By any realistic standard, it's been a successful summer for Canada Basketball. With the men's and women's national teams getting ready to compete for spots in next year's world championships, it could get even better.
But even before the men start the process at the FIBA Americas Championships - they take on Mexico today; the women's competition is next month in Brazil - the organization can already name its most valuable player.
Playing an essential role behind the scenes has been Toronto Raptors senior vice-president of basketball operations Maurizio Gherardini, who was appointed the senior men's national team managing director in December and has been a leader on previously rudderless ship since.
"It's been a tremendous," Canada Basketball executive director Wayne Parrish said. "Someone could have given us a million dollars and we wouldn't have been able to extract the kind of value he's provided."
The value has been both measurable and hard to quantify, with Gherardini's expertise ranging from moving mountains to smoothing out mole hills. And for an Italian, he can do a pretty good Captain Canada impression.
"No matter how this championship goes, I feel like we've reached our goals this summer," Gherardini said in a telephone interview after landing in San Juan, site of the 2009 tournament. "I think there's more awareness about playing for your country. Playing for your country shouldn't be a question; it is something you should do."
Gherardini's collaboration with the Canadian federation is an outgrowth of the Raptors' desire to positively affect the game nationally.
"It's a natural relationship," said Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo, who suggested Gherardini get involved in Canada Basketball. "A stronger national team program is good for all of basketball in Canada and good for us."
The relationship should continue to develop further given the NBA team signed Gherardini to a two-year contract extension this summer, a not-insignificant move that got lost in Colangelo's flurry of deal-making in July.
Gherardini's national team contributions are vital, if not always the kind of thing that makes headlines. Securing suitable insurance coverage for professional players, for example, has become an increasingly costly challenge for national sports federations.
With a few phone calls, Gherardini connected Canada Basketball with the Italian insurance broker used by FIBA Europe, securing better coverage at a better rate than the organization had previously.
Need some tested international bench experience to help Canada head coach Leo Rautins in the summer of his coaching life? Import the highly respected Renato Pasquali, a top head coach in Europe and former assistant to Mike D'Antoni and Ettore Messina.
Gherardini's unique blend of experience means not only does Rautins have a GM-type figure to bounce decisions off, but Parrish has someone he can rely on for wisdom in areas where expertise simply isn't common or easily gained.
"I think it's safe to say that I've learned more from him in six months than I would have learned in 10 years without him," Parrish said.
On the court, the men's team has typically had a hard time finding the budget to have extended training camps and exhibition games leading up to major competitions.
Gherardini tapped into his network of connections to get the Spanish and Italian federations to pay the expenses for Canadian tours in each country. And if a brief brawl between Italy and Canada that become a YouTube.com hit caused some awkward moments, Gherardini is able to see that moment through Canadian eyes.
"Moments like that help build you team, build chemistry," he said, sounding for a moment as if is hometown is Kingston instead of Forli, Italy.
He's drawn on his European experience to implement team lunches and dinners. "This is a team, it's short season, but we need to mould as a team and it's not just about on the basketball court."
Gherardini recognizes too, however, that the international experience has to provide value to the players as well. Is it a coincidence that two national team members, Aaron Doornekamp and Jesse Young, have signed contracts in Italy's top professional league this summer?
"You can imagine I have people calling me about players all the time," he said. "I try to suggest my Canadian players as much as possible."
Gherardini points to results already earned this summer - the newly formed under-16 teams both qualified for the world championships this summer, the U-18 girls finished an impressive fourth at the world championships while the U-18 boys finished a respectable seventh - as signs there is some talent in the pipeline. But for cash-strapped Canada Basketball, there is still much work to be done.
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