TORONTO — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's former coaches in his hometown of Hamilton say his star performance for team Canada at the FIBA Basketball World Cup is a source of pride for the city and its basketball community.
Gilgeous-Alexander, a guard with the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, has led Canada to its first-ever semifinal spot at the tournament. The team also qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympics on Sunday, ending a drought that dates back to the 2000 Games.
Before he transferred to a school in Tennessee, Gilgeous-Alexander played high school basketball in Hamilton, where coaches recalled his work ethic and commitment to improving his game.
Tim Francis, who coached Gilgeous-Alexander in 2012 and 2013 at Hamilton's Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School, said there is a lot of "pride in having someone come out of the Hamilton ranks and to reach really the highest level of competition."
Francis said Gilgeous-Alexander's meteoric rise in Canadian basketball "shows for everyone in the city and in Ontario and in Canada what hard work can do."
"Shai wasn't known internationally when he was 15 years old, but through hard work, dedication and the time spent on his craft, he's gotten himself in a position where he's one of the best players in the world ... For a lot of young kids in lots of communities, knowing that's possible is an access point," Francis said.
Dwayne Washington taught and coached Gilgeous-Alexander at Sir Allan MacNab. He also founded UPLAY – an organization that aims to help young Canadians excel academically and athletically – where Gilgeous-Alexander also played.
Washington said the guard's rare poise and physicality were evident at an early age, highlighting his seven-foot-seven-inch wingspan and 45 inch vertical jump.
"As he grew into his game through skill, dedication, video coaching and experience, he always had that superpower which is playing under control at all times," said Washington.
The value of competing for one's country was instilled by Gilgeous-Alexander's mother, Charmaine Gilgeous, who ran for Antigua and Barbuda at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Washington said.
He added that Gilgeous-Alexander and other Canadians who have made the NBA and have helped lift the national program to unprecedented heights have benefitted from a range of new programs designed to help young athletes thrive – the type of training infrastructure that was previously seen mostly in hockey.
"What you have is most of the guys have played high level ball against Americans for their whole lives," said Washington, referring to the travel competition opportunities offered by elite basketball clubs and academies for players as young as 12.
"Parents are supporting their kids (in basketball). Just like the hockey parents, they have now decided to find the top basketball clubs," he said. With so many of Canada's national team having been through these programs, "you don't have just experience, you have a collective confidence."
Gilgeous-Alexander and the rest of the Canadian men's national team will face Serbia on Friday in the World Cup semi-final.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.
Kiernan Green, The Canadian Press