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Canadian Basketball Hopes a New Floor Will Raise Its Ceiling

Canada hasn’t made the Olympics in men’s basketball in two decades, but its sports officials hope a memento from the Toronto Raptors’ championship run will bring good luck.

What worked for Wayne Gretzky and Canadian hockey at the 2002 Winter Olympics never quite fit the karmic ambitions of Canadian basketball officials nearly two decades later.

The sacred tradition of sneakily stashing a good-luck coin beneath the playing surface did not sound as good to those antsy officials as buying a complete basketball floor for its supposed mystical properties.

Gold medal triumphs for the Canadian men’s and women’s ice hockey teams in Salt Lake City in 2002 were forever linked to their so-called “lucky loonie” — a one-dollar Canadian coin secretly hidden under the ice. In a next-level spinoff this summer, when the Canadian men’s national basketball team tries to qualify for its first Olympics since the Sydney Games in 2000, it will play on the court upon which the Toronto Raptors in 2019 became the first team based outside the United States to win an N.B.A. championship.

“We want the entire court to be the lucky loonie,” said Scott Lake, a board member of Canada Basketball who was instrumental in the federation’s bid to obtain that court and host a six-team Olympic men’s qualifying tournament in Victoria, British Columbia, from June 29 to July 4.

Lake’s premise may strike some as over the top devotion to superstition, but he and Nick Blasko, who worked with Lake to acquire the floor, will not relent. They dreamed of bringing the event to Western Canada and were encouraged in their court crusade by Glen Grunwald, the former N.B.A. executive who became president of Canada Basketball in September 2018. Rather than question the need to go to such lengths, Grunwald lauded Lake and Blasko for “their joyful enthusiasm.”

It took 11 months, and nearly $270,000 from Lake, a co-founder of the Canadian e-commerce company Shopify, to get all of the court’s puzzle pieces, but Canada Basketball conquered the logistical half of its quest. It plans to soon unveil the reassembled floor from Game 6 of the 2019 N.B.A. finals as a tribute to the Raptors’ title team, then refinish the court with FIBA logos and international basketball markings before installing it at the 7,400-seat Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria.

The visiting Raptors clinched the championship with a win against the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2019 N.B.A. finals in Oakland, Calif.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE, via Getty Images

The Raptors were underdogs in the 2019 N.B.A. finals against Golden State and its starry lineup led by Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, but they won the title in six games, helped along by injuries to Durant and Thompson and clinching the series on the road at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif. The qualifying tournament will be the biggest international basketball event held in Canada since the FIBA world championships in Toronto in 1994.

“We wanted to get a floor with a story,” Blasko said. “We wanted a floor that has some significance and meaning to our country.”

Raptors Coach Nick Nurse, who doubles as Canada’s national team coach, endorsed the creativity as heartily as Grunwald.

“I couldn’t believe it when they told me what they were trying,” Nurse said. “It’s a great story. Hopefully we can deliver another big accomplishment on that floor and make our own history for Canadian basketball.”

Six months of negotiations to purchase the floor, then five months of scrambling to acquire the correct center court panels, were rooted in the same philosophy as the Canadian federation’s determination to have Nurse coach the national team: Any connection to Toronto’s championship stirs warm, hopeful vibes.

Lake and Blasko took great pride in persuading the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority to sell them the Game 6 floor for $250,000 — especially after hearing that it was earmarked to be sold to a company that planned to turn it into beer tap handles for local breweries. The serendipitous intervention of Golden State’s operations director, David Marsh, a fellow Canadian, was equally vital after it was discovered that the 16 panels for the Game 6 center circle, which reads “The Town,” were missing.

Golden State had kept those panels after the 2018-19 season and shipped them to Idaho in 2020 to have them sanded down for potential use on a floor at their new arena in San Francisco. Marsh got the panels back and sold them on Golden State’s behalf to the Friends of Victoria Basketball, as the local organizing committee is known, in November 2020 for another $18,750 from Lake.

No measure seemed too extreme when the Canadians considered the floor’s value to the country as a sporting keepsake, irrespective of the qualifying tournament or any perceived mystique.

Canada Basketball
Canada Basketball

“There was a huge inflection point for basketball in this country in 2019,” Lake said. “That Raptors championship was a unifying force for all of Canada.”

The winner from the qualifying tournament in Victoria will get one of four remaining berths in the men’s Olympic basketball tournament this summer in Tokyo. If you dare to buy into the mythology of the stacks of wood panels that were collecting dust in storage, resurrecting this floor will give Canada an even bigger home-court advantage than anticipated when it hosts China, Czech Republic, Turkey, Uruguay and Greece, which is coached by Rick Pitino.

Canada last qualified for the Olympics in men’s basketball 21 years ago — led by Victoria’s favorite son. Nets Coach Steve Nash, who grew up in Victoria in what was regarded as a remote basketball outpost on Vancouver Island, steered an unremarkable squad with only one other N.B.A. player (Todd MacCulloch) to within one win of the medal round.

The current Victoria organizers, determined to help the program end that drought, paid 3.1 million Canadian dollars, about $2.5 million, to host one of four six-team qualifiers alongside three perennial European basketball powers: Serbia, Lithuania and Croatia. Then they moved on to brainstorming for new concepts to generate optimum karma, real or imagined, and felt an unshakable impulse to stretch the traditional Gretzky script.

Canada’s men’s ice hockey gold in 2002 was its first in 50 years. Gretzky, as the executive director of the team, was handed the loonie that had been strategically submerged before those Olympics by a Canadian crew in charge of managing the Salt Lake City ice. That coin became known back home as the ultimate lucky charm and wound up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

To make good on the good-luck plan Lake and Blasko hatched and qualify for Tokyo on that 2019 N.B.A. finals floor, Canada will have to overcome a reputation in recent years for squandering its rising talent. Expectations have never been higher given that Canada, with 17 players on opening night N.B.A. rosters, accounted for more international players in the league than any other country. Yet the scars from four successive failed qualifying campaigns run deep.

Canada Basketball

The Raptors’ title run and the gargantuan television audiences it attracted have led Grunwald to proclaim, as he did in a recent phone interview, that “this is a basketball nation now.” Other prominent members of the Canadian basketball community say the same. The surest way to hush lingering skeptics would be to send men’s and women’s national teams to Tokyo, but no one is quite sure what sort of team Nurse will get to coach. Canada’s women, led by the W.N.B.A.’s Kia Nurse (no relation to the men’s coach) and ranked No. 4 in the world, are regarded as medal contenders.

Jamal Murray, Canada’s best men’s player, could make a deep run in the N.B.A. playoffs with the Denver Nuggets, potentially precluding a national team stint. Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins, another top talent, hasn’t played for Canada since 2015. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s blossoming guard, has been sidelined by plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which could complicate Canada’s efforts to sell him on the off-season rigors of international basketball.

“We got an all-N.B.A. team,” the Knicks’ RJ Barrett, who is Canadian, said last month, insisting they will have enough to qualify no matter who plays.

Lake and Blasko know this much: They can’t do any more to enhance the team’s chances.

“For the people in Oakland, it was just the floor that was taking up space that they were probably never going to use again,” Lake said. “For us, it’s the most important floor in Canadian basketball history.”

Hyperbole? Not to Grunwald. A slew of loonie placements and derivative concepts since 2002 have failed to deliver any Canadian sports magic — including when Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s president of basketball operations, placed a two-dollar Canadian toonie coin under the team’s practice court in Tampa, Fla., in December. It still has been, to put it mildly, an arduous pandemic season for the displaced Raptors, but Grunwald just chuckled as he recounted Lake and Blasko’s persistence.

Nearly eight years removed from his last taste of the N.B.A., with the Knicks, Grunwald said he couldn’t help but get swept up in “the joy they have for basketball.”

“It’s really refreshing,” Grunwald said. “It makes you feel good about our sport and about Canada.”

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