By now, you've read all about what happened in the FIBA Americas Semifinal. No one but Kelly Olynyk showed up. Facing the 4th seeded Venezuelans in the semifinals with an Olympic berth on the line, it all seemed so simple.
For the first two quarters you were just annoyed that Canada was down by one. You joked about Canada losing to this less talented Venezuela team without totally believing it. As the clock ticked down and the lead stayed within three points of either team, you finally started realizing, "holy shit, this is actually going to go down to the wire." Given the mammoth stakes on the line, for that game to end on a dubious foul call was a massive gut-punch. Venezuela were the beneficiaries of a loose-ball foul on a missed final shot as time ran out. Free throws. Game over.
After letting the loss marinate overnight, we have some clarity in how to reflect on this summer. Venezuela eventually defeated Argentina in the final, and they deserve all of the credit for their improbable performance without Greivis Vasquez. They were undersized, almost entirely local, but so well-drilled behind Nestor "Argentinian Tom Sterner" Garcia.
For Canada, the road is now a lot tougher. Three 6-team tournaments will be played next summer; the winner of each will earn an entry into the Olympic group stages. Only two teams from Europe will qualify automatically from the on-going Eurobasket tournament and five more will be entered into the qualifying pool with Canada. As we learned so cruelly, chemistry is king in short-format tournaments. Europe's elite are probably still a class above Canada at the moment (France, Spain, Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Lithuania, Italy as a starting point). New Zealand will be challenging, as will Senegal. It's an uphill climb.
As far as what this means for the program, that question is a little bit more difficult to answer. The positives are plenty: they've never medalled twice in a summer before. They showed remarkable resilience in beating Mexico for 3rd place without Nik Stauskas and Anthony Bennett. Next summer, they should be able to add Jamal Murray, Tyler Ennis, Tristan Thompson and Trey Lyles to the selection pool. There's even more talent further down the pipeline in guys like O'Shae Brissett, Dillon Brooks, Rowan Barrett Jr, Simi Shittu, etc.
This team's average age was under 24. They'll continue to grow and they'll be better off having had this experience in the long run. I believe that. The balls that it took for Cory Joseph to come out of the Venezuela game, face the cameras and shoulder the blame after a 1-8 shooting performance? Awesome. The leadership he showed in putting the team on his back in the 3rd place game and hitting two clutch jumpers, including the game winner? You could see how much it meant to him in his celebration. That's our guy. And he's a Toronto Raptor.
But still, this tournament is hard for me to consider anything but painful. Allow me to get sentimental. (He says after 700 words). There's a unique beauty to international sports. You have whatever resources that are at your disposal, and you make due with them. No team building, it just is what it is. You motivate, you strategize and you either prosper or die.
Any soccer fan in this country will remember October 16, 2012. Canada played its biggest World Cup qualification match in soccer in over a decade, and to say they crapped the bed would be a massive understatement. They lost 8-1 to Honduras. World Cup dreams dashed. Our soccer and basketball national teams face unique challenges in this hockey-dominated country. Building and covering the growth of those programs is often a thankless job that takes a remarkable amount of perseverance and I feel for those people as much as anyone else.
Then there's the larger issue of the battle against time. It's a bit of an existential conversation, but bear with me. The Olympics take place every four years. A 20-year old Andrew Wiggins would be lucky to play in four Olympics games over the course of his career. Miss the games in 2016? 25 percent of Wiggins' Olympic career down the drain. I have no recollection of what it meant for us when Steve Nash led Canada to 7th place in Sydney. I've never seen Canada play in a FIFA World Cup. Seems odd to say, but a lot can happen in four years. People move on, players retire, get hurt, or don't develop. Fans lose interest, move onto other things, or to put it crudely, stop existing altogether.
I hate sports pic.twitter.com/3Q0L7OD9YG— Kelly Nolympics (@IamHarshDave) September 12, 2015
It feels like shit. We were close. We almost made it to the big show. We're left with one small glimmer of hope next summer. Olympic dreams on hold.