Nash is no Henderson

I stayed up until 3:30 am Thursday to watch Canada play basketball.

Not the Raptors or the Lakers. Not Duke, North Carolina or even Kentucky. I stayed up to watch Canada, of all teams, lose to France in the Olympic quarter-finals and eliminate themselves from medal contention.

I wasn't the only one either. As I raced home from the Journal House to catch the end of the first half I passed at least four University Ave. living rooms whose television sets - featuring the Canuck cagers - were visible from the street.

The times they are a changing.

This is not the type of fan unification you would expect from a Canadian basketball team. Definitely Canadian hockey, but not Canadian basketball. However, Canada Basketball - whose last Olympic appearance was '88 in Seoul - has injected new life into its program since its horrendous 12th place finish at the World Championships two years ago.

The program can now boast an impressive 4-2 record at this year's Sydney games, which includes two commanding wins over host favourites Australia, 101-90, and defending world champions Yugoslavia, 83 -75, a game that is being heralded as the greatest Canadian basketball victory in history.

The program has also shown that it possesses one of the purest point guards in the world in Steve Nash. Besides Thursday morning's French flop, Nash has been the most dominant non-Dream Team player in the tournament. A sorcerer in the Canadian offense, the Victoria native's penetration continually turned defenders into statues, with highlights coming against the Yugoslavians and the Aussies where he drained 26 points and connected for 15 assists respectively.

Besides Nash, the Canuck ballers have also proved that their success doesn't hinge on the participation of NBA players, like sellout Jamaal Magloire who declined to join the squad in Sydney. Magloire reportedly opted out because of concerns about playing time, a pathetic excuse at best. Magloire, the second highest Canadian ever drafted to the NBA and an All-SEC team player two years running, would have seen more court time than Judge Judy.

Instead, post Peter Guarasci who plays pro in Germany, and forward Micheal Meeks, a French pro baller, have stepped up their games and reminded Canadian fans that the NBA is not the be-all, end-all of hoops.

Finally, the men's hoops team has confirmed the importance of sponsors. Representing a country plagued by financing problems, the Canadian hoopsters are a lucky breed, receiving funding from Nike Canada, NBA Canada, Gatorade and Kellog's. As a result, Canada Basketball has been able to execute an effective television ad campaign over the summer, sell Canada basketball merchandise, and create mass attention through their Dribble and Drive to Sydney campaign, a festival that traveled across Canada stopping at 30 locations from Vancouver to St. John's.

Canada basketball has become exciting.

Let us not forget the disappointing loss to France though. In the round robin Canada was scorching from the field, almost too hot for their own good. In the first three games they shot a blistering 60 per cent from the field and 50 per cent from beyond the arch. Eventually their hot hands would fizzle, and that fizzle came against France, shooting a lowly 34 per cent in the first 20 minutes. Commandeer Nash tried to create even more than before to compensate, which caused him to turn the ball over nine times.

Preemptive expectations also hindered the Canucks. Comparisons in the Toronto Star to the 1972 Summit Series hockey team, and likening Nash to Paul Henderson was excessive and unfair, and probably a result of Canada's lowly medal count at the games.

However, the early exit should not overshadow the gains made by the squad. They will learn from the brick they threw up against 'Les Bleus' and use it to rebuild the house of Canada Basketball; a house that I will gladly watch in the early hours of morning from Athens in 2004.

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