Steve Nash Is Carrying Canada Basketball Into The Future

This weekend, Steve Nash took the floor in Toronto, Ontario for the first time since being acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers in July of 2012. Canada’s most successful active basketball player finished the contest with 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, nine assists and one steal as the Lakers fell 108-103 to the Toronto Raptors. The game was one of the former two-time MVP’s best in what has been an otherwise disappointing season for he and his Los Angeles teammates. Still, seeing Nash back in his home and native land was, in many ways, bittersweet.

For some context, the Canadian basketball experience has been pretty depressing over the past 20 years. The men’s national team last qualified for the Olympics 12 years ago, back when the team was led by a fresh-faced Steve Nash. Similarly, on the professional side, the Toronto Raptors have struggled to attain even modest NBA success (not to mention the defunct Vancouver Grizzlies). In 16 seasons, the Raps have reached the playoffs just five times, while losing the likes of Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh via trade or free agency. The 2011-12 squad finished the season 11th in the East with a record of 23-43 (Toronto isn’t much better this year, sitting in 10th in the conference at 15-26.)

And so, when the possibility that Nash might end up a Raptor became real this summer, most basketball fans across the country were understandably excited. The logic was threefold: Toronto offered the Victoria, British Columbia native more money than any other suitor (even sending along a personalized message from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and taking on Landry Fields for $20 million). Nash, who turns 39 years old in February, could finish his career in his home country, and, perhaps even more compelling, the combination of Canada’s only professional basketball team with its national basketball hero had the potential to grow the game in ways other Raptors never could.

Nash did not sign in Toronto in the offseason, landing instead with the Lake Show. While the fact that Nash chose Hollywood over the hockey capital certainly stung, let’s face it, Canucks: Steve Nash made the right decision for both himself, and for the nation as a whole.

The former has been well-documented elsewhere, including by Dime‘s Andrew Greif. Briefly, by putting on the purple and gold, Nash was thought to have improved his chances of winning a well-deserved first NBA title (the key word here is thought – although there’s still half a season to play), and he was also in close proximity to his family on the West Coast.

But what about Canada?

In May of 2012, Nash signed on as General Manager of Canada Basketball’s men’s senior national team. The role enables Nash to still transform the country’s basketball culture for good, even from afar with the Lakers. Based on his public statements, that is the goal.

“The ultimate reason I’m here is to put basketball on the upper echelon of the international game,” said Nash in May. “That’s the end goal. The journey’s great, we want to work every day to build a team, to build a program, to build a culture about our game but ultimately we want success. We want to be playing at the Olympics perennially. We want to be in the hunt for medals.”

The task is obviously a challenging one, but at first blush, Nash seems well-positioned for the gig. As an NBA superstar for the last decade, Nash is already versed in the beats of the contemporary game. Moreover, from a competitive standpoint, he also possesses invaluable scouting expertise of the world’s best players, including LeBron James (USA), his teammate Pau Gasol (Spain) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina). Such experience is an instructive background for Nash and his assistant Rowan Barrett as they make important operational decisions leading up to 2016. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Nash, despite showing signs of physical decay, is arguably the sharpest basketball mind in the league today.

Second, Canada’s men’s program is seriously underfunded. The current operating budget for the team is approximately $400,000, over 10 times less than the amount used by Team USA. However, the name recognition of a public figure like Steve Nash is a powerful tool in leveraging the investment dollars required to successfully run a national basketball regime. It’s already been reported that since Captain Canada was announced as GM, the program (as a whole) has raised in excess of $2 million from its “Sixth Man Group” donation plan.

The real promise of Nash’s involvement comes with unifying Canada’s best young players. For whatever reason, Canada Basketball has historically had a hard time convincing its best professional players to participate in international competition. Rick Fox, Jamaal Magloire, Samuel Dalembert, and even Nash himself, have held out for various reasons in the past. Now, there is an even larger pool of high-caliber Canadian hoopsters in the professional and amateur ranks. Prominent among them are first-round NBA Draft picks Tristan Thompson (Cleveland Cavaliers), Cory Joseph (San Antonio Spurs), Andrew Nicholson (Orlando Magic); college stand-outs Myck Kabongo (Texas), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Anthony Bennett (UNLV), Nick Stauskas (UNLV); and Andrew Wiggins, a 6-7 hybrid who is generally considered the No. 1 prospect of the 2014 high school recruiting class. The timing of Nash’s arrival couldn’t be more perfect. For the above players, having a relevant NBA star call you personally to advocate the benefits of the national program makes it easier to commit and embrace the maple leaf for a number of years. After all, what sort of Canadian are you if say no to Steve Nash?

Early evidence of this approach was apparent at the end of August 2012 as Nash and company gathered 27 of Canada’s best players for the inaugural Senior Men’s Training Camp. The five-day camp served as an important first step in evaluating the existing talent, and fostering relationships between the new executive and players, and between the players themselves. On hand were Thompson, Joseph, Nicholson, Kabongo, Pangos and Bennett, along with Joel Anthony (Miami Heat), Robert Sacre (Los Angeles Lakers), Kris Joseph (recently waived by the Boston Celtics), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Junior Cadougan (Marquette), Trey Lyles (Arsenal Technical HS), and there was even a surprise appearance from the NBA veteran Jamaal Magloire (Toronto Raptors).

Nash also announced early in the week that former Raptors head coach and current Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Jay Triano would rejoin the national team as head coach. Altogether, the workouts were perhaps best summed up by Thompson, who told The Toronto Star: “Look who showed up… I think all the top players are here now, it’s great for our country, I’m excited.”

While it’s too early to call the Nash era a success (that judgment will come when the team hits the court, as we learned with this year’s Lakers), things are certainly looking up for basketball in the Great White North – despite his decision to stay south for the 2012-13 NBA season.

What do you think?

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