By: Doug Smith
February 6, 2018
The Toronto Star
Eight members of the senior team player pool were in Toronto for a few days taking part in a mini-camp with teammates, coaches and Canada Basketball support staff.
The women who have played for Canada’s senior basketball team over the years have always been vocal about their love of the program, their desire to represent the country at the highest level and to serve as role models for young athletes.
When Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe got around to determining her summer basketball plans, Canada won out because the 26-year-old Toronto-born forward knows what a special feeling representing the country — and winning — can be.
The six-foot-two forward, who had an excellent rookie season with the New York Liberty last summer, has decided to take a year off from the WNBA to prepare to help Canada make a medal run at this summer’s world basketball championships.
“It was definitely a difficult decision, one of the more difficult in my athletic career,” Raincock-Ekunwe said Tuesday morning.
“It was toss-up, but in the end I decided to commit to the national team help prepare for the worlds because I think we can really do something in September.”
Raincock-Ekunwe and seven other members of the senior team player pool were in Toronto for a few days taking part in a mini-camp at Ryerson’s Kerr Hall Gymnasium to touch base with teammates, coaches and Canada Basketball support staff.
They flew back home from various European homes — it’s a scheduled break for many of the top overseas leagues — for a whirlwind camp just to reaffirm what’s on the horizon in a bold team-building exercise put together by Canada Basketball.
“Sometimes you get in the grind but you come here and you get refreshed of the bigger picture and kind of why you’re overseas, why you’re investing that time in a season,” Ruth Hamblin said. “That’s kind of cool — to realize this is what we’re working towards here.”
Hamblin, like Raincock-Ekunwe, put career aspirations on hold because of the allure of representing her country. She took the 2017 WNBA season off to train full-time with the national team, was a stalwart on the group that easily qualified at the FIBA Americas event before resuming her career last summer and fall in Australia.
“I got a great opportunity to just spend the whole summer and really invest in Team Canada and they invested in me a lot,” the native of Smithers, B.C. said.
“I was able to really develop as a player and I think that’s really helped my game.”
The mini-camp seems a wonderful idea. The women’s team has long prided itself on its cohesion, and even a few hours together long before summer keeps that cohesion in mind.
“Last year, a lot of the athletes who were over in Europe took the break and February and said it would be awesome to be able to get together for some treatment, touch up on some things and even just to reconnect,” head coach Lisa Thomaidis, the Dundas, Ont., native and coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, said.
“We met (Tuesday) morning, the athletes conveyed that they’re excited just to reconnect and set their sights back on what they’re trying to achieve this summer.”
The draw for the Sept. 22-30 world championships in Tenerife, Spain, was held Tuesday morning. Canada, ranked fifth in the world, is slotted into a first-round group with France, ranked No. 3 in the world, 16th-ranked Korea and No. 20 Greece.
“It was coincidental that we had the draw this morning but it was cool, like this is what we’re doing this summer, what we’re working towards,” said veteran forward Miranda Ayim, of London.
Getting to face France in the first round not only gives Canada a chance at some revenge against the team that knocked them out of the quarter-finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but also gives them a bit of scouting advantage.
Six of the women expected to make the final Canadian roster play in the top French league — one of the deepest leagues in the world — so they are familiar with many of their opponents.
“I’m so looking forward to playing France and getting a bit of redemption for the Olympic game that ended our tournament,” Raincock-Ekunwe said.
“I’m very happy with our draw.”