It was a long and often frustrating 23 years.
Now, finally, Canada’s men’s basketball team will return to the Olympics for the first time since 2000.
Canada beat reigning champion Spain 88-85 on Sunday at the World Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia, securing both a quarterfinal spot in this tournament and a place in the Paris Olympics next summer.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who led Canada with 29 points against Spain, joked that his mom Charmaine Gilgeous, who competed in track and field at the 1992 Olympics, no longer holds bragging rights.
“It’s just an honour. My whole life I’ve known what it’s meant to go to the Olympics because of that and I know the best athletes in the world are there and we consider ourselves amongst that group. It’s a good feeling to go,” the Hamilton, Ont. native said.
While the Canadian women’s team has appeared at the past three Olympics, the country’s medal drought dates to 1936, when the men secured silver on an outdoor court during a rainstorm in Nazi Germany.
But Canada’s success at this World Cup offers every reason to believe a return to the podium is very much within reach.
“The last time we played in the Olympics was in 2000, and I keep saying that was one of the greatest things in my life was being able to take 12 players to the Olympics,” said Jay Triano, who was head coach of that team.
“It would just be the best thing ever for us to get back in the Olympics and then do well in the Olympics. I think that’s very much on the table for this group of players.”
Canada didn’t make things easy on itself at the World Cup. After three easy wins in the first round, a stunning loss to Brazil set up the must-win against Spain.
It was a test of Canada’s mettle — under a Spanish head coach in Jordi Fernandez who only took over in June after Nick Nurse’s abrupt departure.
Maybe that new blood was necessary though.
WATCH | Canada earns Olympic berth with thrilling win over Spain:
Fernandez wasn’t there in 2015 when Kelly Olynyk slipped on a court ad, turning the ball over late in a one-point loss to Venezuela that would have sent Canada to the Rio Olympics.
He wasn’t there in 2016, when a young Canadian squad held its own but still lost to France in another opportunity to win and reach Rio.
And he wasn’t there in 2021, when Canada, on home court in Victoria, made a 10-point comeback in the final minute against the Czech Republic but fell in OT and was eliminated from the Tokyo Olympic qualifying tournament.
Fernandez didn’t come loaded with the cynicism of prior defeats.
“I’m extremely honoured to be here and help this program grow to where it’s supposed to be, where it’s ranked No. 1. This is our long-term goal,” he said on the first day of training camp in August in Toronto.
Kyle Alexander, whose sister Kayla played for Team Canada at Tokyo 2020, said it would be “incredible” to step foot on an Olympic court.
“My sister explained to me, she kind of talked me through the level of what it’s like to be at the Olympics and how much of a blessing it was, how cool of an experience it was. And I would love to experience that for myself and put on for my country in that way,” he said.
At times at this World Cup, including blowouts of France and Latvia, Canada has shown Fernandez’s optimism to be well-founded.
Now, if the team can continue meeting that potential, it could land on the Olympic podium next summer.
An Olympic medal would be a triumph celebrated not just by the current team, but by all those who’ve played since 2000.
“To see these kids really take the next step and now we have a team full of NBA guys and international players that are playing at the highest levels around the world, there’s a lot of pride,” said Vidal Massiah, Canada’s captain from 2004 to 2005.
Rowan Barrett, who’s now the general manager and whose son RJ is on the team, played in 2000 under Triano.
“It’s one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had in sports. We’re hoping that another generation of athletes will now get the experience. That’s what we want for our country, get back onto that world stage and perform on that stage,” he said.
Sherman Hamilton, another member of the 2000 team, told CBC Sports recently that Canada should be thinking medal or bust.
“That’s the kind of talent that’s on this current team. It should only be podium talk. Slippage would be a bronze, for this team, in my opinion. They should be competing for gold,” he said.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who stars for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA, has proven his stardom on the international stage now too, serving as the engine of Canada’s offence.
Olnynk, the captain who last played at the World Cup as a teenager in 2010, and fellow heady veteran Dwight Powell came together as a formidable frontcourt.
Dillon Brooks and Lu Dort provided strangling defence and timely shot making.
And all those difficult conversations about the stars who skip out — at this tournament, Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins and Cory Joseph were among the most glaring absences, for various reasons — can be put to bed for now.
Because Canada, at long last, got the job done.
It will play at the Olympics.
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