One of the most underrated moments on the sports award calendar went down yesterday here in Toronto with the announcement of the 2023 Northern Star winner. The award is presented to the top Canadian athlete of the year as voted on by a panel of journalists who spend their lives following every move. For just the second time ever, and the first since 2005, a basketball player was deemed the best Canadian athlete — none other than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Hamilton-native truly had a two-pronged campaign to win the award; putting together a jaw-dropping NBA season as well as playing a pivotal role in getting Canadian men’s basketball back to the Olympics. For anyone questioning how a basketball player with no title won the award over the likes of Connor McDavid, newly-minted Canadian icon Nick Taylor, world champion Camryn Rogers, or the impossibly young yet dominant Summer McIntosh, all I have to say is — have you turned on your TV in the last 12 months?
In case you haven’t…let’s break it down.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s 2022-23 NBA season was the best NBA season by a Canadian since Steve Nash. The 25-year old finished fourth in the league in scoring with an average of 31.4 points per game while leading a rebuilding Thunder team to the NBA play-in tournament. His incredible season was rewarded as the guard earned his first all-NBA nod and a fifth place finish in league MVP voting.
Led Canada to Bronze at FIBA— Dashawn Stephens (@StephensPRSVRE) December 11, 2023
Earned 1st Team All-NBA Nod
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just became only the second basketball player to ever be named Canada’s Athlete of the Year
Steve Nash won it in 2005
SGA hasn’t missed a beat to start the 2023-24 season, he’s still averaging over 30 points per game while also bringing his assists up, both being key factors in his Thunder’s 14-7 start and second-place hold in the West.
This is however a Canadian award, so the Hamiltonian’s contributions while wearing the red and white certainly carried more weight. Those contributions? Earning this country a men’s basketball spot at the Olympics for the first time in nearly a quarter century. Fittingly, the last time a Canadian team suited up in men’s Olympic basketball, they were also led by Nash.
Gilgeous-Alexander may not have been the highest scorer at the tournament (granted, he still averaged 24.5 PPG, 6.4 AST, 6.4 REB) it was his unique combination of offensive gifts, defensive prowess, unselfishness, and efficiency that made him so indispensable to the Canadian contingent. While he was a sight to behold nearly every game in Indonesia, there were 3 specific games that had the basketball community reckoning with the fact that there was a new superstar in town.
First was the do-or-die showdown with the Spanish side that just so happened to hold the number one world ranking. Anyone who watched the last 2 minutes of that game bore witness to a clinic in clutchness. In the final 120 seconds, Gilgeous-Alexander sunk eight consecutive free throws, secured a steal, hit a jump shot, landed a layup, and assisted on multiple 3-point shots for his teammates. Canada got by the world’s best basketball team 88-85.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went OFF in Canada’s 88-85 W vs. Spain— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 3, 2023
3 STL pic.twitter.com/0fZsXFiiLj
Next came the knockout round meeting with Slovenia and their golden boy, Luka Doncic. The fanfare for the one-on-one matchups heading into the win-or-go-home clash has only been rivaled by the marketing campaigns run ahead of a pay-per-view heavyweight fight. While the lasting memories of that game will certainly be of Doncic’s ejection and Dillon Brooks’ antics, SGA sneakily put up over 31 points and 10 rebounds, becoming the first player to top 30 points and hit double digit rebounds while winning a World Cup elimination game.
Finally and fittingly, Gilgeous-Alexander put up 31 points and 12 assists against this country’s forever rivals, USA, to secure the bronze medal in what was a nail-biting overtime contest.
SGA’s monumental month at the World Cup was capped off with his inclusion on the tournament’s Best Five. Gilgeous-Alexander is the first Canadian to earn the honour.
It cannot be overstated how vital this year’s Northern Star winner was and will continue to be to the senior men’s national team. Canadian teams with similar ceilings and many of the same players as those who suited up this past summer have failed to show up in the key moments or earn spots on the biggest stages, but with the addition of Gilgeous-Alexander’s poise, leadership, and other worldly skillset, Canadian will get to watch their men’s team in Paris next summer.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, an all NBA first team selection who was the engine behind Canada's men's national team qualifying for the Olympics for the first time since Sydney 2000, is the winner of The Northern Star Award for Canada's athlete of the year in 2023.— Arash Madani (@ArashMadani) December 11, 2023
So I come back to you, dearest sports fan who may have been confused as to why the country’s top sporting honour went to a ball player buried in basketball Siberia (read: Oklahoma City Thunder), do you get it now?
In fact, the only thing separating Gilgeous-Alexander from being plastered across every neon New York billboard is that he plays in a city that cares more about high school football recruitment than they do about basketball. He has every bit of star power as every other face of the league, if not more. Don’t believe me? Take the Kardashian’s word for it, they hired Gilgeous-Alexander as one of the three faces to launch their men’s SKIMS line.
While we wait for the basketball world to catch up to SGA’s stardom, us Canadians will continue to follow the light of our Northern Star.