New York Knicks senior vice president for basketball operations and interim general manager Glen Grunwald speaks at a press conference during the team’s NBA basketball media day at the training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., on December 12, 2011. Canada’s women’s basketball team is a legitimate medal contender at the World Cup that tips off on Saturday. Canada’s men’s team is in the thick of its own World Cup qualifying, and could field a squad next fall in China stacked full of NBA players. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Kathy Willens

Grunwald: Canadian basketball one of the best sports stories of 2018

TORONTO — While discussing the rise of the league-leading Toronto Raptors earlier this season, ESPN displayed a graphic of southern Ontario on its show “The Jump.”

The map was ridiculously incorrect, drawing snickers and snide comments on Twitter. But it was CanCon on U.S. national television, and one of countless signs of a massive uprising in Canadian basketball. And it only promises to continue.

“We’re a great story,” says Glen Grunwald, the newly appointed CEO and president of Canada Basketball.

One of the best stories in Canadian sport in 2018.

Canada’s men’s team booked its ticket to the World Cup, its first appearance since 2010. Who from the country’s deep talent pool will make that World Cup roster? That question is already popular basketball fan fodder, and has seen reporters grab pens and napkins in bars to sketch out their dream teams.

Canada’s goal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, says Grunwald, is to win two medals.

And a laundry list of Canadians are starring in the NCAA, breaking records and claiming weekly conference awards, and promising to make for a historic NBA draft in June. Tuesday’s ESPN broadcast of the Duke versus Providence game featured a graphic of Canada’s collection of freshmen.

“I can’t imagine a better story in Canada than what’s happening right now with basketball,” Grunwald said.

The 60-year-old was in a downtown Toronto office recently, turning heads as he folded his six-foot-nine frame with one reconstructed knee — an old basketball injury — into a chair. He grumbled goodnaturedly about Toronto traffic and a need to find a better way to get into the city from his Burlington home.

Almost three months into his new gig, Grunwald is otherwise enjoying life.

How well is Canadian basketball positioned? The recent men’s victory in Brazil, he said, is a great example. Securing a World Cup berth not only set the men up for a much easier route to the Tokyo Olympics, but it also spoke volumes about Canada’s depth, and a sense of player commitment that might be at an all-time high.

“We’ve got some mainstays that have been around for a long time like Cory (Joseph) and Tristan (Thompson) and Kelly (Olynyk) and Joel Anthony, he’s been great, and Melvin Ejim,” Grunwald said. “And then you see the commitment of these other players. Everyone else who plays in Europe gets a week off, right? But we asked our players in Europe to fly, some of them 25 hours, from places like St. Petersburg (Russia) to Florida for training camp, and from there another what turned out to be 25 hours to get to Venezuela, and then 20 hours to get to Brazil. And then to have such a great win down there, that’s such an amazing story.

“And these guys loved it, and they can’t wait to come back again and do it. So I thank God, the commitment of them guys. And then to ask our NBAers to volunteer for what’s going to be a fairly long period of time to get ready for China (World Cup), which takes up a good portion of their down time, and time with family. It’s really awesome to see their commitment and pride they bring to the team.”

Now Grunwald hopes more Canadian donors and sponsors will buy in as well. His biggest challenge is on the financial side. Footing the bill for numerous World Cup qualifying matches and camps, compared to one FIBA Americas tournament — under the old World Cup qualifying format — hasn’t been easy. And this summer will see the men’s team gather for a month, including a camp, potentially a couple of exhibition games in Canada, and games in Australia to get used to the time zone, before travelling to China.

The women’s team, meanwhile, which has had two consecutive top-eight Olympic finishes and a fifth at the 2014 world championships, face a convoluted Olympic qualifying format that includes round-robin tournaments in November of 2019 and February of 2020. Canada hopes to host one of them.

“We’re poised for exciting, really exciting times coming up. Thee the focus of my job, what I’ve realized coming in here, is to get the resources necessary for us to continue to be successful and make Canada proud,” Grunwald said, with virtual cap in hand. “To be part of that, to be associated with our teams and the stories they have, I can’t imagine a better opportunity for a brand or a company or somebody that wants to support a Canadian group, a Canadian story, than Canada Basketball.

“We’re going to all have to work together, and that includes our organization, our players, our coaches and our staff, but it also includes the rest of Canada too. We need Canada’s support so that we can make Canada proud.”

Also noteworthy, Canada Basketball recently signed a partnership with the new six-team Canadian Elite Basketball League. The summer league will be Canada’s first to be affiliated with FIBA, will play under FIBA rules, and will include rosters that are 70 per cent Canadian, giving Canadian players the opportunity “to come home and play in front of friends and family.”

And Canada boasts one of the best coaching development programs in the world, Grunwald pointed out — ranked No. 3 in the world behind France and Spain.

“A lot of stuff is going well,” he said, then laughed. “Hopefully I don’t screw it up too badly.”

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