WHEN TEAM CANADA CALLS, KAZA KAJAMI-KEANE ANSWERS
TORONTO, Ont. (June 26, 2020) – Kaza Kajami-Keane was at a wedding when he got the call.
When his phone rang last August, on the other end was an invitation to join the Canadian Senior Men’s Basketball team for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019. He didn’t hesitate to accept.
“I've always been a guy that’s like, ‘Anytime they call, I'm going to be ready to play,” Kajami-Keane said. “When I got the call, I was in Ottawa, at a wedding actually. They asked if I wanted to come play and I said, ‘Yeah, for sure,’ so I flew over the next morning.”
The 26-year-old Ajax native recalls traveling to watch open practices and games with his dad whenever there was the opportunity when he was growing up. He says the program had a big impact on his own basketball journey.
“I've always wanted to play for the Senior Men’s National Team,” Kajami-Keane said. “I grew up watching that team, idolizing those guys. Jevohn Shepherd, Jermaine Anderson, Denham Brown, you know, kind of wanting to be one of those guys when I had reached the professional level. When I was asked to come play, our first game was in Nova Scotia and I just remember, I was like a kid in a candy store, it was a surreal moment for me.”
After flying out to join the team, Kajami-Keane spent the next six weeks suiting up for Canada, playing exhibition games at home and then heading over for an exhibition tour in Australia in advance of the World Cup in China. It was an experience that he’ll never forget and one that was totally worth picking up the phone for.
“If you have an opportunity, don’t let it go by,” Kajami-Keane said. “When they gave me that opportunity, I took it and ran with it. It was a surreal summer for the month and a half we were on the road. Being in different countries, being around your friends, growing those relationships, it was something that was surreal, and obviously, being coached by the best coach in the NBA [in national team head coach Nick Nurse], you know what I mean? It was definitely something that you know you’ll look back on and never forget.”
Currently back in Ajax, waiting out the coronavirus pandemic like the rest of us, Kajami-Keane is slated to go to France to play for Le Mans Sarthe of the LNB Pro A league in Europe next season. This is a big step up in his overseas playing career, and one that comes after a winding few years that saw stops in Toronto with the Raptors 905 NBA G League squad, as well as the Netherlands and Germany, before Kajami-Keane inked the deal to play in France. He has made the most of each stop. In the Netherlands, Kajami-Keane helped to lead Landsteade Basketball to its first ever championship while being named the playoff MVP. He then moved up a league to the BBL, with his team in Germany where he had another solid season, earning him his contract in France where he will play in FIBA’s Basketball Champions League for the first time.
Though it has taken time and plenty of work over the past few years to get his career where he has wanted it, Kajami-Keane has learned some important lessons along the way.
“When it comes to basketball I try to emulate the fact that basketball is a learning tool,” he said. “It allows me to learn things about life that I probably wouldn’t have learned if it wasn’t for basketball. I think sometimes people get caught in basketball being the be all and end all. At the end of the day the ball is going to stop dribbling at some point. What kind of person are you before you start dribbling the ball and what kind of person are you after you stop? I think basketball can teach us a lot about becoming a better person and that’s one thing I try to put forth every time I play basketball. How am I going to be a better person today than yesterday? If that’s making relationships with people, learning how to better communicate. That can be all sorts of things, how to deal with losing, how to be a constant, etcetera. I think I’ve learned how to use basketball, rather than basketball using me. I use it to become a better person each day.”
In February, Team Canada played a FIBA AmeriCup 2021 Qualifier game against the Dominican Republic in Oshawa, near his hometown, Ajax. The location provided an opportunity for Kajami-Keane’s family to watch him play. It also allowed him to go back to his elementary school and talk with students about his own journey.
Calling his summer with the Senior Men’s Basketball Team the basketball highlight of his career so far, Kajami-Keane says that his off-court highlight is getting to give back. “It’s always a great honour to go back to these places where I grew up and see these kids. They look up to us in a sense and I think that’s something I take great pride in because it’s allowed me to help other people achieve their goals. If you can touch more people to allow them to become better, that's a bigger accomplishment than anything you could achieve yourself.”
This selfless attitude is an example of why Kajami-Keane fits in so well with Team Canada. Understanding that the ultimate mark of success is the team’s success rather than any individual accolade is an important part of playing with a national team program.
“For me, it’s about putting myself in the position to help the team win,” Kakami-Keane said. “If that’s waving the towel, or bringing water, cheering for guys, doing those types of things, then so be it. That’s how I feel. Then obviously when my opportunity comes, when I'm starting or playing 30 minutes a game, it’s about adapting to the role you’re given and not sulking if it’s not the role you intended to have. It’s about being the best team player you can be.”
This is possible because Team Canada is made of a roster of players that truly value and respect one another. Kajami-Keane says players on the team talk all the time, all year long, from their various locales around the world. “We have group chats, we always talk and text about how the season is going, how each other’s families are,” he said. “Some of us are really. really close. A lot of us are really, really close. We talk all the time. These are relationships that aren’t just national team relationships, but lifelong relationships.”
Part of what makes these bonds so special is that playing for Canada is a choice, not an obligation. While players want to succeed now, they are also committed to creating an environment and atmosphere where future success can be assured.
”Canada Basketball is bigger than any one person,” Kajami-Keane said. “It’s about unity. It’s a group of people coming together to represent their country on a higher stage. Whatever way we can put kids in the best opportunities to do that, and I think if we continue to do what we’re doing now, all of us, giving back to the community, it will be good and it will put us in a position where we continue to compete for medals and to get to the highest level. I think that’s the ultimate goal, to have Canada at the top of the podium.”
Though Kajami-Keane now has plenty of memories with Team Canada to choose from, he won’t ever forget how it felt the first time he represented Canada with the Senior Men in a 93-69 victory over Bahamas during a FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Americas Qualifiers game in 2017.
“I just remember it being surreal,” he said. “Even knowing at that age, you’re still kind of young and whatnot, just being able to represent your country, for me, Canada, and what it’s done for my family. My grandmother came over here to start a better life from Jamaica and now a bunch of her grandkids live here, you know, this country has done wonders for us. Any time I've been given the opportunity to represent it, I'll always be eager to.”