DONGGUAN, China — Nick Nurse believes he can play a bigger role in building Canada’s basketball team.
Nurse was still soaking up the heady experience of the Toronto Raptors’ historic NBA championship run when he was named head coach of the Canadian team in June, and tasked with securing an Olympic berth for the first time in what will be 20 years.
He had no idea he’d have to do it with one hand tied behind his back.
“When I considered (the job) I thought there would be a majority of NBA guys playing, which I thought made sense as an NBA coach to have an NBA guy coaching them,” Nurse said on Wednesday.
Canada’s hopes of advancing in the FIBA World Cup died Tuesday night with a loss to Lithuania. The 0-2 team has one more preliminary-round game against Senegal — also 0-2 — on Thursday before flying to Shanghai for two important classification games to secure a spot in a second-chance Olympic qualifying tournament.
And if Canada does earn a second-chance berth? Who’ll show up to play?
“I think that no matter what we do, and Steve (Nash) mentioned this years ago, in the end this is the players’ program,” said Rowan Barrett, Canada Basketball’s general manager. ”It’s their program, and so if we want to win, ultimately it’s going to come on the backs of the players.”
Nurse said he intends on playing a bigger recruiting role. It was tough this time around, he said, because he had his hands full with the Raptors’ lengthy season.
“I think I have got to try and develop some relationships with some of these guys and see where they are at,” Nurse said after practice. ”But I need more information. I need a better understanding of why or why not? Will they or will they not participate, and why or why not?”
Canadian basketball has been basking in a rare spotlight recently. Canada was applauded for just qualifying for the World Cup, a Herculean effort that required a revolving-door roster of some 36 players. Then the Raptors brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy north of the border. And with the explosion of Canadian talent in the NBA, the mood was ripe for a strong national team showing. Finally.
Canada Basketball took expectations to another level by inviting 17 NBA players, plus a crop of savvy international pros, to camp. But in the end only Cory Joseph and Khem Birch showed up from the NBA group, reducing Canada’s chances of advancing out of the tournament’s toughest draw to a sliver.
During Tuesday’s blowout loss to Lithuania, fans surely wondered how much Canada could have benefited from Tristan Thompson or Dwight Powell or Kelly Olynyk — who intended to play here before getting injured in an exhibition game — banging down low against Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis?
“We want to go back and revisit it with each player, and again each one is different,” said Canada Basketball CEO Glen Grunwald. “We’ve got to respect each person in terms of what’s going on in their career or their life, but at the same time we’ve got to figure out how we can fit in better with their life and their career.”
Grunwald mentioned revisiting the preparation phase. This summer required a six-week commitment from players, including a trip to Australia for five exhibition games before another long flight to China. He said they might consider keeping players together at home longer. Perhaps play more games in Canada.
Canada Basketball will investigate hosting one of the second-chance qualifying tournaments — although that would surely come with a significant price tag. Who’ll pick up the tab when there’s no guarantee Canada’s top players will show up?
Canada’s World Cup bust has been a talking point back home. There were suggestions it should cost general manager Barrett his job.
“I don’t think this is the time for the laying of the blame,” Grunwald said. ”This is the time for us to focus on this tournament with this team and then when we are done here we will evaluate it and get a plan.”
Barrett shrugged off the suggestion.
“I don’t pay too much attention to that stuff. Especially while we’re in a tournament,” he said.
“I started this job in February, and I’ve been working in that timeframe to bring in a coach and bring in our players, and understand kind of what’s ahead of us. I think right now our goal kind of remains the same, we’re trying to get to the Olympics. And I think that that goal is still within our grasp.”
Nurse, whose contract runs through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, sounds like he has no regrets.
“I love international basketball,” he said. ”I don’t have to tell you the goal of me being a head coach of a team going to the Olympics is a personal life achievement or a personal goal I’m shooting for.”
He had kind words for the players he has in China, several of whom made big sacrifices to be there. Melvin Ejim watched his wife Samantha give birth to their son Miles on Sunday via iPhone, just hours before playing in Canada’s opening game against Australia. Thomas Scrubb reported for camp less than two days after his wedding. European pros such as Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos went virtually straight from their seasons to Canada’s camp.
Nurse also pointed out that Canada’s two losses came against two of the tournament’s top teams.
“This (Canadian) team has been good,” said the coach. “There has been moments in this thing where we have looked really good. In the lead-up games, we have looked great at times. There have been moments here where we have played really good. I think it’s unfair to judge anything yet based on these two games we have played.”