Eli Pasquale led ‘golden age’ of Canadian basketball

Eli Pasquale may not be as well known to a new generation of basketball fans who have grown up amid the recent proliferation of Canadian players in the NBA.

But a previous generation knows the profound impact Pasquale had on the sport in Canada as tributes flowed in from across the country following the former University of Victoria Vike legend’s death at the age of 59 to esophageal cancer.

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“There are two kinds of Canadian basketball fans: Those who understand and appreciate the legacy of Eli Pasquale — the original Steve Nash — and those that should. A giant of the sport passed away Monday but his legacy will remain,” tweeted Sportsnet basketball and Raptors analyst Michael Grange.

Seattle SuperSonics draft pick Pasquale led UVic to five consecutive national championships from 1980 to 1984 and Canada to fourth place at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and sixth place at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. A young fan who grew up in McKinnon Gym inspired by watching Pasquale was basketball Hall of Famer Steve Nash, the two-time NBA MVP.

But NBA teams didn’t take Canadian players seriously in the 1980s, or Pasquale might have preceded Nash to the NBA.

“Eli was a great guy and one of the greatest Canadian basketball players of all time, and a very intense competitor, who should have been in the NBA,” said B.C. Sports Hall of Famer Howard Kelsey, who played with Pasquale on the Canadian Olympic teams.

“Eli outplayed Danny Young [the eventual 10-season NBA guard the Sonics kept instead of Pasquale as the last cut in 1984].”

Phil Ohl played with Pasquale at UVic and on the national team and said the impact Pasquale had on his career was meaningful on so many levels.

“We trained many hours together,” said Ohl.

“I was an unrecruited rookie at UVic. Watching Eli showed me what toughness looked like and what discipline and commitment was all about and what it took to be an elite athlete. His legacy carried on at UVic even after he graduated. He made it possible for Canadian basketball kids to dream about greatness and inspired so many and paved the way for Steve Nash to even dare to think about reaching the top.”

Nash’s former coach at St. Michaels University School, Ian Hyde-Lay, was a graduating senior when Pasquale arrived as a rookie from Sudbury, Ont., on UVic’s first national championship team in 1980.

“He had it all — skill level combined with work ethic and discipline,” said Hyde-Lay.

“Eli was the best example possible for Steve [Nash] to follow and he gave Steve such timely advice as Steve’s career began to emerge.”

Because Pasquale had been through it.

“Eli got robbed twice. He should have stuck with both the SuperSonics and [Chicago] Bulls in the NBA,” said Hyde-Lay.

“And through it all, and despite how good he was, Eli was a very humble guy.”

Former field hockey star Ravi Kahlon, now MLA responsible for sport in the provincial NDP government, also twice played for Canada in the Olympics at 2000 in Sydney and 2008 in Beijing and cited Pasquale as a cross-sport inspiration while growing up in Victoria.

“[Pasquale] was a role model and played an important role in so many young people’s lives. I looked up to him and so did many of my peers,” tweeted Kahlon.

Pasquale might have been a three-time Olympian had he not broken his leg before the Americas qualifier for Barcelona 1992. Without him in the backcourt, Canada fell one game short of going to a third consecutive Olympics.

Pasquale’s play was crucial earlier in the run as Canada upset the U.S. team of Charles Barkley and Karl Malone to win gold at the 1983 World University Games.

Kelsey said Pasquale helped drive the “golden age” in Canadian basketball: “We were perennially ranked in FIBA’s top-five world rankings from 1980 to 1988.”

A big part of that was the Canadian backcourt dynamism created by Pasquale as point guard and Jay Triano as shooting guard.

“It’s a sad day for basketball in our country,” Triano told the Canadian Press.

“We were backcourt mates and travelled the world together for eight years as the starting backcourt for our national team,” added Triano, now lead assistant coach for the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA.

“Today really hurts as I have lost a friend and a teammate.”

Jim Leith was the UVic basketball radio play-by-play announcer on CJVI during the team’s run of seven consecutive national championships and said Pasquale was the key cog in the dynasty.

“Eli was a fiery player,” said Leith. “On the national team, former [Canada] coach Jack Donohue admired that and used Eli’s fire to ignite the whole team.”

Pasquale was recruited out of Sudbury by then UVic Vikes head coach Ken Shields and put down lasting roots in his adopted community. His namesake Eli Pasquale Basketball Camps, through which thousands of young Islanders first learned the game, are now operating under his son, Manny.

Shields was head coach at Laurentian University in Sudbury when Pasquale was emerging as a school boy wonder in the northern Ontario city. Shields invited Pasquale, then still in junior high school, to scrimmage with his Laurentian players. Despite being years younger, Pasquale more than held his own against the older varsity players and often schooled them. That’s when Shields realized how special Pasquale was. When it was announced Shields would move west to take the UVic job, Pasquale said he wanted to play for his mentor no matter where it was. So following his sensational high school success in Sudbury, Pasquale left his hometown to come to the Island and help create a dynasty at UVic with players such as Kelly Dukeshire out of Oak Bay and fellow two-time Olympian Gerald Kazanowski from Nanaimo.

“This is particularly heartbreaking for me since I’ve known Eli the longest, other than his family, and we go back a long way to his school days in Sudbury,” said Shields.

Basketball remained important to both men. They appreciated what a Toronto Raptors NBA championship would mean in Canada for the sport they loved. So despite Pasquale’s prognosis, they made a trip together to Toronto to watch a game in the NBA final in the spring against the Golden State Warriors.

It was the final basketball journey, of many, they took together.

There will be no funeral service. A public tribute, to take place in McKinnon Gym, will be announced. It’s a fitting venue.

“Eli helped pack that gym on game nights for five years — and beyond — because of his legacy there,” said Shields.

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