Victoria’s Conor Morgan enjoying the ride with national basketball team

Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett were madly text messaging back and forth Monday night as they followed Canada’s 94-67 Americas qualifying victory over Brazil in Sao Paulo that clinched a berth to the 2019 FIBA World Cup next summer in China.

“Steve and I were giddy and excited because we beat a Brazilian team with [NBA veterans] Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao and we know how mentally tough you have to be to win down there,” said Barrett, assistant GM and executive vice-president of the men’s national team program.

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Nash, the two-time NBA MVP from Victoria, and Barrett were best buddies and Canadian teammates in the 2000s. They rejoined forces at the executive level in 2012, along with their former Canadian coach Jay Triano, to rebuild the national team program.

“We want to establish a culture of winning and this is an important step because if a national team wants to be a player on the world stage, it has to be playing in the World Cup and Olympics,” said Barrett.

Conor Morgan of Victoria displayed his fluid inside-outside game as the six-foot-nine Mount Douglas Secondary Rams graduate scored five points against Brazil on a spectacular slam dunk and a long three-pointer. Kyle Wiltjer, son of Olympian and former Victoria basketball great Greg Wiltjer, scored 25 points and former Carleton star and now German league pro Phil Scrubb 15.

Canada hasn’t gone to the Olympics since Barrett and captain Nash played at Sydney 2000 and this week finally assured its first World Cup appearance since going 0-5 in 2010.

Canada faced harrowing travel delays — 25 hours from Orlando to Caracas for Friday night’s 84-76 loss to Venezuela and 19 hours from Caracas to Sao Paulo.

“It brought back memories for Steve and I of playing in Olympic qualifying in Puerto Rico with a police escort because traffic was [purposely] impeding our Canadian team bus to the arena, the fans banging on our dressing room door, and having things thrown at us from the stands,” said Barrett

The result of the rebuild has not only been mental tenacity but depth as Canada has used 35 players through two rounds of qualifying. Canada’s NBA players, and Barrett’s son and Duke freshman sensation R.J. Barrett, staked Canada to a 7-1 record in qualifying play. But the NBA players were not available for the past week’s qualifiers in Venezuela and Brazil as Canada’s growing pool of secondary players moved that record to 8-2 to clinch a spot in the 2019 World Cup, out of which the top seven teams will be the first wave of qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“During the qualifying process, we’ve used NBA players, seven players who came out of U Sports, our European pros from as far away as Russia, G-League pros and even high school players [which R.J. Barrett was when he starred for Canada against China in June in a qualifiers exhibition at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria],” added Rowan Barrett.

Barrett pointed to the Islander Morgan, who in April helped lead Canada to the silver medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

“It’s amazing the attitude and work ethic Conor Morgan continues to display,” said Barrett.

“Conor just goes all out all the time.”

The two-time Canada West MVP signed a contract this fall with Divina Seguros Joventut of the Spanish Premiership, considered the best league in the world outside the NBA. So seeking time off from his Spanish club, as a rookie, was a big ask for Morgan.

“Conor just told his team: ‘I’m going.’ He is committed to sacrifice and play for his country.”

Which he has done, from the World University Games, Commonwealth Games and now to the senior national team.

“It was a good team win [in Brazil],” said Morgan.

“It’s exciting to be part of it and I’m looking forward to St. John’s [where Canada will conclude qualifying play Feb. 21 and Feb. 24 against Chile and Venezuela at Mile One Arena].”

Morgan knows making the roster for the World Cup, Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 in cities across China, will be tough with all of Canada’s NBA players available, including the formerly recalcitrant Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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