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Thursday, September 21, 2000

Triano's hoopsters: The Canadian Team

 SYDNEY -- Sixteen years ago, Jay Triano stood beside a chain-link fence, with tears streaming down his face, trying to find his composure and explain what it meant to play basketball for Canada at the Olympic Games.

 "I love these guys,'' he said at the Los Angeles Forum. "I love this team. I wish this could go on forever.''

 He had less experience and more hair back then and he was trying to make sense of both the thrill and the pain the Olympics can bring and how much it mattered to his life.

 Early this afternoon Sydney time, Triano stood beside another Olympic chain-link fence, the kind that always separates the competitors from the media, trying to explain how this team he used to play for and now coaches, has suddenly and dramatically and stunningly become the Canadian story away from triathlon at the Summer Olympic Games.

 "I was so disappointed back then with our finish,'' Triano said. "I thought we were going to win a medal. That team was so close. I've learned a lot over the years.'' A lot to get Canada into the shocking position it holds now in the Olympic basketball tournament.

 First, they beat Australia. An upset of huge proportions. Then they beat Angola. Expected. On Thursday, it was Canada 91, Spain 77. Another upset. An upset significant enough to put a Canadian team that wasn't expected to qualify for the Olympics, a Canadian team that wasn't even thought about as a medal contender, in position to play for bronze or maybe even silver against Vince Carter and the Americans.

 This has become THE Canadian team of the Olympic Games. This has become the team to watch. And make no mistake, this is Triano's team. His shot for a medal that never came as a player.

 "Let's be honest, people don't know much about Canadian basketball,'' said Michael Meeks, the forward who went to Brampton's Cardinal Leger High School before attending Canisius College in Buffalo. "We don't have a lot of NBA players on this team. We don't have a lot of guys anybody knows.

 "But we've come into this tournament focussed and prepared. That's the key word. You keep hearing it -- stay focussed. And everything we do starts with us playing defence. A lot of these countries concentrate on offence, when you shut them down, they don't know what to do.''

 Finding a way to win -- it used to be the Canadian way when we would send a team of leftover hockey players to the Olympics and call them our best. Somehow, with a Dave King coaching, with a lot of heart, with a plan that makes sense, they'd find a way to scratch and claw and win Canada's hearts, if not a medal.

 Just the way this basketball team is doing it now. It starts on the court with Steve Nash, the waterbug of a point guard who spends his winters with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. But, remarkably, it doesn't end there.

 There is Rowan Barrett from West Hill Collegiate in Scarborough and Meeks from Brampton and Todd McCullouch of Winnipeg by way of the Philadelphia 76ers. And there is Pete Guarasci from Niagara Falls and Sherman Hamilton from Malton. None of them stars. All of them a team.

 "You want to know what Jay's done,'' said Barrett. "He's figured it. Normally, I lead the team in scoring, Steve leads in assists, Todd leads in rebounds, Sherman plays defence against their best player. You see, everyone has a role to play. We're not about any one player. We're a team.''

 When they came to Sydney, they seemed to be a team too tense to deal with all that can be the Olympic Games. They made that decision before coming here. They weren't here as tourists. They were here to win something.

 They weren't going to other Olympic events. They weren't going to visit family. They weren't going out at night. They were going wherever the team went -- all of them.

 "I told them, you have the rest of your lives to go and see the Olympics,'' said Triano.

 "Don't be a tourist now."

 Jay Triano, the former captain, was first player, then assistant coach, now head coach of the Canadian team. He grew up with the Canadian game and all the disappointments that go with it.

 He won't allow himself to celebrate anything yet. He's seen too much to know better.

 But he knows that back in Ottawa, there's this old coach named Jack Donohue, watching from afar, watching his old captain, watching with pride.

 "He's part of this,'' said Jay Triano, representing the past, present and future of Canadian basketball. "This is a lot of what it's all about.''