The San Antonio Spurs’ Cory Joseph has decided to play for Team Canada this summer.
For a few years, it seemed as though Pickering’s Cory Joseph and Brampton’s Tristan Thompson were quite content to do everything together.
As basketball stars at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, in their senior year of high school, each went directly to the University of Texas to play for the Longhorns after graduation, and each declared for the NBA draft after only his freshman season.
But as Canada’s senior men’s basketball team put the finishing touches on an ugly win over Belgium in an exhibition game Saturday at Ryerson University’s Kerr Hall gym, it was clear that Joseph and Thompson are now walking different paths: Joseph has elected to play for Team Canada, while Thompson has chosen not to, blaming his absence on fatigue resulting from rigorous pre-draft workouts.
The game at Ryerson, and another between the two teams the following afternoon at McMaster University, comprised the fifth incarnation of the Jack Donohue International Classic, named for the legendary coach who led Team Canada to a fourth-place Olympic finish in 1976. It is usually intended as a tune-up for the national team in advance of the biennial late-summer FIBA Americas Championship.
And, although the Canadians never trailed en route to a 79-74 win, a tune-up seemed to be just what the home side needed.
Surely, Canada Basketball CEO Wayne Parrish meant no disrespect to the Belgian men’s team when he addressed them from centre court shortly before tip-off, but he did stop short of praising a basketball program ranked outside the top 75 in the world.
“It’s tough to get South American and European teams to come over here and play games at this time of year, but you guys did,” Parrish told the Belgian team. “Thank you so much for being here.”
Canada’s Joel Anthony and Belgium’s Tomas Van Den Spiegel battle for the opening tip at Ryerson University on Saturday.
Just as certain as Belgium was about the best competition available for this back-to-back weekend set is the fact that Canada will have to show considerable improvement if they have any hopes of holding their own against stiffer competition when the FIBA tournament kicks off in Argentina at the end of the month. Canada will need to reach the gold medal game there to be assured of an Olympic berth in 2012.
Regardless, the atmosphere in the intimate venue was lively Saturday evening, where a crowd of some 500 fans filled long rows of benches and stood wherever space could be found.
And they often had occasion to cheer during the game, as starting shooting guard Andy Rautins scored 26 points, seven-year veteran point guard Jermaine Anderson shot a perfect seven for seven from the field and Joel Anthony, better known as the starting centre for the Miami Heat, came down with what seemed like every rebound.
But perhaps the largest cheer during the pre-game player introductions was for Joseph.
Not surprising considering that Joseph, along with the absent Thompson, may just be on the verge of making a name for himself in the NBA. He fared well on draft night, selected in the first round, 29th overall, by the San Antonio Spurs.
Thompson made a far bigger splash earlier in the night when, widely predicted to be chosen near the back of the top ten, he was the surprise selection of the Cleveland Cavaliers with the fourth overall pick.
If Thompson’s decision not to play this summer has raised eyebrows, it is because he is not the only Canadian in the NBA to seem less than enthusiastic to suit up for international competition. Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and Jamaal Magloire of the Miami Heat, for example, are regular Team Canada no-shows, while the Sacramento Kings’ Samuel Dalembert left midway through an Olympic qualifier in 2008 after a falling out with head coach Leo Rautins and amid accusations that he had been behaving like a prima donna.
For a country with a deeper pool of talent to draw on, these individuals’ personal decisions would not be such a big deal. But for Canada, whose senior men’s team fell to a humbling 23rd in the world after last year’s poor showing at the FIBA World Championship, every able body that opts out is a major blow.
This fact is certainly not lost on coach Rautins, who lauded Joseph’s dedication at a brief post-game press conference Saturday. “It’s a great example for the young kids out there,” Rautins said. “Cory’s a first-round pick in the NBA, and he’s here.”
Joseph is indeed setting a great example, especially as he is considered to be one of the leaders of a new generation of elite Canadian talent currently making its way through American high schools and colleges into the NBA, a group which includes Toronto’s Myck Kabongo and Montreal’s Khem Birch.
But we should hesitate to congratulate Joseph too effusively, lest we lose perspective.
After all, the story is not one man’s decision to do the right thing. It is the distressing reality that, once he becomes a professional, we can no longer take a young player’s desire to compete for his country for granted.
Only time will tell us whether Thompson goes on to follow the path of perpetual non-participation preferred by Nash and others, or the one preferred by veteran forward Levon Kendall, honoured in a ceremony before Saturday’s tip-off for having played his 100th game as a member of the men’s team over the course of 10 successive summers.
Only time, also, to tell us who the “kids” Rautins mentions will eventually choose to emulate in this regard.
Photos by Daryl Buttineau.