Tomorrow is one of the most important days in the recent history of Canadian basketball. FIBA's Central Board will be meeting in Barcelona to decide if Canada will be one of four countries to receive the final wild card spots into this summer's World Cup.
When 15 countries originally applied for wild card status, it seemed unlikely that Canada would claim one of the four spots. China, Brazil, Turkey and Russia were considered the frontrunners, based on factors like market size and longstanding corporate ties to FIBA. That has changed after the stunning news, first reported by El Mundo Deportivo and later picked up by Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun, that China and Russia have withdrawn their bids. While these reports haven't been confirmed by FIBA, there have been no denials, either. Along with previous withdrawals by Italy and Germany, Canada is now in a good position to claim one of the four coveted spots.
Here are the teams Canada is competing against, with their FIBA rankings in brackets (Canada's rank is 25): Greece (#5), Turkey (#7), Brazil (#10), Nigeria (#18), Venezuela (#28), Israel (#37), Finland (#39), Poland (#40), Qatar (#42), Bosnia and Herzegovina (#57).
Before getting into Canada's chances, let's do a quick overview of the selection process so we know what we're talking about.
There's only one explicit rule when it comes to the four wild card spots: no more than three teams can come from the same geographical zone. Beyond that, there are three areas that FIBA will look at to determine a country's eligibility: sporting and promotional aspects, economic aspects and governance aspects. (Full details here.) Criteria range from the participation of the country's best players (probably good for Canada) to the importance of the country's market to FIBA's commercial partners (definitely not good for Canada).
According to FIBA, "the wild cards are made to ensure that FIBA has the teams which enable it to have the best possible FIBA World Cup." Results over the past few years, reflected in the FIBA ranking, are more important than results in last year's qualifying events. (Last year Canada finished a disappointing sixth in the FIBA Americas qualifying event after starting the tournament 4-1 before losing their last three games. The top four teams in that event claimed an automatic spot to the World Cup.)
And, of course, what would an international sporting event be without elements that raise questions of transparency and lend themselves well to conspiracy theories? Tucked away at the end of the FIBA release is this juicy paragraph:
National federations applying to have their national team considered for a wild card can make a donation. Each national federation is free to decide the amount to be donated. The amounts collected will be used for the worldwide promotion of basketball through FIBA's International Basketball Foundation (IBF).
That doesn't sound sketchy at all. You're "free" to decide the amount to be donated, but blank checks are best.
So, this brings us to the most important question: What are Canada's chances?
Prior to the withdrawals by China and Russia: slim to none. Now, though? Now things are looking up. We can begin by penciling in Turkey and Brazil. Both markets are large and the Brazilians could use the positive momentum as they prepare to host the 2016 Olympics. In Turkey's case there are longstanding business relationships between FIBA and Turkish companies like Beko, the presenting sponsor at the 2014 World Cup. Beko's name has been splashed all over FIBA events since 2009 and I'm sure there's a sense among Turkish basketball types that that sponsorship will be rewarded.
That leaves two spots, one of which, in my opinion, is likely to go to Greece. The last country to beat the U.S. in international competition (at the semi-finals of the 2006 World Championships), Greece has floundered recently, failing to qualify for the 2012 Olympics and finishing eleventh at the 2010 World Championships. Still, they are one of the top five teams in the world and feature one of the NBA's most intriguing players, Bucks rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo. That should be enough to get them in.
That leaves the following teams fighting for one spot: Canada, Nigeria, Venezuela, Israel, Finland, Poland, Qatar and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Wolstat seems to think Finland and Venezuela will both be contenders, though both suffer from small populations and a limited history of international basketball success. The rest (Nigeria, Israel, Poland, Qatar and Bosnia and Herzegovina) don't seem like threats, though that's just one man's opinion.
Anything can happen but, outside of Brazil, Turkey and Greece, Canada seems like the next best bet. And of course, there's the carrot of Canada's overwhelming talent base, which exceeds every other country they're competing with.
There's no doubt that, of all the teams competing for wild card spots, Canada can put the most talented and exciting team on the court in Spain. Think about it this way: If everybody showed up, a Canadian team could boast as many as eight first round NBA draft picks (Joseph, Thompson, Nicholson, Olynyk, Bennett, Wiggins, Ennis, Stauskas). That's incredible, but what's even more amazing is that Nicholson, at 24, is the oldest member of that group. Canada's best days are ahead of it, although that wouldn't take the sting out of missing this World Cup.
It's also important to consider that one of the FIBA criteria is "the commitment of the best players from the country to participate at the FIBA basketball World Cup." In the past this might have seemed like a huge problem for Canada, but I don't think it is anymore. There have been no public indications that players like Wiggins, Bennett or Olynyk will play this summer, although all have played for Canada in the past.
If Canada misses out, the impulse will be to place the blame on a process that many will call unfair or even corrupt. That impulse might not be wrong, though it would also miss the larger point, namely that Canada never should have found itself in this position in the first place. They should have claimed one of the four automatic spots at last summer's FIBA Americas; they didn't, and now their hopes rest with a bunch of faceless bureaucrats.
It's a shame that just as the wave of Canadian basketball talent begins to crest, the world might have to wait to see it on the biggest stage. Without the World Cup this will be close to a wasted summer, an opportunity to announce ourselves to the world gone by the wayside. The next major competition, the 2015 Olympic qualifiers, is more than two years away. We might have to wait that long before we next see Andrew Wiggins and many others in a Team Canada uniform.
Keep your fingers crossed.