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MANILA, Philippines – Three months ago, Jordi Fernandez became Canada’s head coach after former NBA champion tactician Nick Nurse left his post.
Now, he has brought Team Canada to unprecedented heights.
Canada’s win versus Team USA, 127-118, in overtime punctuated a run unlike any other for the Canadian basketball program, securing its first ever medal in the FIBA World Cup.
“The medal means a lot to the [players], the program, the board, the country, everybody,” said Fernandez on the team’s bronze-medal finish. “I think that an accomplishment like this, you don’t know what it is until you do it.”
The podium was uncharted territory for the Canadians, only reaching as high as the sixth place in two separate World Cups – first in 1978 in Manila and second in 1982 in Columbia.
The team has also never been a top 10 nation in any other iterations of the tournament since hosting the event in 1994. In fact, they have never been a top 5 team until now.
The transition of the national squad to Fernandez’s hands never came with great expectations nor a rousing welcome. His appointment was rather met with initial concerns.
Fernandez, who was the associate head coach for the Sacramento Kings last NBA season, only had a little less than six weeks to engineer a system around his core of NBA players and deal with sudden roster circumstances such as Jamal Murray’s injury and national team mainstay Cory Joseph’s back issues.
With that little time of training camp, little did Fernandez knew that what they were building then was a foundation for Canadian basketball history.
“They don’t know what we went through together for all these days, wins, losses, and the emotions,” said Fernandez. “We are the only ones that know, so all the relationships that we’ve built are going to stay there forever.”
No cakewalk to the top
Canada’s World Cup was never smooth sailing. After dispatching France by 30 points, dominating Lebanon by 55, and beating Latvia by 26, the Canadians ran through the upset axe of Brazil, putting their World Cup chances in jeopardy.
It prompted Fernandez to call out his stars and NBA players Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett, and Kelly Olynyk.
“Shai has to score the ball and playmake, and he didn’t. And I can go down the line. Kelly has to playmake, rebound, and score efficiently – he didn’t. RJ has to run the floor and score efficiently and defend, and he didn’t,” he told in the post-game presser versus Brazil.
His reaction on what was only the Canadians’ first loss in the World Cup was glaring. It displayed a level of grit and on-court potency Fernandez upheld throughout the tournament.
“[Fernandez] understands the NBA players, which is critical to this job,” said Barrett. “If you don’t know how to handle them, it doesn’t matter what the heck you’re saying.”
The callout did not fall on deaf ears either as Canada dethroned Spain in the following game to advance to the quarterfinals and snag their program’s first Olympic berth since the 2000 Sydney games.
Fast forward to Sunday night, September 10, Fernandez can now boast wins against world renowned coaches Vincent Collet of France, Sergio Scariolo of Spain, and Steve Kerr of the United States.
“I have my own path of learning in the NBA and FIBA. I think it’s one of the reasons why they trusted me and gave me a job.”
“The only thing I can say is thanks for believing in me, this has been a great experience. I’ve grown a lot as a person and as a coach,” said Fernandez, a Spanish national who has been working in the NBA for 15 years as an assistant coach on various clubs.
“There have been a lot of things I could’ve done better, but I’m ready to work again for the Olympics,” he added.
Fernandez still has an entire calendar year to equip this team better for the Olympics – a more prestigious tournament, at least, in the North American realm.
This World Cup roster remains devoid of depth, having only an eight-man rotation for the most part of the tournament. But for Fernandez, this group, which consisted of seven NBA players, was a special one.
“I’ll take these guys on my team every day of the week from now until the end of my career,” said Fernandez.
Having this monumental of a campaign, Fernandez knew that the identity instilled in this crew remained unmatched, especially now with the Olympic tournament in mind.
“We believe in loyalty, and the guys here have the first ticket,” Fernandez added on his players’ Olympic chances. – Rob Andrew Dongiapon/Rappler.com
Rob Andrew Dongiapon is a Rappler intern.