Though he’s been down south for years, national men’s basketball team coach Jay Triano maintains his Canadian capacity for invisibility. It’s our native superpower.
The 55-year-old NBA assistant has been in Toronto this week, puttering around a Nike camp featuring some rough-hewn teenage talents from across the Americas.
He spent much of Wednesday’s session stretched out on the back row of the bleachers. Nobody took any notice. Everybody was staring at the newest Raptor, Bruno Caboclo, and mainly because he looks as if he can touch his toes without bending over.
One brave kid finally shuffled over into Triano’s orbit. A few furtive looks round to see who was watching. Then a great rush up the steps (as faux casually as possible) to pay respects. It’s a meritocratic game, but it’s still smart to network. And Bruno Caboclo isn’t hiring.
While Canada Basketball GM Steve Nash is the figurehead, Triano is the conduit to the national side. They are a matched pair. Neither would be in his current job without the other.
Though it’s still early days, they may soon be in charge of a juggernaut. Maybe. It’s a best-case scenario. So we’re hoping.
Actually, we’re so far down this road that sort of has to happen.
If that’s where your head’s at, it doesn’t help to talk to Jay Triano about it.
“This is so unique,” Triano says. “In a year, we may be able to field a team with 12 NBA players. That doesn’t necessarily make us a real good international basketball team – or a good basketball team in general – but it does mean we have good players.”
This disclaimer should be run underneath every one of the four million stories we’re going to read leading up to the Olympic qualifiers in Mexico next summer.
“Canada – Now with Good Players; Still Hasn’t Won a Damn Thing.”
That’s the small problem with the well-advertised golden age of Canadian basketball. It is a miracle, in the sense that you must take it on faith that it’s happening. No one’s actually seen it.
A great many things must come to pass before we can begin to consider it as having started.
First, all those Canadian stars have to agree to play for Canada. Second – and this is a wonderful new problem – their NBA teams are going to have to get on board.
Triano says he’s talked to everyone over the course of the summer – meaning Andrew Wiggins, Andrew Wiggins and Andrew Wiggins – and they’re in. Now he has to soothe all those clubs who couldn’t help but notice Indiana’s Paul George break himself in half during a meaningless international scrimmage a few weeks ago.
“I understand that some teams are not going to want their guys to play. Some teams are going to want to manage how long they play,” Triano said. “But everyone we’ve talked to is in. They want to play. I can’t see anybody not playing.”
In this, Canada owes a huge solid to the perfidy of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
When they are finally free to announced the trades of Wiggins to Minnesota and Anthony Bennett to Philadelphia, Nash and Triano ought to send the wretched Cavs flowers.
Had Wiggins and Bennett remained with a suddenly championship-calibre Cleveland team, they’d be plowing two months deep into the NBA playoffs year after year. That’d be a great excuse to skip non-Olympic summer basketball. Instead, they’ll be vacationing by mid-April, and will therefore play for Canada just to fill up the empty days.
Number three: the mix. Though all the best young Canadian players have been on a court together at some point, they weren’t raised in the game together. That progression through a series of national teams is the key to recent powerhouses such as Spain and Argentina.
As the United States continues to prove, talent’s part of it. But it’s still just a part.
Even that step may be pushed off for years. Triano is considering creating two separate Canadian squads next summer – one for the Pan-Am Games and (a better) one for the Olympic qualifiers. He’s got his guys for a maximum of six weeks. Will he treat the Pan-Ams as a training camp? Will he hold a separate warm-up before the qualifiers? He hasn’t decided yet, and can’t until the schedule for the qualifiers is announced.
Eventually, he will have to figure a way to blend them into one squad. That’s partly chemistry and largely politics.
A few other minor points. Canada badly needs the U.S. to win the upcoming world championships. That would qualify the Americans for Rio, opening up one of the two available spots at the FIBA qualifiers. Brazil qualifies as hosts. There’s still Argentina, Puerto Rico and Mexico to consider – all currently higher ranked than Canada.
The more you think about the problems, the further off this basketball Shangri-La seems. This could be years of slog. We could be waiting until Tokyo 2020 to see this team play in a game the whole country cares about.
More important, it could be years of convincing and then re-convincing our best players they should stick with the program. Even if it means flying commercial.
That will largely be Nash’s work, but the up-close soothing, flirting and bullying involved will fall on Triano.
In the interim, the pressure will start. It hasn’t yet. The NHL may not return to the Olympics. In two or three years time, Triano could very well be the most obsessed-over manager in the country.
If things shake down right, he’s going to be more than one of the guys who coaches Canada. He’s going to be the guy who coaches Canada.
You ready for that?
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Triano said, sounding as if he actually hadn’t.
This hasn’t begun to get serious yet. But he should still start thinking about it.