SEARCH 2000 Games

Monday, September 18, 2000

Some great white hope

Victory over Australia has Canadians thinking anything is possible

  SYDNEY -- The large heart that beats inside point guard Steve Nash pumped life back into Canadian basketball yesterday.

 And for anybody who cares about the game, for anybody who wandered with it through the Canadian wilderness for the past 12 years or so -- it can't help but feel damn good.

 Count Nash at the front of that long line.

 "This," he said after sparking a shocking, 101-90 victory over host Australia yesterday, "is a lot of vindication."


 Sure, if you want, you can say to yourself that yesterday's improbable win amounted to just one game, one that doesn't necessarily amount to anything in a big-picture way.

 Certainly it's true that Canada needs to follow up with a win against Angola tonight to validate what unfolded yesterday.

 But the difference is that Canadian basketball fans wake up today nursing something they haven't had in a long time: A simple, powerful thing called hope.

 "This was about redemption," said Nash, the architect of yesterday's win. "Canada has had so many ups and downs. There has been so much second-guessing and turmoil."

 Not today.

 For two Olympic cycles, the Canadian men had not so much as qualified for the Games. Two years ago, without the then-injured Nash, Canada was a dismal 12th at the world championships in Greece. That sparked a review of the program and a change of head coaches.

 Yesterday's win and last summer's qualification for Sydney suggest something new and important could be unfolding.

 A good deal has changed in the past two years.

 For starters, head coach Jay Triano is of a different generation than the three men who preceded him. A two-time Olympian, he relates to his players in a way they understand and respect.

 "There's an element of trust," centre Todd MacCulloch said yesterday. "Everyone knows Jay has been there. In a timeout, no one is sniping at one another. Everyone listens to what he says. What he says is law."

 Consider that Triano had his team prepared for precisely what Australia did the first time down the floor, for the all-important, statement-making, first few minutes of war.

 "Jay said they would come down and shoot the deep three (pointer) and that's just what they did," forward Mike Meeks said. "He said, 'Go get the rebound, and go right back at them.'

 "Well, we did."

 Secondly, Triano made a conscious decision last summer to forgo the best talent in the country for players who would listen, who would learn and who would respect teammates. In short, he opened a laboratory and invented chemistry.

 In the meantime, the core of the young players from Greece -- MacCulloch, Meeks, Greg Newton, Rowan Barrett, Peter Guarasci and Sherman Hamilton, among others -- gained two more years of international experience. They've grown as people and players.

 And finally, there's Nash, who has matured from a raw kid with potential during the 1994 world championships in Toronto to a savvy NBA veteran. He contributes more than his own significant skills -- he has that rare ability to make his teammates better.

 "He definitely makes that team 20, 30 points better," said Australia's Chris Anstey, who plays for the NBA Chicago Bulls.

 "He's the ideal point guard."

 All of it appears to have coalesced and Canada is suddenly in a position to control its Olympic basketball destiny. Yes, it will take victories over Angola and Spain to unlock the significance of yesterday's win.

 But if you look back to the improbable achievements in Puerto Rico last summer, followed up by yesterday's refusal to wither against a team playing with all the emotional cards in its favour -- Australia was at home and led by flag-bearer Andrew Gaze -- something is palpably different.


 And if that difference proves to be nothing more than hope, then so be it. It's something Canadian basketball fans haven't had for far too long.

 "You know, I'm pretty excited about Canadian basketball," said MacCulloch, who plays for the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. "It used to be that Canadian kids would only wear U.S. (basketball clothing and) stuff. That's changing.

 "We're all tired of playing well and losing. It's time to play well and win."

 It has been for too long.

 As Nash put it, yesterday it was time for redemption.