The Canada Games Experience: Unforgettable

Sherbrooke, QC – The Canada Games was about more than just basketball for many of the athletes in attendance. Walking through the athletes villiage at Bishop’s University showed me young Canadian athletes coming together, sharing stories, contact info, and buying into the underground pin-trading black market.

Ontaio throws up three fingers for me, signalling their three-peat at the national level.
Ontaio throws up three fingers for me, signalling their three-peat at the national level.

For me, though, it was all about the basketball. In the gym for every game all week, I saw five games per day for six days straight. Rarely did I escape the gym and this immersed me in the next wave of basketball talent coming up through the pipeline across the country.

“It was probably the most amazing sports experience I’ve ever had, there’s nothing that can compare,” said Ontario 6-7 forward Brody Clarke who finished the gold medal game with a team-high 17 points. “It wasn’t just basketball, we embraced everything of the Canada Games and had a great time, once in a lifetime.”

I’d agree with Brody. I had the pleasure and the priveledge of meeting so many great people, coaches, players, officials, media members, arena staff, communications coordinators and fans. Not only was I on the sidelines or in the crowd or media booth for every game, I was down on the floor before and after the game talking to coaches, meeting players and sharing the experience.

After the game I assisted media from TSN, RDS, CBC, Radio-Canada and a wide variety of other local and national outlets. With my credentials as Canada Basketball’s representative and Sport Information Officer for basketball at the Games I had unmatched access to the people and personalities of the Games.

Team Ontario played a talented, agressive style of basketball and everybody, myself included, expected a lot of them. Point guard Calvin Epistola could push the ball and get into the paint with lightning quick end-to-end speed. Brody Clarke was a force on the block. Corey Johnson showed a developed shooting stroke with deep range and the ability to get into good positions to score. Tyrell Gumbs-Frater, Russell Baker and Devonte Campbell were an unstoppable offensive trio. The rest of the team formed the deepest cast in the country that head coach Fatih Asker and the rest of his coaching staff managed extremely well.

At times throughout the tournament they may have looked vulnerable for stretches but still outmatched all opponents and then in the gold medal match put on a dominating performance that exceeded all my expectations of their potential.

Manitoba was my tournament darling. After their first win, I followed the team back to their spin cool-down and discussed their trip to the U17 national finals last year and raised expectations this year. Ben Miller controls a game as good as anybody I’ve seen on this level, and his impact is felt all over the court. Billy Yaworsky’s arms stretch into tomorrow allowing him to finish games with 12-15 rebounds effortlessly as Sherman Hamilton and I discussed.

Manitoba guards Joseph Medrano, Denzel Solivan and Jowell Shuffler combined speed and skill to beat opponents down the court every time. Coach Stephen Tackie’s beaming smile and wisdom throughout the tournament belied his tactical genius – just ask anybody about their “Hail Mary” play. It seemed everybody was sleeping on Manitoba through the tournament, even when they went undefeated in preliminary play. When they beat Quebec (as I predicted they would) in the Semis people finally realized ‘Toba was for real.

Quebec reached the podium in Sherbrooke after coming fourth at 2012 Nationals and lost just one game all tournament, though they walked a thin line a couple of times making for high drama in front of an excitable French crowd. Daniel Levitt and James Tyrell were an electric backcourt, Abdul Atta dominated down low on defence and showed offensive promise, and Jerome Desrosiers was a crowd-favorite for the hometown fans with his diverse skill-set and abilities. Had they been in the finals, the roof might have blown off the Palais des Sports.

Nova Scotia's Nick DePalma chills with the boxscore after scoring a new Canada Games record 33 points
Nova Scotia’s Nick DePalma chills with the boxscore after scoring a new Canada Games record 33 points

East-coast teams showed hustle, heart and placed well throughout. PEI played solid team ball and I was impressed with Newfoundland’s three-point shooting that downed BC with 36 fourth-quarter points in their opening game. New Brunswick came fourth led by Stanley Mayambo, Val Nelson, Keegan Gray, and Daniel Luton. Nova Scotia wrapped up fifth place led by guards Nate Darling and Nick DePalma who scored a Canada Games record 33 points in the consolation win over a well-coached Saskatchewan team. The 33 points topped Saskatchewan guard Chan De Ciman’s 31 point record which stood for all of 24 hours. Both outbursts topped 30, a previous record shared by Quebec’s Kemy Osse and Kris Joseph. I had the pleasure of breaking the news to him in the Scotia locker room after the game and see him getting mauled by his teammates, then take this picture of his “Wilt Chamberlain” moment.

The Western teams underwhelmed, but not necessarily as a result of poor play. Combine the fact that BC & AB did not have a true representation of their elite players, and with the rest of the provinces stepping up, you will have a ‘down year’. Provincial championships are getting less and less top-heavy; evidence of basketball growing throughout the nation.

“You can tell Canada Basketball is on the rise because it’s not just Ontario or Quebec any more,” said 5-10 Ontario point guard Calvin Epistola. “Manitoba’s right in the picture and I give them a lot of credit, BC’s usually near the top but they finished low because there’s just so many other good teams.”

The Northwest Territories were the media darling of the tournament with 5-3 (according to him) point guard Kent Alacida, and forward Chris Church, an Inuvik resident living roughly 50 hours north of Yellowknife. “We came here to play our best and see how we compete with everyone, and before every game we said our team goals and for every game we accomplished what we wanted to do,” said Austin Smith, who opened the Games as the flag-bearer for the Territories. “I take away that I got to play against Ontario, got to play against guys that will probably play in the NBA, and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. We’re going to close the gap between us and the better teams, come back and work harder on our weaknesses and stay strong as a team.”

I’ll remember palming a ball off the ground during warmups and tossing a ridiculous, high-arching hook shot from the corner three in front of the entire Northwest Territories team, then shrugging like it was nothing and walking off like a boss while they were going bonkers. It’s not really possible to sum up the full experience of the Games but it’s all a collection of the experiences and people that made it possible and enjoyable, a struggle and a triumph, long days, longer nights, Quizno’s trips, and the sound of basketballs bouncing, sneakers squeaking and Cotton-Eyed Joe blaring at least twice a game. Now I do it all again for the Girls next week and I can’t wait.

Congrats to all the coaches and players on their successful trip and special thanks to those who accommodated me and took me into their basketball family at times throughout the week.

Canada Games Final Standings

1. Ontario

2. Manitoba
3. Quebec
4. New Brunswick
5. Nova Scotia
6. Saskatchewan
7. Newfoundland
8. Prince Edward Island
9. British Columbia
10. Alberta
11. Northwest Territories

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