September 15, 2000

Canadian Olympic Hoops Team Looking Forward to Sydney

Sept. 14, 2000

By Ed Willes Southam Newspapers

SYDNEY, Australia -- Jay Triano is dimly aware that Rick Fox could have meant the difference between making the medal round in Sydney and finishing with cannon fodder like Angola and New Zealand in international basketball's also-ran division.

"That must be why I'm getting the big bucks,"said Canada's national men's baskeball team coach, congratulating himself on his grasp of the obvious.

Then again, including the reluctant Fox on Team Canada wasn't entirely the issue for Triano. Borrowing a dictum he learned from Jack Donohue via Star Trek's Mr. Spock those many years ago, Triano made his position clear to the Los Angeles Lakers' forward, the team comes first.

Triano would have loved to have Fox, one of the two or three best players this country has ever produced, to show up for work with the rest of his guys. If not, well, there are players who would cheerfully sacrifice a limb to play for Canada in the Olympics and that's who'll travel to Sydney. The cost of that high-mindedness might be steep. The cost of accommodating Fox would be even steeper.

"I won't parachute him in at the last minute to play in the Olympics. It would destroy our team.

"It's amicable,"Triano said of his relationship with Fox, who has a new baby boy with his drop-dead gorgeous wife, actress Vanessa Williams. "Rick completely understands our position. Canada plays its first game of the Olympic round-robin on Sept. 16. Triano doesn't have Fox. But he does have his team. You don't have to ask him what's more important.

In his first Olympic appearance as a coach after two cracks as a player, the Tilsonburg, Ont., product has built a formidable squad which combines the esprit of the Donohue-coached squad of the 1980s with a slightly higher calibre of player. Led by the Dallas Mavericks' Steve Nash, the Nats are the first Canadian side to qualify for the Olympic tournament since 1988 and represent Canada's best medal hope in hoops since the fourth-place 1984 team, which featured Triano as a player.

True, this team is in tough against Yugoslavia, Russia, Lithuania and the host-Australian side in the mere mortals division behind the monster from the USA. But even as Triano downplays his team's chances - "We're seeded 10th (in a 12-team field) and that's where we deserve to be." - it's hard to contain the excitement and expectations the Nats have created just by qualifying for the Olympic tournament.

"I'm not concerned about (Fox),"said Nash. "I'm just concerned about working to make this team better. Everyone of us has sacrificed to be here and we all feel confident in what we're doing. This might not be the most talented team but it's selfless and tough-minded." And relatively anonymous.

The Nationals - whose pool in Sydney includes Australia, Russia, Yugoslavia, Spain and Angola - are led by the resourceful and versatile Nash, whose perfectly cast for the lead role in Triano's team concept. Behind Nash lurks Winnipeg's Todd MacCulloch, the 7-foot backup centre for the Philadelphia 76ers. And behind those two are names who are marginally familiar to the Olympic basketball community but don't exactly suffer from over-exposure in Canada.

Triano will likely start a group which consists of Nash, 6-foot-1 shooting guard Sherman Hamilton who plays his club ball in Argentina, 6-foot-5 small forward Rowan Barrett, the former St. John's star who plays in Venezuela, forward Pete Guarasci, a 6-foot-9 Simon Frasuer University product who plays in Germany, and Mike Meeks, a 6-foot-9 forward from Canisius who's played in France, Finland and Turkey.

That group will also share playing team with a deep bench. Triano noted that during last summer's Olympic qualifying tournament, more on that later, he totalled the playing time of his big men and discovered Guarasci, Meeks, MacCulloch and Greg Newton all averaged 20 minutes a game. Toronto's Jamal Magliore, a first-round draft pick out of Kentucky by Charlotte in this summer's NBAdraft, would have added to that group but did not respond to Triano's calls.

"I'm not too worried about that,"the coach said tersely. "I'm only worried about the guys who are here. I've said all along I'm not going to beg anyone to play on this team."

Of those guys, Nash is the team's drive train, spiritual epicentre and all-around good egg. In addition to directing the attack from the point, the Santa Clara grad sets the defence-first agenda for the team.

"He's a great defender and that's what we have to do,"said Triano. "Defend, rebound and work. We don't have the talent of these other teams."

Nash, the most high-profile member of the team, also fits in seamlessly with a group of players who aren't quite in his tax bracket. The 26-year-old Victoria product grew up attending selection camps and elite tournaments with many of these players. And he remains the consummate gym rat, engaging freely in the locker room give-and-take even as he pulls down just under US$6-million annually with the Mavs.

"It was never a sell with Steve,"said Triano. "First of all he'd known most of these players from playing in junior teams. It wasn't like these players looked at Steve and went, `Ohhh. there's Steve Nash.'

"I can't think of another NBA player who'd make that kind of commitment or that kind of sacrifice to a program like ours. You never hear him bitch or complain about anything. He just goes about his business and he's the hardest working player we've got."

Which is a happy co-incidence for Triano because he's tried to model the Nationals on the team-first template built by Donohue through the 1970s and 80s. Triano, then a prodigious shooting guard, was a vital cog on that team whose core group included point guard Eli Pasquale, power forward Gerald Kazanowski, centres Greg Wiltjer and Bill Wennington and small forward Tony Simms. Individually, they weren't the most talented ensemble in international basketball but, collectively, they were able to compete with world powers on the strength of their team play. They also developed a closeness which exists to this day.

Triano has since passed that same ethos on to the national team and it resulted in a trip to Sydney at last summer's Olympic qualifier in Puerto Rico. With two berths open, and one already conceded to the lordly Yanks, the Nats finished second in the roundrobin, thus avoiding a date with the Americans in the playoff round. They then beat Puerto Rico to earn a trip to Australia. But for Triano, the whole tournament turned on a seemingly meaningless layup by Barrett in the dying seconds of a win over Argentina.

"That gave us a seven-point win and we finished second on point differential. If we play the US, we're out of the tournament. Instead, we get a layup at the end of the game and it gives us a chance. That's how close it was."

Triano was asked what he learned from that experience.

"I learned you never undersell yourself,"he answered. "Honestly, I took players I thought would keep us competitive but my actual focus was for (the) 2004 (Olympics).

"To be honest, we never talked about going to the Olympics. We just talked about playing these guys tough and giving ourselves a chance. Then we looked up and it was, `You know, we win these next two games and we're going to the Olympics.' "

And when they arrive in Sydney it will be together, as a team. Many years ago, the coach learned that's the only way to travel.