CHARLOTTE (Steve Goldberg's Wheel World) - This time of year is when Hollywood debuts its big summer movies. Not to be outdone, it's also when a cluster of countries are debuting the future of their men's national teams at the 2017 IWBF U23 World Championships.
The sixth edition of the tournament comes home to Toronto where it all began 20 years ago in 1997.
"In the first ever U23 World Championships, we saw some of the best players to ever grace the court of wheelchair basketball emerge such as Patrick Anderson and Troy Sachs, to name just a couple, and I’m sure we will have the delight in seeing similar exciting talent surface here."
Host Canada took top honors in '97, and again four years later in in Blumenau, Brazil. Home court does have its advantages as Brazil claimed the silver medal in 2001.
The USA proved to be the best in the next two tournaments, at Birmingham, England in 2005 and Paris, France in 2009. A three-peat was prevented, not on the court, but off it as an escalating situation in Syria caused the Americans to withdraw from the event in Adana, Turkey, which was deemed too near the border and battles around Aleppo.
As you read this, the action has begun, running from June 8 to the medal games on June 16. You can find the tournament website here. All games will be streamed live. The schedule and results can be accessed here. The Twitter hashtag is #2017u23wwbc.
Pool A includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Italy and Turkey.
Pool B features France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, South Africa and the United States.
Germany are the defending champions from Adana, their first U23 medal, but only finished third in the 2017 European U22 Championship that got them to Toronto. Turkey, seventh at home four years ago, won Europe and must be considered a contender in Canada.
Iran and Italy are back after qualifying for the first time in 2013. South Africa is playing for the third time since 2009.
In Thursday's early session, Iran must have brought some of their strong Persian tea with them as they took the lead three minutes into their 8 a.m. game against Australia and never relinquished it against a strong comeback to win 72-68. Mohammadhassan Sayari led all scorers with 27 points for Iran and added 13 rebounds. O'Neill-Thorne led the Aussies with 25 points.
In another battle between prospective medalists, the Americans must have missed their coffee as Great Britain blitzed the USA early, leading by 28 at the half and winning by 37, 87-50. They excelled behind terrific shooting (58 FG%) and a relentless high-pressure defense that totally disrupted the American game. When the USA could get shots, they weren't making them (43 FG%). Jack Perry, Billy Bridge, and Ben Fox led a balanced British attack with 14 points each. Romo and Kyle Gribble each had 16 for the U.S.
After the opening ceremony, Canada proceeded to defend the home court with a solid 66-35 win over Italy. Ben Moronchuk led all scorers with 36 points for Canada. Sabri Bedzeti led Italy with 14.
The evening session saw Germany beat South Africa 89-24, Turkey over Brazil 77-37, and Japan topple France 75-50.
Unlike the Paralympic Games where top athletes can compete multiple times, there are few who have played in more than one U23 event. Canada has two in Liam Hickey and Vincent Dallaire, who also played on the 2015 Parapan Am Games team. Hickey also played for Canada's senior team along with Ben Moronchuk at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. A nation hopes this will propel the home team higher than their 6th place finish in 2013.
"We have our sights set on the gold medal," says Hickey. "We know we can achieve that if we execute our game plan. Every team here wants that gold medal so it'll come down to which team wants it the most."
At least three other teams feature players with Rio experience. Tom O'Neill Thorne was in Brazil for the Aussies. Christopher Huber represented Germany and Renshi Chokai did the same for Japan. The youngest player on Great Britain's bronze medal team in Rio, Gregg Warburton, will captain his side in Toronto.
For the most part though, the tournament is full of players still dreaming of pulling on their country's colors at the senior level. Like the USA's Fabian Romo, 20, who didn't know wheelchair basketball existed until his freshman year in high school. With only seven years experience, Toronto will be his second international event, the first being the Americas Zone qualifying tournament in Buenos Aires last January.
"For some of us, it will be our first major international experience in the World Championships," Romo told the IWBF. "It exposes us young players to a higher level of competition from what we’re used to back home, and it gives us a chance to win our first gold medal.
Beyond that, he understands that this next week will lay the foundation for getting to the next level.
"We will have the experience and knowledge of what it’ll take to compete against other countries and be familiar with their style of play."
How the USA responds against Germany on Friday will show how they deal with a negative experience and whether or not this team has a chance to medal.
The U23 World Championship continues an impressive run of basketball events in Canada, which hosted the IWBF Women's World Championship in 2014, the Parapan American Games in 2015, and the inaugural 2011 Women's U25 World Championship.
"As a world leader in our sport, we welcome the opportunity to build lasting legacies that contribute to the ongoing growth and development of the game," noted Wheelchair Basketball Canada President Steve Bach.
As we celebrate the future of the game in Toronto, sadly we have to say farewell to part of its past as well. Ron Coppenrath, a member of the IWBF Executive council and Secretary General of IWBF Europe passed away Thursday morning.
Ron was very attentive and helpful to me in the early development of this column in answering questions and providing info as needed from European events.
I can only echo the words of IWBF President Ulf Mehrens who said, "Ron’s impact on the improvement and development of wheelchair basketball and the world is immeasurable and he will be sorely missed by everyone in the sport. He was a true gentleman and friend to all that knew him. Ron dedicated his life to the sport in a quiet and unassuming manner and we are deeply saddened by his passing. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time."
By Steve Goldberg for FIBA.com