Photo via The Athletic.
Canada has earned tickets to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France after making it to the FIBA World Cup 2023 playoffs. After a nail-biting affair, the star-studded roster managed to clinch an 88-85 victory against the reigning champion, Spain, in the deciding match on September 3rd. This marks the first time the Men's National Team has appeared in the Olympics since 2000.
Accredited for bringing forth the inventor of the game, Canada has always been a major competitor in the basketball world. However, the men’s team’s international record has not always been the most exceptional—they have yet to bring home a trophy despite a plethora of silver and bronze medals garnered throughout almost a century of history. The Men’s National Team’s last appearance in the Summer Olympics was in the 2000 tournament in Sydney, Australia. They would then miss out on the following five Olympics; they barely missed the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil falling 74-83 to France in the qualifiers in Manila, Philippines. As of February 27, 2023, they were ranked 15th in the FIBA World Ranking.
Following a lack of success in the late 2010s and early 2020s, in May 2022, Canada Basketball introduced a ‘summer core’ roster consisting of fourteen athletes willing to represent the country for three years. “By assembling committed core groups of players and staff to represent Canada over the next several years, we firmly believe this will position this program for sustained success, both now and in the future,” said Nick Nurse, Head Coach. Nurse stepped down from the position earlier in June, replaced by Jordi Fernández, Head Coach of the Sacramento Kings.
The roster, captained by Kelly Olynyk of the Utah Jazz, includes stars such as R.J. Barrett of the New York Knicks and MVP at the 2017 FIBA Under-19 World Cup, Dillon Brooks of the Houston Rockets and 2023 NBA All-Defensive Second Team, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder, coming off a spectacular NBA season where he was named to the All-NBA First Team after averaging 31.4 points per game.
Canada qualified for the 2023 FIBA World Cup with flying colors, finishing first overall with an impressive 11-1 record and a +351 round difference. To further prepare, leading up to the prestigious tournament, Canada Basketball announced a five-game exhibition series where the team would compete in Europe against the top-ranked nations in the world. They finished the exhibition tour with a 3-2 record.
Carrying the high from the tour into the FIBA World Cup, Canada announced their arrival in Jakarta, Indonesia with a dominant 95-65 win against France, ranked 5th, in the opening game. The team then completed the first round of the group stage with a flawless 3-0 record, netting wins over Latvia and Lebanon. In the second stage, however, they would suffer their first loss to Brazil; this put them in dangerous waters as they were one more loss away from being eliminated and missing another Olympic. If they wanted to clinch a berth in the 2024 Paris Olympics, they would have to prevail over Spain, the top-ranked team in the tournament. Although their 11-game win streak was ended by Latvia in the prior match, La Roja had not lost consecutive games in the competition since 1990, and they are known to shine the most where the spotlight shines the brightest. The pressure was unfathomable for our boys in red and white.
Spain got off to a vehement start, leading 48-38 at halftime, but Canada managed to claw back and take a narrow 53-52 lead. However, the Spaniards went on a hot streak, commandeering a 21-6 run; ten minutes remained on the clock, and the score was 73-61. In spite of the double-digit deficit, the unyielding Canadians still dug deep and eventually broke even by virtue of a three-pointer from Dillan Brooks with a minute on the clock. Then came Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - the 25-year-old hit the picture-perfect pull-up jump shot from the top of the arc to give Canada an 82-80 lead with 44 seconds left. La Roja’s fate was sealed when he calmly sank six free throws in the final period, granting Canada a spot in the FIBA World Cup playoffs, as well as a ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics. The Torontonian superstar was monumental in the historic comeback win with 30 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals; he also made 14 free throws out of 16.
“We're a part of history,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “It's something that's almost indescribable. So many people along the way have put in so much work for this program and having the opportunity to do so, we want to thank them and also represent them when we go, and in the rest of this tournament.”
Despite eventually falling in the semi-finals to a red-hot Serbia, this marked Canada’s furthest progress in the FIBA World Cup; they even defeated Slovenia with Luka Dončić, regarded as one of the greatest European players of all time, in the quarterfinals. The third-place finish hardly matters now when the win against Spain effectively relegates to the dustbin a 23-year drought in this nation’s men’s basketball legacy. We shall see them again in the Paris Olympics next year.