Shona Thorburn, Kia Nurse among five locals
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
“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.”
Hamilton’s Shona Thorburn (left) and Kia Nurse are front and centre on Canada’s Olympic women’s basketball team.