When Todd MacCulloch looks back two decades to the men’s Olympic basketball team’s performance in Sydney, grit and toughness come to mind
A former Philadelphia 76er, and member of that 2000 national team, MacCulloch believes Canada’s defensive driven underdog mentality led them to a strong seventh place finish.
Not the most talented team in Australia, certainly, but one with a style of play led by coach Jay Triano that fit the moment.
“We were good shooters, but probably not the best shooting team,” said MacCulloch. “Defence is something that really just requires effort so the guys bought into Jay’s defensive schemes as well as the offence.
“Guys were willing to put their bodies on the line.”
The team trained all summer long to get into great shape, flew all over the map, and worked as hard as they possibly could.
They were a scrappy team, and that helped them win a lot of close games. MacCulloch, talked about how they were always in every game until the end.
“I think the conditioning that Triano had us do as well as just execution in the plays that he drew up allowed us to hit some big shots and we had great on-the-court leadership with Nash,” said MacCulloch.
At the time there were only four Canadian players in the NBA: Steve Nash, Rick Fox, Jamaal Magloire, and MacCulloch. Currently Canada has the most foreign players in the NBA (22) compared to any foreign country.
MacCulloch talked about that growth, and he hopes their performance in Sydney had an impact on the young Canadian NBA talent seen today.
“It’s been really important to see the impact that the national team had that I was on in 2000 with coach Triano and Steve Nash – it’s been great,” said MacCulloch.“ I hope that it inspired some young guys that may have been little kids then looking at us and thinking maybe I can play on the national team, maybe I can make it to the Olympics, maybe I can play in the NBA.”
Shawn Swords, now head coach of the Laurentian University men’s team, played guard at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
“I think the run we went on was really important at the time just to put Canada on the basketball stage,” said Swords. “ Obviously we were underdogs throughout that tournament and had a great run which opened up the eyes of the basketball community.”
Canada finished 4-1 in the preliminary round upsetting countries such as Spain and Yugoslavia, their first victory came as a surprise to many as they defeated Australia 101-90 on their home court.
“Beating Australia in Australia I think surprised them (although) I don’t think it surprised us. That Australia team was obviously very good, they went on to win the bronze, they had an excellent team and we beat them on their home turf and then we went on and beat Spain,” said MacCulloch.
“At that point we were feeling pretty good about our chances to qualify for the top three and avoid the US in the crossover and give us a chance to win one more game and get in the medal round and then try and make it to the gold medal game.”
Canada fell to France in the quarterfinals 68-63, a game where MacCulloch led the team in scoring with 23 points while grabbing nine rebounds. Though they fell short, Canada’s run had a positive impact back home.
“I think we provided a lot of excitement and interest back home and I think (that) kind of had some young kids believing that basketball was something that they could compete on the world stage at,” said MacCulloch.
Playing for Canada had always been MacCulloch’s goal.
“That’s what it was all about when I was a kid, that was probably my biggest goal, I didn’t think about the NBA, I didn’t think that was a reality for me,” said MacCulloch. “I thought I could play for Team Canada and I thought I could help them get to the Olympics.”
MacCulloch believes their performance, even though it didn’t lead to a medal, was very significant.
“I think it was significant, I mean Team Canada hadn’t been in the Olympics since 1988 when Jay Triano was a player, and I think he was sort of hired with the belief that he could get that team back,” said MacCulloch.
“I think it really helped put Canada basketball back on the map, it helped the country and people started to talk about the program and that we could play on the big stage with some of the best countries in the world.”
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic the summer Olympics in Tokyo has been rescheduled to July 23-Aug. 8, 2021. Team Canada’s basketball team will still have their shot to qualify with the final tournament yet to come.