The women, Canada’s national basketball team, circle centre court, midmorning, with practice set to start. Their coach, Allison McNeill, has been on the job for more than a decade. It has mostly been a struggle. Today, however, the team is on the verge of the Olympics.
“Everyone has to contribute,” McNeill instructs her charges, a group without a singular star. The coach stresses the team theme: “Winning the day.” If it all comes together, McNeill tells the young women, “I don’t know if we can be beat.”
Then all hands go to the middle, reaching in, down, and then thrust up, in a reverberating cheer: “Un, deux, trois, Canada!”
The 2012 Olympics in London are two months away, and Canada’s spot is not yet booked. The team has one final hurdle to clear, at the end of June in Turkey, the final qualifying tournament to secure a London berth. In Turkey, Canada will be ranked No. 4 out of the dozen countries participating, and with five spots for London up for grabs, the odds look good.
Last week, Canada took two out of three exhibition games around Vancouver against China, which was fourth at the Beijing Games in 2008 and has already qualified for London.
For Canada’s women team, clinching a berth for London would be the culmination of a long process.
Canada’s women team hasn’t made the Olympics since 2000 and has played in just four of eight Olympics (excluding Moscow 1980) since women’s basketball was put on the roster in 1976, when Canada made the cut as the host.
McNeill was hired in December of 2001. The long rebuild began to take hold in 2006, when she brought her team to the world championship for the first time in 12 years. Canada had the youngest squad and was the only country playing that didn’t have a domestic professional women’s league. It was much the same at the 2010 worlds, when the team was the third-youngest on the court.
Much of that 2010 team is still in tact, a key underpinning of Canada’s chances in Turkey. “In those quiet moments, there’s almost a sense of this is our destiny,” McNeill said after practice concluded in Abbotsford, east of Vancouver, where the team has camped out this month to train and play several exhibition games against China’s powerful team.
“I think that’s a good sense to have. We know we’ve worked very hard. You earn victory and this team has earned that opportunity.”
Canada was strong last Wednesday night, scoring a 78-66 win over China, which placed fourth at the Beijing Games. On Thursday night, Canada lost 67-51. Friday, Canada won 45-37.
“This year, it feels like everything is clicking,” said Teresa Gabriele, a 32-year-old, 5-foot-5 guard, the team’s one connection to the 2000 squad that played at the Sydney Games. Gabriele was 20 then and didn’t know the road back to a second Olympics would be so long.
“There’s definite pressure now,” she said Wednesday during practice, icing a sore knee on the sidelines, resting ahead of her start against China that evening. “You never know when you’ll get another shot.”
The team is without a bona fide star, though the go-to scorer is Kim Smith, who led with 20 points against China last Wednesday night in a 78-66 victory over China, and led in rebounds as well, with eight. The 26-year-old forward played several seasons in the WNBA and her most recent pro season was in Spain in 2010-11. Smith was given last Thursday night off against China, and guard Teresa Gabriele, after just three points the first night, led her team with 13 a 67-51 loss, and snatched eight steals. On Friday, Smith again was the leader, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds in a 45-37 win.
An important intangible is the team’s united spirit. Like many national squads, the players spend most of the year apart. But this group, players say, has forged a deeper bond. Fun is part of the equation. Muffins and Pearl, the rapping alter egos of Janelle Bekkering and Megan Pinske, made a YouTube video to promote the games against China. “We’re going to beat China/It’s gonna be real fun,” they sing, riffing off Justin Bieber’s new song Boyfriend.
“Sometimes with girls teams, you can get cattiness,” Gabriele said. “We don’t have any of that. Everyone’s super easygoing – just good people.”
The team roster has been trimmed to 16 from 25 at the start of the month and the final dozen will be decided in the next several weeks.
There are a couple days of training in Toronto in early June, followed by exhibition games in Scotland and France.
The team arrives in Turkey June 21 and the qualifying tournament starts June 25. Canada is in a group with France and Mali.
The women’s mental toughness has hardened in recent years, according to team sports psychologist Roger Friesen, and can far better able to handle moment-to-moment disappointments. The trick now is to not think about the Olympics, even as it is the sole goal.
“They want to go to the Olympics in the most desperate way,” said Friesen on the sideline during practice. “But they have to come to appreciate that when it comes to game time, performance time, it’s another thing they have to put off to the side, so that all that’s left is to focus on the task, relentlessly.”