the side only he could see was a surprise selection that would -- quietly at first -- mark history.

Anthony Bennett, of Toronto, Canada and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.”

There had been plenty of debate about who Cleveland, now winners of two lotteries in three years, would select in 2013. Kentucky’s flat-topped defensive force Nerlens Noel had been the closest thing to a consensus top pick, though he was in the process of recovering from ACL surgery. Indiana guard Victor Oladipo was in the mix, maybe. Alex Len, the Maryland big man with the shaky ankles, a distant possibility.

But the selection of Bennett, a 6-foot-8 forward with a blend of skill and strength -- was a shocker. No experts had predicted this twist.

The Toronto native took to the stage with a grin and a wine-and-gold Cavs hat atop his head. Bennett was more than just the No. 1 pick -- he’d become the first Canadian ever to go first overall in the NBA draft. 

“It’s history, man,” Bennett told ESPN cameras moments later off stage. “Hopefully we can repeat it next year with Andrew Wiggins coming in.”

Bennett might have called it. If it wasn’t fair to say Canadian basketball arrived that night 12 months ago, that moment is fast approaching this week. A year later, with the Cavaliers once again picking first, a Canadian has a chance to go No. 1 overall again if Cleveland selects Wiggins.

Eleven picks after Bennett, Boston took Toronto-born Kelly Olynyk out of Gonzaga. That made two Canucks out of 60 draftees.

But in the 2014 draft, there could be as many as eight. There’s Wiggins, the Kansas phenom you’ve certainly heard of by now. There’s Nik Stauskas, the sharpshooter out of Michigan, and Tyler Ennis, the Syracuse freshman floor leader. Five more Canadians could also hear their names called before the night is over: Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Dwight Powell (Stanford), Khem Birch (UNLV), Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State) and Sim Bhullar (New Mexico State) are also in the mix.

For a country with a burgeoning basketball culture that has flown under the NBA radar for so long, Canada has a chance to use Thursday’s draft as a coming out party.

*****

Down a point with the game on the line, you figure 4.4 seconds on the clock is enough time for about four dribbles and a shot, if done perfectly. Tyler Ennis caught the ball along the right baseline and turned upcourt as the clock started.

Surrounded by a hostile Pittsburgh crowd, Ennis took a dribble, crossed left, crossed back right, and took a fourth. He pulled up from about 35 feet. Bucket. Buzzer. Game.

The Brampton, Ontario native’s buzzer-beater wasn’t just the highlight of the night – it was another belt rung for Canadian basketball to be proud of.

Ennis began playing basketball competitively at age five, following his two older brothers (Brandon, who went on to play Division II ball and Dylan, a junior at Villanova) and his father, Tony McIntyre, from gym to gym. He’d prepared for moments like the one against Pitt his entire life. And he was just one of three dozen D-I players who owed so much to his dad.

A teenage Tony McIntyre once picked hockey over hoops. But an injury on the ice during high school spurred an interest in coaching basketball, a return to the game that would prove fortuitous.

McIntyre coached for eight years before founding the Brampton Bounce in 2005. The first group included players he’d worked with since grade school, including his sons and a lanky kid named Tristan Thompson. They found immediate success, frequently butting heads with another program, CIA (Characteristics Inspiring Achievement) led by Mike George -- now the agent for Bennett, Ennis and three other Canadians in the 2014 draft.

“Basically we would end up against each other in the finals of every tournament we went to,” said McIntyre. “We decided we had the same goals for these kids, to put our differences aside, come together and build a program that would be able to house more players. We’re able to put a bit more power behind it, combining our resources and knowledge.”

Two years later, the teams had fully merged and CIA Bounce was born. Shortly afterward, in January 2007, George, then a school teacher, appeared on the game show “Deal or No Deal.” He came away with $144,000. Half of that went into the program, giving George and McIntyre the resources to travel and compete in the United States.

The next few years brought steady success and a Nike sponsorship. An astonishing number of CIA Bounce’s boys established themselves as D-I prospects, with members of McIntyre’s first class including Thompson (Texas) and Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) arriving in college in 2010. Over the next few years, a group led by Bennett, Ennis and Wiggins (the latter two playing above their age group) made up one of the most competitive teams anywhere in North America.

CIA Bounce wasn’t the only program breaking ground north of the border, either. Grassroots Canada, led by Ro Russell, had established itself as the other Greater Toronto basketball factory. Russell helped develop elite talent including San Antonio Spurs guard Cory Joseph, Michigan star Nik Stauskas and Stanford big man Dwight Powell, and also coached Thompson, who went fourth overall to Cleveland in 2011.

“Guys like Tony McIntyre and Ro Russell really created an opportunity for kids to play,” said Canadian men’s national team head coach Jay Triano, an Ontario native and former Olympic captain. “The number of days now that kids can find competition is huge, and it goes back to the coaches who spend time in the gym, keeping these guys off the streets in an environment where they can learn. Going down to the states on a continual basis to play, when you have good coaching and people that care about you, that’s big.”

Initially there was American hesitance. Canadian teams hooping in the states were rarities and usually afterthoughts. The success of CIA Bounce went a long way in shifting the paradigm. In recent years, more Canadian programs have popped up in Toronto and beyond, and become regular presences on the AAU circuit. Their players are fixtures year-to-year at top American prep schools.

And now, the first wave has touched down in the NBA.

“At the very beginning, it was sometimes disrespectful,” McIntyre said. “I don’t think they took Toronto kids seriously. What that did was allow our guys to play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. At tournaments, people don’t just say that’s a team from Brampton or Toronto -- they say that’s a team from Canada. Now all of a sudden, you have a sense of pride and urgency to represent. You’re no longer playing for your local team. You’re representing the country.”

*****

Photo:
Basketball had always been a presence in Canada -- James Naismith, after all, was an Ontario man who studied Physical Education in Montreal before moving to the states. Canada finished fourth in both the 1976 and 1984 Summer Olympics, and top eight in 1988 and 2000. But the inception of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995 grew the game’s reach exponentially, particularly in the future hoops hotbed of Greater Toronto.

Led by the high-flying Vince Carter, the Raptors made three straight playoff appearances from 2000-2002, spiking the game’s popularity in local markets immensely. This past season, the Raptors went through a bit of a resurgence, returning to the playoffs and continuing to stoke mass interest, with a cool factor provided by the courtside presence of team ambassador and Toronto-born rapper Drake. More and more kids have turned to the hardwood over hockey and other popular sports, and the impact of the NBA on the current slew of Canadian players can’t be understated.

“When Vince was here, basketball was fantastic,” said Triano, who coached Toronto as an assistant from 2002-2008 before being promoted to the head job, which he held until 2011. “Everything stops in the city for the Raptors in the playoffs, as you saw this year. When the interest is that high, kids can’t help but go to school and try to emulate their favorite player and what they saw on TV. Vince was a highlight every night.”

“This is the first generation of guys you’re seeing that grew up with the NBA in their backyard,” added Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager and executive vice president of the Canadian men’s senior program. A Toronto native, Barrett captained Canada at the 2000 Olympic games and enjoyed a long career overseas. “They grew up going to the games, watching consistently. When I was a kid, you might have got a Lakers-Celtics game on a weekend, or the playoffs -- but regular games on TV didn’t exist. Those images have been tremendous for our athletes.”

As the first group of early 90s-born talent matriculates into professional ball, the game has become increasingly relatable for Canadian youth. CIA Bounce graduates are fixtures at games and practices when home in Toronto. Anthony Bennett recently sat on the bench during a tournament. Information has become increasingly accessible to coaches and players, whether it’s watching drills and highlights on YouTube or picking the brain of a local star.

“Before, the guy you were looking up to was Vince Carter, who was from Florida,” said McIntyre. “Now you’ve got guys in your own community that are going to be in the league, that will come in the gym and work out with you and that you can actually ask questions. There’s so much more focus right now. You see the kids getting more serious and they’re getting better and better at younger ages. It’s just going to continue to grow and blossom from here.”

*****

In 1978, Canada’s Immigration Act came into force. The act clearly outlined a liberal Canadian policy for the first time, making eligibility for immigrants transparent and intending to eliminate discrimination from the written laws and process. In 1977, the Citizenship Act was changed -- making it easier for foreigners to naturalize and leveling the rights for all Canadian citizens, born or otherwise.

On the basketball court, the Canadian national programs continue to reap the benefits as they eye Olympic success in the 2016 and 2020 games. The influx of international populations from the Caribbean, Africa and the basketball-loving Balkan countries introduced a new influx of talent. And the melting pot has continued to produce.

You can start with former NBA All-Star center Jamaal Magloire, born in 1978 to Trinidadian parents in Toronto. Anthony Bennett’s mother moved to the area from Jamaica in 1980; Tristan Thompson’s parents are also Jamaican. Andrew Wiggins was born to former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, an American, and Marita Payne, a Canadian Olympic sprinter originally from Barbados. Nik Stauskas is of Lithuanian descent, and eligible for both national teams. Melvin Ejim’s family is Nigerian.

“Even on our U-18 team, we have a kid of Ethiopian descent, a kid of Serbian descent, kids from the Caribbean and Africa,” said Roy Rana, head coach of Canada’s junior men’s national team. “Our basketball community is reflective of the diversity of our country and the city of Toronto, and that’s a real special advantage for us. We should be proud we can put together teams that reflect the diversity of our country, and opening the borders was a huge reason for that.”

Now, the goal will be unifying an expanding, multi-ethnic talent pool into a cohesive senior team. In May 2012, Steve Nash -- still active with the Phoenix Suns -- was named general manager of Canada Basketball. The greatest Canadian player ever, the 40-year-old two-time MVP and Los Angeles Laker has begun working his influence as the program aims for its first trip to the medal stand.

“When Steve became the GM, he reached out to me and a few other guys,” said Ennis. “He kept up with me through my Syracuse games. He gave me some pointers on things he’d seen, things I could fix. When I worked out for the Lakers he came through, said what’s up to me and watched a bit. He’s been a mentor to the young guys.”

All eight players in this year’s draft crop could be involved with the senior program in the near future. Wiggins, all hyperbole aside, will be the most critical (“His success and our success will be tied together,” offered Rana). Young NBA players including Bennett, Thompson, Olynyk and the Magic’s Andrew Nicholson will likely be key pieces. Nash and his staff have introduced a player-centric approach, catering to each individual and working with teams to foster success at the NBA level. Simply maximizing the number of Canadians that stick on rosters and receive the highest-level instruction will go a long way, before any of them ever arrive at national camp.

The first goal, qualifying for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, seems more than tangible -- with certain potential for a medal. By the 2020 Olympics, these players will have entered their prime years, and the Canadian braintrust will have some difficult choices to make. Regardless of how many Canadians find NBA teams by then, this year's draft marks an affirmation of the country's system, a breakthrough at the game's highest levels.

“It’ll be sad, but it’s also going to be a good thing when we have to cut NBA players from our national team,” said Triano. “That’s what’s going to have to happen. We used to have to try to get NBA guys just to play for us, when there were only one or two of them. Five or six years from now we’ll look at them and say, ‘You’re good enough to be in the NBA, but you might not be good enough to play for Canada.’”

 

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