TORONTO — Mike (Pinball) Clemons has been a winner at many levels: as a player, coach and an executive. The CFL legend is also known for his passionate motivational speeches, something the Canadian men's basketball team experienced first-hand this week as it begins its quest to qualify for the Rio Olympics.
Clemons weighed in as the team wrapped training camp at Air Canada Centre in preparation for a warmup tournament in Puerto Rico and the FIBA Americas competition in Mexico City. So what message did he deliver to a young group of players high on talent but short on experience?
"Play defence," said head coach Jay Triano. "It was motivational but it was also about defence, and playing as a team and we know those are the two things for us. If you're going to be consistently good over 10 games in 12 days, you better be sound defensively and you better play as a team because it's not going to be fun and it's going to be a lot of adversity.
"How we overcome the adversity is going to determine whether we're successful or not."
Canada can book its ticket to the 2016 Summer Games with a top-two finish at the Aug. 31-Sept. 12 FIBA Americas. First up is the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup tournament starting Sunday in Puerto Rico.
The Canadian side, which includes NBA players Cory Joseph, Anthony Bennett and rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins, will play Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in the five-team exhibition through Wednesday.
"We're going to play a regular rotation," Triano said. "We haven't played a game, so we have to figure out rotations. We have a pretty good idea of who's played well together here but we're going to find out if it works against other countries. Some guys are going to have to get used to playing 30 minutes a game and taking the bangs when that happens and bouncing back for another game.
"So we're going to try to figure out rotations and get guys minutes, (get them) game-shape and game-ready."
A total of nine current NBA players were named to the squad Thursday. Joining Toronto's Joseph and Minnesota teammates Wiggins and Bennett are Melvin Ejim and Andrew Nicholson of the Orlando Magic, Nik Stauskas of the Philadelphia 76ers, Robert Sacre of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks and Kelly Olynyk of the Boston Celtics.
The roster is rounded out by European league players Aaron Doornekamp (Braunschweig, Germany), Olivier Hanlan (BC Zalgiris, Lithuania), Brady Heslip (Pallacanestro Cantu, Italy) and Phil Scrubb (AEK Athens, Greece).
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson won't be playing for Canada as he has been in contract negotiations this summer. Guard Jamal Murray, centre Sim Bhullar and guard Carl English also will not participate.
Canada is coming off a second-place finish at the Pan Am Games last month in Toronto, although several NBA players skipped that event. The final 12-man roster for the FIBA Americas will be released after the exhibition tournament.
Clemons, a former star player and current vice-chair with the Toronto Argonauts, watched the team work out Thursday from a corner of the gym at the ACC's practice facility. He spoke to the players for about 10 minutes afterwards and they had some spring in their step as they emerged from the mid-court gathering.
"He's always going to talk about the collective and how all of us need to be engaged in this altogether or there's no way that we're going to succeed," said assistant general manager Rowan Barrett. "I thought that was good coming from a five-time champion — three times a player, one time as an executive and one as a coach — I think he knows quite a bit about winning.
"It's always good when you can have somebody like that speak to your guys."
The national men's team hasn't played at the Olympics since the Sydney Games in 2000. Canada finished seventh that year.
The Canadian women's basketball team qualified for Rio earlier this summer. In 2012, that side needed to play in a late qualification tournament to earn one of the last spots at the Olympics in London, where Canada finished eighth.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press