- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- There was a time in the early days of the WNBA when the only way you would have found a Canadian player on a roster was if her baskets counted at the exchange rate of the day.
These days, the Canadian dollar is stronger, but so is the nation's women's basketball. Tammy Sutton-Brown was the first Canadian player to appear in the WNBA Finals, playing as a rookie with Charlotte in 2001. But Sacramento rookie Kim Smith has a chance this season to become the first player from north of the border to win a title.
Though Smith has played sparsely in the playoffs -- and has yet to appear in the finals -- she made a significant contribution off the bench early in the season, giving coach John Whisenant valuable minutes when the Monarchs were at far less than full strength. Averaging just more than 12 minutes a game in May and June, Smith showed that her lithe, 5-foot-11 frame could still handle the inside-outside role she perfected in winning or sharing Mountain West player-of-the-year honors in each of her four seasons at Utah.
And win or lose against the Shock, Smith has still one more memorable moment ahead in a year that has already included making a run to the regional finals in the NCAA Tournament, being drafted in the first round and playing in the Finals. As soon as this series ends, Smith will suit up for Team Canada in the FIBA World Championship.
"I'm pretty excited," Smith said before Game 2, the typical postseason wariness that shows on every player's face as they grow tired of fielding incessant questions from the media fading into a wide and earnest grin. "It's huge for us, you know, we haven't qualified in like 12 years. So to be able to be part of the team that qualified last summer and to be able to play again this summer, I'm pretty pumped."
The growth of international basketball was never more evident than on a day when the U.S. men lost to Greece in the semifinals of the World Championship in Japan, but for the women's game, Canada might well end up being one of the most important importers of talent in coming years. Always known for their hockey prowess, Canadian women have emerged as legitimate world contenders in both soccer and softball over the last decade -- soccer star Christine Sinclair won this year's Honda Broderick Cup as the top female college athlete in the United States, and softball pitching phenom Danielle Lawrie beat the mighty United States at the World Cup in 2005 before heading to the University of Washington for a freshman season that ended in the super regionals.
"We're starting to make a bit more of a mark on the national stage, because the government is giving more funding," Smith said. "They're trying to develop more at the youth level, which kind of started when I was heading into grade 11 and 12. We sort of had more programs for centralizing the top basketball players and top soccer players in each province and then all over the country with the junior national teams."
And while the basketball team that heads to Brazil is still a decided underdog against the United States, Australia and other traditional international heavyweights, it's stocked with enough talent in Smith, fellow Utah alum and first-round pick Shona Thorburn, Sutton-Brown and Stacey Dales to make things interesting.
Dales, who led Oklahoma to national prominence and guided the Sooners to the national title game in 2002, is perhaps the founding mother, or at least the most recognizable embodiment, of the women's basketball movement.
"She was a huge role model growing up, especially when she took Oklahoma [to the 2002 Final Four]," Smith said. "That was kind of the first publication that you got about a Canadian women's basketball player doing really well and being successful down in the states."
For now, much as the pipeline to the NHL once ran almost exclusively through the junior hockey system in Canada, the best women's athletes in Canada will follow Dales' lead in taking their talents to U.S. colleges and universities instead of institutions like Simon Fraser, Queens or McGill.
"They're trying to improve it, and they're trying to give it more money," Smith said of women's programs at Canadian schools. "Some people say that it's a money issue in Canada, because you don't get scholarships at all, you pay your way. But I think the biggest thing right now is the competition level just isn't there. There aren't as many athletes to choose from as there is down here. So if you want to be competitive day in and day out, I think a lot of the top players will keep choosing to go down to the states."
Those coaches ahead of the curve on this side of the border -- like Elaine Elliott with Utah basketball (even without Smith and Thorburn, the Utes will have four Canadians on the roster this season) and John Walker with Nebraska soccer -- have already gained immeasurably from a flow of Canadian talent.
Odds are Smith won't play a significant part in deciding the outcome of this series, but perhaps it won't be long before a player follows in the footsteps of Sutton-Brown and Smith and becomes the first Canadian to win MVP honors for the WNBA Finals.
And oh, Canada will be smiling then.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.