SHANGHAI — Owen Klassen had just touched down in Belgium and was going through the entrance protocol with his new pro team when he got the call from Canada.
Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher had just pulled out of national team duty for personal reasons, and Canada needed another big man. Like yesterday.
“I did one practice (with the Antwerp Giants, his new pro team), got the call, left the next day,” Klassen said. “So I went Toronto to Belgium, Belgium to Toronto in three days.”
While Canada’s narrative at the FIBA World Cup in China has been largely about the players who aren’t here, it’s been a good-news story for players who are. Klassen is cherishing the chance to wear the red and white on basketball’s biggest stage.
The 27-year-old from Kingston, Ont., is one of five Canadian university grads on the team, joining Phil and Thomas Scrubb, Kaza Kajami-Keane and Conor Morgan.
Of the five, only the Scrubb brothers were on Canada Basketball’s original stacked training camp invitation list, which included 17 NBA players. Of the 17, only Cory Joseph and Khem Birch are playing in China.
Klassen arrived in Toronto just before Canada tipped off its pre-World Cup exhibition schedule. Then there were stops in Winnipeg, Melbourne and Sydney before the team arrived in China.
Friday, the Canadians (1-2) flew from Dongguan to Shanghai for their final two World Cup games — Saturday versus Jordan (0-3), then Monday against Germany (1-2). The Canadians need a strong finish to earn a spot in one of the second-chance Olympic qualifying tournaments next June.
Morgan, who plays in Spain, was an 11th-hour addition, joining the Canadian team in China after Oshae Brissett suffered an injury in an exhibition game in Australia.
The six-foot-eight forward was two-and-a-half weeks into training camp with Divina Seguros Joventut in Spain when he was summoned to China.
“The hardest part for me was actually getting a Chinese visa,” said the 25-year-old Morgan. Securing the visa required a trip from Barcelona to Madrid. Then it was a flight to Istanbul which he almost missed.
“I had to run to the plane in Istanbul, and I just made it so it was quite the commute,” he said.”
Morgan, who was on the Canadian team that won silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, arrived the night before Canada tipped off the World Cup versus Australia.
“I was in great shape coming in, but it’s just learning the whole offence,” he said. “I already knew the guys, which was good, but the offence and the defensive schemes is the hardest part.
Klassen said he wasn’t necessarily expecting a call-up, but knew it was always a possibility. Canada Basketball is in communication, he said, with a large pool of players.
“They let you know who the team’s going to be, and they let you know you’re still going to be a part of the group of players that they’re thinking of bringing,” he said. “So, in the back of your mind, you know there’s always a chance. But I am really glad I got this opportunity.”
It might have been an awkward conversation with the Belgian pro team he’d been with for all of one day, but they came around.
“The GM and the coach are great guys and they both played internationally with Belgium, so they understood the opportunity and they knew that this is something I’ve been working toward for a long time that I’ve been involved with the national team, and to not be able to come to this would have really disappointing for me,” said Klassen, who played for Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.
Morgan, a UBC grad, had a similar experience with his team.
“In Europe they are very, very loyal to their countries which is great, because I am as well,” he said. “And they knew I wanted to represent Canada if I had the chance. They really like this. They like all the best players playing for Spain, and they like all the best players trying to play for Canada.
“And it’s a really good learning experience for me, right? I get to come in and play for coach Nick Nurse, and with the guys here.”
Klassen said his time with the Canadian team has been invaluable.
“The level of coaching is amazing,” he said. “These guys are the top coaches in various leagues, and (Canada coach) Nick Nurse (who guided the Toronto Raptors to an NBA title in June), obviously you could say he’s the best coach in the world right now if you want to.
“But you learn a lot from them, and the competition is obviously at a really high level and that gets you better prepared than anything.”
Drawn into the tournament’s toughest group, Canada went 1-2 in the preliminary round and so was relegated to the classification games. The Canadians are hoping to earn a spot in one of four six-team Olympic qualifying tournaments next summer. Just the winners of each of the four tournaments earn a trip to Tokyo.