TORONTO — Steve Nash has dreamed of managing the Canadian men’s basketball team since he was a young point guard running its offence.
He didn’t envision that day would come so soon.
Canada’s biggest basketball star was named general manager of the Canadian men’s senior team Tuesday — accepting the role despite the fact he still has a job in the NBA.
Nash, who will be a highly coveted free agent this NBA off-season, said the opportunity to help what might be the most talented group of young players the country has ever produced was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“It really is a beautiful thing to see our kids and the game grow and the talent continue to reach new heights, it’s amazing,” Nash said at a news conference Tuesday at Air Canada Centre. “I have a lot of excitement generated for the young kids in this country, many of which are making a name for themselves already, and many of which are coming up behind them.”
Nash’s former Canadian teammate Rowan Barrett was named assistant GM.
“We’ve talked about this since we played for the national team, of how we could impact the program, how we could improve it, how we could hopefully leave it in a better place than when we got involved,” Nash said. “I guess it was a long time coming, but I didn’t foresee it being this early.”
The sport’s national governing body has had the two-time NBA MVP from Victoria in its sights for some time to lead a program that hasn’t made an Olympic appearance since the 2000 Games in Sydney.
“Steve’s basketball IQ and background are unparalleled in the sport, and we are tremendously fortunate to have him,” said Wayne Parrish, Canada Basketball’s president and CEO. “We have a perfect marriage here of incredible burgeoning talent within our men’s program and we feel we have in place the right structure and leadership at this point.”
Nash, a 15-year NBA veteran with Phoenix and Dallas, helped Canada to a seventh-place finish — one win away from the medal round — at the Sydney Olympics, with Jay Triano as coach.
“This program has meant so much to me,” Nash said, a Canada-red pocket square tucked in his suit jacket. “I owe a lot of my development to the program and feel that the success I’ve had in my career is in large part due to my time with the national team.”
The 38-year-old, who was already a member of Canada Basketball’s Council of Excellence, won’t be paid for the position.
The men’s team has been without a head coach since Leo Rautins resigned in September following Canada’s disappointing performance at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament.
Hiring a coach will be one of Nash’s first orders of business, and he said Triano will be definitely be on his list of candidates.
“Obviously I love Jay and if he’s interested he’ll be an important candidate,” Nash said.
With no Olympics for Canada this summer, Nash and Barrett plan to gather 30 or so of Canada’s best players to begin training toward the 2016 Games. Likely included in that group of young standouts: Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, both first-round picks in the 2011 NBA draft, Andrew Nicholson, Robert Sacre, Kevin Pangos, Myck Kabongo and high school sensation Andrew Wiggins.
“I’m really proud of the success we’ve seen from our players at all levels, and if I can use my experience and whatever wisdom I’ve accumulated in the game to help them, that’s really exciting for me, and I’m passionate about it,” said Nash.
It’s no secret the Canadian program has long been hamstrung by a lack of money, said Parrish. A last-minute private donor had to cough up the $50,000 for the team’s insurance last summer.
Nash’s stature among the basketball community, Parrish said, has already improved the program’s bank balance.
The team has operated on a budget of between $400,000 and $500,000 a season, while top-10 countries in the world have budgets of between $1 and $2 million. One team boasts a budget of almost $5 million.
Parrish said a group of private donors — known as the “6th Man” — have thrown their financial support behind Nash. The goal is to raise $4 million over the next five years, and Parrish said they’re already halfway there.
“It’s amazing how powerful Steve getting on a conference call … how galvanizing that is for these individuals,” Parrish said.
Nash, who’s spent the past eight seasons with the Phoenix Suns, said because of his new role with Canada Basketball he’s barely had time to think about the upcoming free agency period that opens July 1.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Nash said. “I’m obviously going to have to do my research and dig in and see what opportunities fit me best. When the deadline comes, it could be really simple or it could be really complicated.”
Asked if the Toronto Raptors could be a potential destination, Nash said he wouldn’t “close any options or opportunities.”
Despite his success as a pro, Nash says his fondest memories remain with Canadian teammates.
“Playing for Canada at the Olympics was the greatest experience of my career, bar-none,” he said. “It’s no secret what this country means to me and to be a part of Canada Basketball again is a huge honour and pleasure.
“Now the work starts.”
Canada’s women’s team also hasn’t played in the Olympics since Sydney, but still has a chance to qualify for the 2012 London Games.
They’ll play in a last-chance qualifying tournament next month in Turkey.