High hopes for Canada at 2021 Olympic hoops qualifier in Victoria

Victoria organizers say they are certain Canada will put a potent team on the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre floor next summer for the Tokyo Olympic qualifying tournament, despite creeping uncertainty about how late the pandemic-delayed 2020-21 National Basketball Association season might run.

“There are so many high-quality Canadian players in the NBA that we are confident Canada will have an outstanding roster,” said tournament chair Clint Hamilton.

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“There are so many Canadians on NBA rosters that we believe the team will be loaded, regardless.”

The six-team qualifier is scheduled for June 29-July 4 with the organizing committee planning for a Games-type festival atmosphere around the Memorial Centre precinct and in the Inner Harbour area.

With the 2020-21 NBA season expected to begin in December, the NBA finals would take place next June, leaving little wriggle room for players to rush to the Island for the Olympic qualifier.

“It might be tough,” said Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, who plays in the NBA for Miami.

“That’ll be really, really tough,” Olynyk told Canadian Press, in a conference call Friday. “It’ll probably line up with guys who don’t make the playoffs. It’ll be really tough for guys to play in [the qualifier], especially if you start in December. And who knows — it might not even be December.”

The NBA is only now preparing to complete its COVID-delayed 2019-20 season and playoffs through this summer and fall.

Nick Nurse, who guided the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title last year, is slotted to coach the Canadian Olympic team.

“It’s complicated, is my best thought,” Nurse told the Associated Press.

“I just don’t know enough to tell you what next season is going to look like. I don’t know. [A delayed season is] probably going to run into the Olympics, or really close to it, right? Lots of things that I don’t have a crystal ball on.”

The Victoria qualifying tournament will include Canada along with Greece, which has been captained by the reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, China, Uruguay, Czech Republic and Turkey. The winning team will advance to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed to July 23-Aug. 8, 2021. It is one of four tournaments world-wide to complete the 12-team Olympic field. Eight teams have already qualified.

Canadian NBA players who committed pre-pandemic to play in the qualifier included Jamal Murray, R.J. Barrett, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Khem Birch, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dillon Brooks and Dwight Powell.

Canada’s best showing in the Olympics was when Victoria players Doug Peden and Art and Chuck Chapman led the red and white to the silver medal at Berlin in 1936. University of Victoria stars Eli Pasquale, Gerald Kazanowski and Greg Wiltjer helped power Canada to fourth place in 1984 at Los Angeles and Pasquale and Kazanowski to sixth place at Seoul in 1988.

Canada has not qualified for the Olympics since two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash of Victoria captained the national team at the 2000 Sydney Games. There were high hopes for Tokyo with a starry new generation of Canadian NBA players having committed to play for the national side at the Victoria qualifier before it was postponed.

As Hamilton said when the postponement was announced: “The virus is in control.”

Yet there also a growing feeling, regardless of roster, that people will simply be happy and relieved to celebrate a rebirth of sports next year with the Tokyo Olympics as the stirring and symbolic centrepiece.

“Hosting the Olympic qualifying tournament next summer in Greater Victoria will be something we can all look forward to as a chance to celebrate our collective perseverance and the determined spirit shown in overcoming this global crisis,” Hamilton has said.

“We have to plan with the hope this will be an opportunity to bring the community together after the pandemic.”

Nearly 3,000 full tournament passes had been sold by March 24, when it was announced the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed. Sales of tournament passes for the new dates have begun and are available at selectyourtickets.com or at 250-220-7777. The refund period ended June 30. All previously purchased ticket packages will be honoured for the new tournament dates. Individual game tickets will go on sale at a later time.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

— With files from CP and AP

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