Khem Birch 'didn't think I was ever coming back' now he's aiming for Olympics

Veteran centre put in years with Canada but didn’t think he’d play again.

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After so many years of trying to get Canada back to the Olympics, Khem Birch thought injuries had cruelly robbed him of the chance to represent his country.

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Birch, who first played for Canada’s youth team in 2010 before also competing in FIBA Olympic qualifying in Manila in 2016 and in World Cup qualifying in Asia and then the World Cup in 2019 (as one of only two NBA players willing to suit up for the country that year) in China, carved out a six-season NBA career, establishing himself as a fine glue guy fit for any roster.

But after a strong 2020-21 season, which included a starting role with the Toronto Raptors, knee issues limited Birch’s playing time the next two seasons and he was last able to play in the NBA on Dec. 29, 2022. Birch was part of the deal that brought Jakob Poeltl back to Toronto from San Antonio, but he never was actually able to suit up for the Spurs. Birch had all but reluctantly figured he was done with basketball, but fellow former Raptors centre Marc Gasol offered him a lifeline, a chance to play for Gasol’s team Girona in Spain. Birch went there in February and the medical staff managed, against all odds, to get him back on track.

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“They put me into a rehab program. And I was like: ‘Wow, I’m actually coming back,’ ” Birch said at Canada’s training camp in Toronto on Thursday afternoon. “Like I said, I didn’t think I was ever gonna come back. And then when I was out there, I was back and I was just like: ‘Thank God.’ ”

Birch was unable to play for Canada at the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria in 2021 (Canada fell agonizingly short, and had COVID not delayed the tourney a year Birch would have been able to compete) and had to watch last year as Canada finally broke through, earning bronze at the World Cup and an Olympic spot.

Watching wasn’t easy. “It kind of hurt a lot, because I didn’t want to be the guy to want to be like: ‘Yeah, I want to join Team Canada when they make the Olympics,’ ” he said. Birch had put in the work and didn’t want to hitch a late ride. But he’s happy to have the chance to make it. “Sometimes I wish this year was the world qualifiers, just so I can actually contribute. But … it’s not like that, and I have an opportunity to make the team.

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“So it’s been tough (fighting back), but at the same time, I’ve been working hard, and I’m just grateful to be where I’m at right now.”

Where Birch is, is fighting for one of the final spots on the most talented Canadian hoops team ever. Birch is an excellent screener, defender and rebounder, so he was always going to have a shot, if healthy, to stick around. It didn’t hurt his chances that 7-foot-4 centre Zach Edey pulled himself out of contention as he preps for his first NBA season. Andrew Wiggins not playing either also opened up a spot. Birch and fellow veteran and long-time Canadian teammate Melvin Ejim both look like good candidates to make it. One more cut will be made before the team heads to Las Vegas to continue camp and take on the United States and other teams in exhibition games ahead of Paris. Then the final cuts will be made.

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Head coach Jordi Fernandez has seen Birch in the NBA as an assistant coach, but hasn’t coached him before.

Fernandez has liked what he has seen of Birch at camp.

“He’s had a great energy,” Fernandez said Thursday when asked about Birch by Postmedia. “He’s a pro. You notice him when you have to notice him, but he works, he puts his head down, he gets along with his teammates. He was not with us last year, but I know he’s been part of the program for a long time and he’s doing a great job fighting for a spot.”

Birch is a team player, and made it clear that even if he doesn’t get the call, he’s still happy his home town of Montreal will be included either way.

“Oh it feels amazing (to see fellow Montrealers Lu Dort and Benedict Mathurin in camp), because Lu is automatically on the team. I always wanted one guy on the team from Montreal. So if I don’t make it at least we have one guy,” Birch said (Mathurin is injured but is seen as a key piece of the program’s future). “And I’m just so happy for Lu and you know, Ben, I remember seeing Ben when he was like 16, he came to Orlando, and then he’s a Top 10 pick, so I’m just happy for those guys and hopefully they can pass the torch to another guy from Montreal (down the line).”

Birch is also pleased that his Canadian teammates Kelly Olynyk and RJ Barrett were dealt to the Raptors and have the chance to play for them as he did.

“That’s just something we can always tell our grandchildren. We’re from Canada and we played for the only Canadian team (currently) in the NBA. So I’m just happy for those guys,” he said.

In a few weeks, Birch hopes they can all say they played for Canada’s Olympic team too.

@WolstatSun

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