OLYMPIC BAS­KET­BALL

Shona Thor­burn, Kia Nurse among five lo­cals

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE MIL­TON

TORONTO — It started with Tran­sway and will con­tinue through Rio, but it cer­tainly won’t end there.

“Hamil­ton has al­ways been called the hot­bed of bas­ket­ball in On­tario,” says Kia Nurse, 20, who led Canada to both the Pan Am Games gold medal and an Olympic berth at the FIBA qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment in Ed­mon­ton last sum­mer.

“Grow­ing up there and play­ing against the play­ers, and play­ing with the play­ers that I did, I can hon­estly tes­tify that’s a true state­ment.”

The Cana­dian Olympic Com­mit­tee could of­fer sim­i­lar tes­ti­mony. When the women’s hoops team for Rio was of­fi­cially an­nounced Fri­day at Toronto’s Mat­tamy Cen­tre — the same place Canada rat­tled hard-court bones by win­ning the Pan Ams — Hamil­to­ni­ans Nurse and Shona Thor­burn were among the dozen play­ers.

And so were three women who spent part of their high school years in Hamil­ton. Star power for­ward Natalie Achonwa, the only WNBA player on the team, was at St. Mary’s for a cou­ple of years and Ed­mon­ton twins Kather­ine and Michelle Plouffe spent a year there. All three were part of Bas­ket­ball Canada’s short-lived, and greatly-missed, Na­tional Elite De­vel­op­ment Academy which died in 2009 be­cause of my­opic fund­ing cut­backs.

Plus, Dun­das na­tive and for­mer McMaster star Lisa Thomaidis, who took over three years ago, is head coach and the team man­ager is Mac in­terim head coach, Anne Marie Thuss. “It goes right down to the com­mu­nity bas­ket­ball groups in Hamil­ton, the 6-8 year-old girls” says Thuss.

“They do some amaz­ing work just to grow the love of the game.”

There will be many times in Rio that the Cana­dian back­court will be Thor­burn at point guard and Nurse at two-guard.

The for­mer is the old­est player on the team, turn­ing 34 two days af­ter the Open­ing Cer­e­monies, and the lat­ter is the youngest at 20.

Dur­ing yes­ter­day’s cer­e­mony, Thor­burn told teenaged play­ers in the au­di­ence that she had been in­spired by the 2000 Olympic team at Syd­ney and hoped that, in turn, the cur­rent squad can do the same for their gen­er­a­tion.

Nurse said she was given a huge mo­ti­va­tional boost by Thor­burn’s 2012 Olympic team which qual­i­fied in a last-chance tour­na­ment to make the Lon­don Games.

That team beat Brazil for the first time in most of the play­ers’ lives, and qual­i­fied for the quar­ter­fi­nal where they lost to the gold

medal­list Amer­i­cans.

“I was with the na­tional cadet team then and at break­fast and lunch we were watch­ing them on the pro­jec­tor,” Nurse re­calls. “That was one of those mo­ments where it was, ‘OK, you could do this one day. If you keep fol­low­ing this path, you could get there.’ Not as quickly as I did though. I didn’t think it would be just four years.

“It’s just com­pletely ex­cit­ing for us. Get­ting to know Shona over the last four years and know­ing of her be­fore I even met her, then play­ing with her, it’s so much fun. She reads the game in way that so many peo­ple will never be able to do. And her lead­er­ship and ex­pe­ri­ence, I can’t take those for granted be­cause a lot of peo­ple won’t ever get to ex­pe­ri­ence what I do with her.”

Thor­burn evolved into the floor leader in Lon­don, top­ping the Cana­di­ans in as­sists in three of the five group-stage games, in points in two of the games, and in re­bounds in one. She had surgery on her fibula in late Au­gust and re­turned to play well for her pro team Nantes Reze in France, where Kather­ine Plouffe is her team­mate.

“Ob­vi­ously Kia and I never played to­gether be­cause we’re from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions,” Thor­burn says. “But I hope I’ve in­spired her and now she gets to be here par­tic­i­pat­ing. It’s so hard to de­scribe what the Olympics are like, you need to be there. And she will be there, hav­ing a lot of peo­ple watch­ing her.

“Hamil­ton’s a hub for bas­ket­ball. Ob­vi­ously, Tran­sway is the start, and it’s still a women’s club which means they can spend all their en­ergy on girls ball. Tran­sway was good, so the high school teams had to be­come good.

“Then you had NEDA. It just proves the com­mit­ment that Hamil­ton and the school boards have made to girls bas­ket­ball, and it shows. We’ve got five girls on this team who at one point in high school played in Hamil­ton.”

Nurse says the spec­tac­u­lar rise of Cana­dian women’s bas­ket­ball — Thomaidis said that be­fore last year they never would have been in­vited to the two pres­ti­gious tour­na­ments they played in France and the U.S. this year — is “a tes­ta­ment to our vets.

They’ve been through the trenches when the pro­gram was at its low and they’re the ones who’ve brought it to the highs. They built the step­ping stones for us.”

And those step­ping stones lead to­ward what in Rio, where Canada is in a tough Group B with the U.S., Sene­gal, China, Ser­bia and Spain?

“We won’t be shy to tell you the goal is to come home with a medal,” Nurse said.

“You have to have things you strive for. Our suc­cess is go­ing to be based on our co­he­sion and how well we play. We un­der­stand we have to peak at the right time, but we have the po­ten­tial, and the sky’s the limit.”

RICK MADONIK, TORONTO STAR

Hamil­ton’s Shona Thor­burn (left) and Kia Nurse are front and cen­tre on Canada’s Olympic women’s bas­ket­ball team.

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