'I love basketball': Victor Lapeña sparks joy as Canada's new women's coach

Canadian women's basketball coach Victor Lapeña is seen above in Edmonton during training camp ahead of the World Cup. Lapeña hopes to elevate the team to the Olympic podium by restoring joy. (Submitted by Canada Basketball - image credit)
Canadian women's basketball coach Victor Lapeña is seen above in Edmonton during training camp ahead of the World Cup. Lapeña hopes to elevate the team to the Olympic podium by restoring joy. (Submitted by Canada Basketball - image credit)

Victor Lapeña's excitement is infectious.

Canada Basketball's newly named senior women's head coach had recently touched down in Canada — his first time in the country — and he was about to observe a U23 practice at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

With a smile stretched across his face, Lapeña eagerly talked about his new job. Standing nearby, Denise Dignard, the team's general manager, couldn't help but grin.

Dignard has been around Canada Basketball since playing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and few understand better how promise has devolved into frustration for the program, especially in recent years.

And so Lapeña's exuberance is almost jarring. He explained that his ultimate objective is to elevate the world's fourth-ranked squad onto the Olympic podium as soon as 2024 in Paris, to flip disappointing defeat into cathartic victories.

The first step in the Spaniard's plan is a heavy dose of good vibes.

"In my language, when you use like and love, it's very, very clear the difference,"  Lapeña said. "I was watching some films in English in the last days now, and I realized that I like you. OK. I like you, so I'm going to do everything to be with you and to enjoy.

"But I love you. I love basketball. It means that I'm going to do everything to enjoy my experience each minute, each second."

World Cup upcoming

There hasn't been much to enjoy in Canadian women's basketball lately, despite the promise of solid WNBAers Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton plus a cache of college up-and-comers.

After a hopeful run to the quarter-finals at the 2012 Olympics, the team could only match that in 2016 and then failed to even advance past the group stage in Tokyo last summer.

Shortly after those Olympics, Nurse tore her ACL and missed the ensuing WNBA season.

The fourth-ranked team's next challenge begins on Sept. 21 at the World Cup in Australia, where it's assured five group-stage games against top competition.

Eric Gay/The Associated Press
Eric Gay/The Associated Press

Expectations are being held in check, given Lapeña's had little time to instill his philosophy.

"I teach basketball. And when I'm on the court, and even now talking with you, I'm enjoying it. OK, defeat is part of this job, when you lose games it hurts bad, but even in that moment, I'm enjoying it because it helps you to be better, to learn," Lapeña said.

Lapeña's love of the game is already rubbing off on players such as veteran Natalie Achonwa.

"He's very different from previous coaches that we've had," she said. "He's very high energy. He's very [go-go-go] and he's really competitive, so being able to match his energy is something that we'll really focus on and I don't know if we'll win that battle."

Lapeña already appointed Achonwa as the team's new captain and has leaned on her in early practices as a go-between to the rest of the team.

"When I'm with Natalie during practice and I say, 'Hey Natalie, I need to practice this, this and this.' 'OK coach, don't worry. Guys, come here.' Pa-pa-pa-pa. It works. If she is not with me we aren't able to do it. This is how we build a team," he said.

Grew up around women's basketball

The 47-year-old Lapeña's passion for basketball began as a child at his friend Sito Alonso's house in Zaragoza in the northeast region of Spain.

Alonso's father, Alfonso Alonso, was head coach of the local pro women's team and the friends would watch games together. Lapeña said he specifically remembers watching the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with the Alonsos, in addition to numerous EuroLeague games.

Alonso is now head coach of UCAM Murcia in the top Spanish men's league.

"I talk with him and call him [regularly]. He's the godfather of my oldest daughter. He's my family. We talk about basketball, but we talk about many things [other than] basketball," Lapeña said.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press
Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Lapeña took his first coaching job when he was 15, guiding kids about half his age. His semi-professional playing career ended when he tore his ACL five years later.

It was 2005 when he led a team to the Spanish second division title for his first major coaching triumph.

"We played first division next year after that, and I realized in that moment, oh my god, that was super hard, was 24/7. But in that moment, I realized I want to be a head basketball coach forever," he said.

'Dream' job

After stops in Russia and Turkey, Lapeña now finds himself in Canada, which he says is a "dream." He had never visited the country prior to the Globl Jam tournament in July in Toronto.

Lapeña said he was first approached about the Canada job by former Toronto Raptors executive Maurizio Gherardini.

"But the key was when during the interviews, how they trust me," he said. "They want to win, they want to win in volume, they want to try finally have the option to pass the quarter-finals and to get some medals in the future," he said.

Dignard said it was more than Lapeña's obvious joy and energy that helped influence the hire.

"He cares about how the athletes are. Because when they're in a good space and frame of mind, then they're going to perform to their best and enjoy what they're doing," she said.

He'll be joined on the sidelines by Noelle Quinn, the newly hired lead assistant who doubles as head coach of the WNBA's Seattle Storm.

As a former player, Quinn's role is more about connecting with the individuals on the team.

"We thought long and hard on one or the other," said Canada Basketball CEO Mike Bartlett. "And then we got greedy and said, 'Why not both?' And a winning program gets greedy, like, why wouldn't you be?"

Free-flowing style of play

Lapeña previously coached at different ranks of the Spanish federation. He said he'll employ three or four different styles with Canada depending on available personnel, but one aspect will be consistent.

"In the past when I played against Canada, it's like their basketball was more mechanic, you know. This is not bad. But they were very, very clear how they want to play basketball. My risk is I give freedom, too much freedom, to the players on the court," he said.

Lapeña said some of his coaching influence comes from Spanish soccer great Pep Guardiola, whose 'tiki-taka' style emphasizes ball possession and movement.

"Maybe sometimes people think Canada Basketball is gonna be a defence-[first] team. Not with this type. No, no, no, no. This is not the message," Lapeña said. "The goal is not to [play] defence. No, our goal is to get the ball for us to attack."

The World Cup presents the first opportunity for Lapeña to truly make his mark on Canadian basketball. He may even have a full complement of players, depending on Nurse's status. The Hamilton, Ont., native is with the team in training camp but her availability remains unclear.

The rest of the roster is a mix of some key players from Tokyo along with a younger group including 17-year-old Cassandre Prosper.

It represents the dueling goals of the team at the current moment, all meant to coalesce on the Olympic podium at Paris 2024.

Lapeña is ready for the challenge.

"I would like to do my best to get medals now and in the future. But nobody is going to put more pressure than myself. Impossible."