What lockout? Pro basketball returns to Canada
Published Sunday, October 23, 2011 12:01PM EDT
An upstart basketball league set to tip off next week is hoping it can grab the attention of Canadian hoops fans left on the sideline while the superstars of the National Basketball Association sit idle or flee to Europe.
As the Toronto Raptors and their NBA cohorts remain locked out amid tense contract negotiations, the fledgling National Basketball League of Canada is set to launch in cities and towns across Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, selling itself as Canada's only professional basketball league.
"I'm extremely excited for the league, I'm excited for the fans and extremely excited for the country," NBL president Andre Levingston said in a telephone interview last week.
"I think people underestimate the love of basketball in Canada. I've always said that if someone ever had the ambition, the courage to create a professional basketball league in this country, and do it the right way, I think it could be one of the most attractive places to play in the world."
The NBL was formed this year when three Canadian teams of the Premier Basketball League in the U.S. cut bait and sought out competition north of the border.
The league includes the Quebec Kebs, Moncton Miracles, Halifax Rainmen, Saint John Mill Rats, London Lightning, Oshawa Power and Summerside Storm, in Prince Edward Island.
Those involved with the league say fans can expect high-energy competition between competitive, talented athletes. Players from the Canadian national team, former NBAers and European talent will be in the mix.
Players with pedigree
The NBL was formed over the summer as NBA players began flocking to basketball leagues in Europe and Asia.
League brass say they have received lots of attention from players across North America who wanted to stay close to home, but never expected to draw in the NBA big names.
"We have a bunch of athletic guys who are hungry," said Gary Durrant, the Power's president of basketball operations.
"Everyone here has a chip on their shoulder, in a sense that it is competitive. I am talking about kids who played in first division leagues in Europe, guys that have been to NBA camps, guys that have been drafted."
Halifax Rainmen forward Rodney Buford played with the Philadelphia 76ers alongside Allen Iverson in 2000, while teammate Eddie Robinson made millions playing with the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets at about the same time.
Another recognizable name with a connection to the NBA is Jahaziel Howard – the younger brother of superstar Dwight Howard – who is currently trying out with the Oshawa Power.
Torontonian Denham Brown, a national team staple, became perhaps the league's most recognizable player when he signed with the Power last week.
Brown was drafted 40th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006 and played in the NBA's development league for several seasons before moving to Europe.
"It is a great thing to have a Canadian league. A lot of us have been wondering when a league would come about," Brown said.
Brown envisions the league benefitting the Canadian national program, eventually becoming a place where Canadians can develop their talents and be scouted by Team Canada. Still, he admits there will be challenges along the way.
"It is the first year so you are going to have a lot of bumps and bruises. Maybe fans don't come and support the first year, maybe the money isn't there but some guys have to be martyrs for it to succeed five years down the road."
Keeping the league sustainable
Each NBL franchise has an operating budget of between $500,000 and $750,000 – less than what an average NBA player makes in a season.
Levingston says at those numbers, each team will need to bring in about 2,500 fans each game to sustain operations.
Regardless of how one crunches the numbers, upstart sports leagues tend to have a short shelf life.
In 1992, the World Basketball League – a continental league with teams in Winnipeg, Hamilton and other Canadian cities – folded after four unsuccessful years.
A Canada-only league, also named the National Basketball League, rose from those ashes but folded midway through its second season.
Levingston says he is aware of the dangers and the league has a plan: slow, constant growth into sustainable markets with strong owners.
"We don't want to expand too quickly. Our objective is not to put 30 teams in our league in two years," Levingston said. "We want to be sure we have the right owners that can be financially and fiscally responsible. We are not looking for owners who are looking for a hobby of owning a basketball team. And then we want to look for markets that support a professional sport."
The NBL launches its inaugural season next weekend when the Quebec Kebs visit the Moncton Miracles on Oct. 29.
Follow Matthew Coutts on Twitter: @mrcoutts