Nestled in the back alleys of an otherwise-ignored Tournament of the Americas, Canada fell to Panama on Thursday. This embarrassing two-point loss knocked Canada out of the running for an Olympic berth in 2012, the opportunity to play in a country that aided in that country's birth, and a chance to develop and promote what has been a burgeoning and potential-laden basketball program.
In losing to Panama, though, the Canadian team will have to wait until the next go-round. Clearly in response, coach Leo Rautins decided to step down as team coach just hours after the defeat. Things, just as clearly, are at an all-time low.
And Toronto Sun columnist Steve Buffery? He's looking at Steve Nash for answers. And he's not particularly happy:
It's pretty certain that if Nash had played for Canada this summer, the team would have finished at least in the top five, perhaps even in the top two -- which would have resulted in an automatic bye into the Olympics. And that would have been magical. San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner, who desperately wanted to play for Canada, will likely have his citizenship by next year and would have played in London.
But sadly for Team Canada, and the national team program, Nash stuck to his guns and refused to suit up for the team. The man was a social butterfly this summer, bouncing from one city to another, doing this, that and the other thing. But devoting a couple of weeks to the national team was apparently out of the question.
Wow. Teeing off on sacred cows is a tricky subject, and Nash should be held in high regard because of his many accomplishments both on and off the court. That said, I have no issue with Buffery setting up to rave and rant at Nash, especially as Steve has decided to take yet another summer off to pursue his various interests (silly guy).
That said, was Buffery correct in his approach?
The same freedom that allows Buffery to let loose on Nash for declining yet another invitation to play for his national team also allows Nash the chance to pass on sustaining what has been an all-consuming addiction since he was an adolescent. Nash is obsessed with the game of basketball, as any schoolmate that saw him "dribbling" from class to class decades ago with a tennis ball (as his rock du jour) will tell you.
And as it is with all the greats -- Jordan had to quit, twice; Shaq needed Hollywood, Russell needed to find his footing as a sociopolitical leader, Tim Duncan obsesses over interactive video games (that's not a dig, by the way) -- Nash has to take a break from what sets him apart.
That's one aspect. The other is more personal, to Nash.
Nash has intimated several times that he was not happy with Team Canada's choice to let former Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano go back in 2005, and that he would possibly return to the team if Triano were leading the charge. To a true patriot, friendship shouldn't trump devotion to country; but is playing on a basketball team the truest form of devotion to one's homeland?
Topping that? Nash is 37. A 33-year-old Michael Jordan gave no indication that he even considered a spot on Team USA's 1996 entry at the Olympics, and it took Kobe Bryant years before he dipped his toe into international competition's respective waters. Lockout or no, Nash is under no obligation to (let's be honest, here) slum his way through a tiring tournament against the wishes of his employers; even if his employers are withholding his paychecks right now.
From his second NBA season onward, Nash has endured back, Achilles and ankle problems. He's played deep into the playoffs for the majority of his NBA career, if not last season, and by any reasonable account he's more than paid his dues when it comes to fulfilling his role as an ambassador for Canadian basketball. Whether that means dropping a nice bounce pass between a Panamanian's legs on Thursday is up for debate.
Luckily, we have Michael Grange on hand to give us his usual reasonable account. And though Nash's supposed obligation will never be clearly defined, what is not up for debate is the outright fact that Canadian players (along with an unfortunate case of immigration conflict) have not shown the sort of commitment that their fellow countrymen would, at the very least, hope for. Much less expect.
The fact is Nash played for Canada when it served his interests -- to advance his status as an aspiring professional player. Once playing virtually year-round became detrimental to those interests or interests outside the sport -- film, business, charity work, family -- he's stayed away.
Playing for Canada never seemed like a good idea for Jamaal Magloire, so he never has, at least since his NBA career began.
An exception might be Matt Bonner, the New Hampshire-born Canadian-at-heart who simply seemed pumped at the possibility of playing for his wife's home country, only to have his attempts to be rushed through the immigration process fall short.
Those who played this summer and in summers past deserve credit and praise, but they've certainly stood to gain personally from the experience. Joel Anthony used the increased confidence he earned playing a primary role for Canada to earn a three-year, $11.1-million contract with the Miami Heat. Andy Rautins gets to play for his father and gets to play, period -- a rarity this past season as a rookie with the New York Knicks.
Playing for Canada in the summer has translated into professional contracts for others outside the NBA orbit and at the very least the $18,000 in carding money -- tax free -- that national team members get is not bad coin for six-to-eight weeks work for guys on the fringes of the professional game.
(As it usually is with Grange, there is so, so much more in the rest of his column. Please read it.)
Whatever side you fall on, and whatever side of the U.S./Canadian border you're reading this from, you cannot dismiss the ideal that tells you that a commitment to the Canadian team means quite a bit more than a commitment to Team USA. If Derrick Rose passes on the Olympics next summer, there will always be a Deron Williams to take his place. And the willing replacement doesn't always have to be an All-Star like Williams. That well runs deep, and someone like Paul Millsap will always been on the ready to cancel his trip to Bermuda in order to take in a paid-for visit to late-summer London.
The Canadian team doesn't have that luxury, and while I wouldn't go as far to bleat out "Thanks a lot, Nash!" (as Buffery did), I can understand the frustration. The anger, even.
That's where I'm stopping short, though. The line between patriotism and needless jingoism can only be defined by the individual, and as it is in America, this is what makes the country of Canada so great. It's up to Steve (Nash), and it's up to Steve (Buffery).
Where this sits, in your eyes, is entirely up to you. If I'm honest? I'm just glad there's basketball to banter about, at this point. While fully understanding that Steve Nash's role in all of this is entirely his own decision.