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Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Old-style Olympic spirit lives on in Triano
 SYDNEY -- I often wish that those Canadians obsessed with the Leafs, the Oilers, the World Series and the Super Bowl had a little more time in their lives for Canada's Olympians than two or three weeks every four years.

 This is not their fault. Canada's sports journalists are such willing cogs in the professional sports wheel that quite a few of the biggest names refuse to cover any sport that does not reek of big money.

 The Olympics stink of money, of course, so every four years a few sportswriters have some nice things to say about such people as Jay Triano. But Triano's commitment to basketball in Canada is a relentless obsession that has lasted his lifetime. It is a story which deserves to be celebrated more often than every four years.

 Triano played guard and small forward for coach Jack Donohue back in the 1970s and was the heart and soul of the national team. He had a pelt of jet black hair and lovely touch from the three-point zone. What little hair Triano has left is now grey and he has become the national team's brain and inspiration.

 Watching Triano run a practice the other morning at the domed stadium where the Olympic basketball tournament begins on Friday, I was immediately struck by two things. He is blessed with a much more talented team than Canada ever had in the 10-plus years when he played. Given the evolution of all sports, that's probably to be expected. What surprised me was that this team also has more fun on the court than Donohue's teams ever did - and Donohue's teams were not only good, but were famous for having a great time.

 "If you don't have fun, how many guys are going to give up four months of the summer?" Triano asked after an intense two-hour workout which included several complicated games of tag that had his players in stitches. "This game was not invented so those who play it think of it as work."

 Andy Pipe, a physician at Ottawa's Heart Institute, talked his way into a job with Donohue's team at the World Championships in the Philippines in 1978 and has been part of almost every national team since. Pipe raves about this year's squad like no other.

 "The obvious chemistry that you see out on the court now has developed out of the respect the players have for Triano as a player, coach and manager," Pipe said. "These guys would jump off a cliff for him, he is such a naturally gifted teacher."

 Triano wanted to talk about his players' gifts, not his own.

 "Look at their bodies. Look at how they do the drills," marvelled the Niagara Falls native, who works during the winter in community relations for the Vancouver Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association. "Every one of them is physically stronger than we were as players in my day. They eat right. They have the benefit of better sports medicine. Each of them is a pro somewhere. Some of us were just part-timers."

 This may be Canada's best team ever, but if it is to break through to the medal round it must get past four formidable first-round opponents including the world champion Yugoslavs and the Aussies, who can count on phenomenal support from their countrymen.

 Just as Triano was often Donohue's trump card, when he needed a star turn late in a game, Triano has come to count on guard Steve Nash of Victoria, a fabulous ball handler and shooter who makes millions of dollars every winter playing for the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA.

 Triano and others have been mightily impressed by Nash's desire, which showed itself during the workout when he won every wind sprint. Although entitled by the NBA collective agreement to fly first class, Nash has insisted on riding cattle class with his fellow Canadians on an odyssey which took them from Canada to Honolulu to Tokyo, Hong Kong and the Olympic village in the past few days.

 This is a rather different experience that the latest version of the American Dream Team. The U.S. giants have each been allowed to bring a "crew" of eight friends to Sydney where they are ensconced in luxury hotel suites.

 "Nothing would surprise me about the American team. I guess they'll be out golfing every day, too," Nash said with a wry smile. "I'm here for Canada and it's not difficult at all."

 Similar words could have been spoken by Jay Triano when he played the same position and the same pivotal role for Canada more than two decades ago.