There were two training camps in Edmonton sandwiched around a six-game exhibition tour of Europe to prepare the Canadian women for Monday night’s historic moment, and as she watched it all unfold — the biggest game on home soil in years — Bev Smith looked on in amazement.
Now an assistant to head coach Lisa Thomaidis, a former national team head coach herself and an iconic figure in Canadian basketball history, Smith knows firsthand the difficult journey that culminated in a gold medal performance at the Pan Am Games.
Sparked by guard Kia Nurse, who had a game-high 33 points, Canada stormed back to beat the United States 81-73 at a sold-out Ryerson Athletic Centre to win the first gold medal ever for the senior program.
The gifted backcourt of Nurse and Nirra Fields, fuelled by at times stifling defence that allowed them to move in transition, led Canada to the win.
Nurse, a University of Connecticut freshman playing against teammates Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, quelled a pair of late U.S. rallies with crucial baskets.
And when she had to leave after a nasty head-on-head collision with Jefferson, Fields took over with a quick basket.
Canada’s best Pan Am finish was a silver medal at the 1999 Winnipeg Games. Their best world championship was third in 1987, a team that Smith anchored.
“We struggled when I was both playing and coaching and I really think that outside of hockey, our country has a hard time — and maybe the powers that be had a hard time — understanding team sports, the development of team sports and the chemistry that’s so important in team sports,” said Smith, who returned to the senior team coaching staff in 2013.
“It was really hard to develop that when you have a 10-day training camp and the rest of the world is training for 30 days and has 19 games. When I was coaching in the Sydney Olympics, Stacey Dales and Tammy Sutton-Brown, who were 19, had six international games and Lauren Jackson, who was 19, had over 70. It was mission impossible.”
“I really take my hat off to Canada Basketball and actually all team sports in Canada who got together and said, look it, we need another way to evaluate and develop our team sports outside of hockey.”
The development of the women’s program has been nothing short of amazing. They went years without being a factor either in the Americas or globally until they found the resources and the will to match what other countries were doing.
“We have gold medal standards in basketball,” said Smith. “So what does our fitness need to be, what does our strength need to be, what do our analytics need to be? What do our shooting percentage need to be, our pace, our defence?
“Now that’s being evaluated by Sport Canada and Own The Podium and it gives us a chance to rise up to those standards. It doesn’t guarantee anything but it gives us a chance.”
Smith has known the ups and downs like few others. She was on the Canadian team — and one of the best players on the planet — that finished third at the 1986 world championship; she also saw it “unravel” when Canada, a top-five team in the world, failed to qualify for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“What happened after that was the Australians started to train differently, the Europeans started to train differently and they kind of left us behind,” she said.
“I retired in ’88, came back in ’92, went to the world championships in ’94 and played Australia. I hadn’t seen them in four years and I thought, ‘oh, my God. I’m in trouble, first, and we’re in trouble.’”
And Smith is glad to be part of it again.
“It’s in my blood and I’ve really enjoyed watching the progress the women’s team has made under Allison (McNeill, the London Games head coach) and Mike (McNeill) and Lisa and with Denise (Dignard, Canada Basketball’s senior team co-ordinator),” said Smith.
“They are really doing some innovative things and paying attention to the world and how teams are taking steps towards excellence in basketball.”