Kelly Olynyk was wearing the Canadian red and white when he slipped on the Mattamy Athletic Centre floor in August and fell. He landed on his knee so hard that people seated in the arena’s first couple of rows heard the thud during the exhibition game against Nigeria.
The 28-year-old has always been eager and willing to play for Canada’s men’s basketball team.
But free agency – particularly knowing first-hand the risk of injury – could throw a wrench into Olynyk’s plans to play for Canada this summer.
“Often the reason why guys can’t play is because they don’t have a contract,” the Miami Heat centre said Tuesday. “It’s a lot to risk, especially with me playing [in August] and getting hurt and missing the training camp and preseason, basically, and just trying to get back to 100 per cent, still.
“It’s not easy to walk into one of those things and to put your career on the line. And as much as you want to, and as much as you know you’d love to do it, it’s tough. It’s really tough to do.”
The 28-year-old from Kamloops could opt out of his contract and become a free agent on July 1, just days after Canada’s last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria. The Canadian men must win the six-country tournament June 23-28 to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, what would be the team’s first appearance in 20 years.
“[If] I’m able to and my contract and stuff has settled out and I’m feeling healthy, then there’s no reason why I won’t be there,” Olynyk said after Miami’s morning shootaround at Scotiabank Arena.
The fact that his home province is playing host to the qualifier makes him more tempted to play.
“That’s amazing,” he said. “Finally B.C. gets some love. The games are always over here in Toronto.”
If he had to skip the qualifier, Olynyk, who’s been part of the national program for a decade, could still join the Canadian team for Tokyo.
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who hasn’t played for Canada since the 2015 Pan American Games, stated on social media recently that he was fully on board to play this summer.
“I want to play my part to help push our team into the Olympics and compete at the highest world stage,” Murray wrote on Twitter.
It has sparked a groundswell of support from Canadian players, with the likes of RJ Barrett, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Melvin Ejim, Kyle Wiltjer, Trey Lyles and Dwight Powell all saying they planned to play.
Olynyk said watching the outpouring of player support has been “a weird process.”
“Why is it Dec. 1 or Nov. 27 or whatever it is?” he said. “But it’s nice to have the commitment and hopefully they stick to their word and can help us do something special.”
Olynyk, whose Heat were in Toronto to face the Raptors on Tuesday, said he was surprised the August knee injury that kept him out of the World Cup in China lingered as long as it did.
“I didn’t think it was that serious because I didn’t feel a shift or a pop or anything,” he said.
After a couple weeks of treatment in Miami, “I knew [skipping the World Cup] was kind of a done deal, which was unfortunate, because I wanted to be there. Because you never know what would happen if you’re there, another guy was there – it could be a different story right now.”
Seven teams qualified for Tokyo from the World Cup, but Canada finished 21st.
Olynyk is averaging 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds this season, only now finally rounding into form after his summer injury. Much like fractures, bone bruises heal slowly. It was six weeks before Olynyk was even allowed to do any work in the pool.
“If you keep [putting weight on the injury] it’ll stay and the bone’s gonna be weak. So you’ve gotta let it heal. And the only thing you can really do for that is time,” he said. “It’s tough. You’re basically there waiting and they’re telling you you can’t run, you can’t jump, you can’t do anything. ... So long, long process.”