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Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Hoops 'family' comes of age

The closer they get, the better they look


  SYDNEY -- They have known one another literally since they were teenagers.

 They like to play dribble tag with one another during practice, have contests to see who can hit shots from half-court, contests their coach still takes part in.

 They eat together. They share rooms on the road. They have gone to bars together back in training camp, seen movies together, played practical jokes on one another, and sometimes even squabbled with one another.

 Now that they are grown men, they have stood for one another at their weddings.

 They are as much of a family as they are a team, and have been for the better part of a decade.

 "This," point guard Steve Nash said, "is the closest group of guys I have ever played with in my entire career."

 Perhaps chemistry and character are not the most important reasons why the national men's basketball team finished at the top of its pool at the Sydney Games, poised to rewrite Canadian basketball history early tomorrow morning if it can beat France in the quarter-finals and then go on to win a medal.

 And then again, it might just be something far from the least important, too.

 "The things I see with this team I simply don't see very often," said Dr. David Cox, a sports psychologist from Simon Fraser University who is here helping make sure the Canadian team is mentally prepared to win.

 Cox yesterday called this team without a doubt "the toughest team mentally in this tournament," and has been struck by the high degree of trust the players have with one another.

 In the heat of the pitched, ask-and-give-no-quarter battle with Yugoslavia, for instance, Canada's players during timeouts were calm, cool, and reasonably composed given the circumstances. The Yugoslavs and their coaching staff, on the other hand, were shouting, screaming and gesturing at one another.

 That might say something about the overall social character of each nation, but it also might say something about the fact that Canada's players have been to war together now for seven years.

 The backbone of the current national team -- four of the five starters and six members all told -- all played together at the 1993 at the World University Games in Buffalo, N.Y.

 That team, which featured Nash, Mike Meeks, Rowan Barrett and Peter Guarasci, as well as alternates Sherman Hamilton and Greg Newton, nearly won a gold medal, losing to the U.S. by just a few points.

 It's also interesting to note that four more current team members -- Eric Hinrichsen, Greg Francis, David Daniels and Shawn Swords -- played together on the 1997 World University Games team in Palermo, Italy. The coach of that team was Mike Katz, Triano's No. 1 assistant here in Sydney.

 They've all been in the same trench many times before.

 "It's huge," Triano said of the significance of the familiarity. "They're like brothers. They know one another's idiosyncrasies, they know when one of them has been pushed too far. They know when someone is being serious, and when someone is joking.

 "I'm a firm believer that you carry onto the floor what you do off the floor. The way these guys are with one another is remarkable."

 Cox said the team is not only close-knit, but has bought into the notion that mental toughness isn't something that you wish for or something that just happens, "but a skill that has to be practised.

 "Geese are 70% more efficient at what they do when they fly together than when they're on their own," Cox said. "This is a team that has discovered it's better than the sum of its parts."

 It was likely that knowledge which played a large role in the way Canada qualified for the Olympics in Puerto Rico last summer -- ripping a game away from Puerto Rico on its home court when no one else thought it could be done.

 A similar thing unfolded when Canada won its first game of this tournament against host Australia, and again against Spain, and again against Yugoslavia.

 The point is that the players who will take to the floor against France have been together for a long time, and been through much together. They might be beaten because they are not good enough.

 They will not be beaten because they don't believe in one another enough.