Ex-national team players excited by Canadian men's growth, exposure on world stage

Hope has turned into reality for former members of the Canadian senior men's basketball team.

Canada clinched its first-ever semifinal spot at the FIBA Men's Basketball World Cup on Wednesday with a win over Slovenia in Manila, Philippines. The team also qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympics on Sunday, ending a drought that dates back to the 2000 Games.

It's the type of moment members of Canada's 1982 FIBA World Championship and 1983 Universiade Games teams say they’ve been waiting on for a long time.

"We've been hoping for this," said Howard Kelsey, a member of both teams, and former executive vice-president with Canada Basketball.

The 1982 squad finished sixth at the world championship. The 1983 team followed that with a gold medal-winning performance, where they beat a U.S. team featuring future NBA Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Charles Barkley before defeating Yugoslavia 83-68 in the final.

Former NBAer and Canada head coach Leo Rautins said what makes him happy is the recognition the current iteration of the Canadian team is getting versus the teams he played on in the 1980s.

"The difference being that the whole world is watching, this is the global stage," Rautins said. "All of Canada is watching. (Kelsey) and I, (Bill Wennington), Greg (Wiltjer), all these guys, we played in some incredible games in big tournaments.

"And we had success on the world stage, but nobody knew it, right? The difference now is that people are seeing it. To me, everything they're doing now is the biggest and the greatest thing for the game."

It's a point echoed by former teammate Wiltjer, who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in the second round of the 1984 NBA draft.

"It's a different world," he said. "I mean, when we played back in the day, we went out there, we didn't have the media hype.

"You didn't have the internet, Instagram, the instant access, you know, we were out there, you know grinding it out … (in) little random towns and just to try to get the word spread out there."

For these ex-players, Canada's success on the world stage is a welcome relief for years spent in the basketball hinterlands.

"It used to be you see a (Canadian) player once in a while," said Wennington, who played for the Chicago Bulls from 1993-99 and is currently a colour commentator for the team. "Now it's like almost every other team has a Canadian. Some have two or three. You look at Oklahoma City and it's like a little Canadian factory down there.

"Youth basketball in Canada is a big reason why that's happening. A lot more guys are interested in playing."

Rautins points to the NBA's expansion into Canada in 1995 with the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies as a key moment for the sport's growth in the country and its national program.

"Our best players were the young kids, right? The young kids that grew up with the NBA," he said. "And I think that's an important point that, you know, the NBA came to Canada in 1995 … (you) could turn on the TV and watch 300 games a year.

"You could go to clinics and see NBA players. So the impact (of) the NBA has been incredible."

While all four said they hope the next step the national team takes is to medal at the Olympics next year, Wiltjer hopes the team takes away one other moment as they move forward as a group.

"It means a lot to play for Canada," he said. "And it's not just not just about going out there and collecting that million-dollar paycheque, but going out and representing your country is very, very special.

"And I'm hoping that these young guys realize this through this experience."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2023.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press