The golden age of Canadian basketball is here

Outside of Toronto Raptors fandom, the sport has historically failed to thrive here — but a new league could be changing the game for basketball in this country
By Sam Riches - Published on Nov 19, 2019
The Canadian Elite Basketball League’s Niagara River Lions were previously part of the National Basketball League of Canada. (facebook.com/NiagaraRiverLions)

Comments

X

It’s mid-October, and Chad Posthumus, a professional basketball player, is in Saskatoon, waiting to hear about a job. He grew up in Winnipeg, but basketball has taken the 6’11” centre to university in Minnesota (where he was one of the top rebounders in college basketball), to the NBA’s developmental G-League, and to pro teams in Argentina and Japan.

For the past year, though, he’s done something that, until recently, was unthinkable for anyone not on the Toronto Raptors: he’s made a living solely through professional basketball in Canada,  playing for the National Basketball League of Canada’s Halifax Hurricanes last winter and for the upstart Canadian Elite Basketball League’s Saskatchewan Rattlers this summer.

The NBL, founded in 2011, includes eight teams, four of them in Ontario (in Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Sudbury, and Windsor) — and the season, including pre-season games, runs from November until April. This year marked the CEBL's inaugural season: games were played from May until August. With teams in Guelph, Hamilton, and Niagara and in western Canada, the league ensures there’s now Canadian professional basketball year-round, meaning that athletes don’t have to leave the country to find work. “Now there’s this opportunity to play at home for similar money,” Posthumus says. “Besides the NBA and NBA G-League, these are the best leagues in North America.”

The story of Canadian professional basketball is one of mixed success. It starts in the 1940s with the Basketball Association of America’s Toronto Huskies and the Pacific Coast Basketball League’s Vancouver Hornets. The Huskies lasted one season; the Hornets, two. In the 1980s, minor-pro teams popped up across the country, playing out of hockey arenas in such leagues as the Continental Basketball Association, the Premier Basketball League, and the World Basketball League. The WBL, which had a height cap of 6’5”, folded after four seasons. (One of its founders was later sentenced to 11 years in prison for embezzling $10 million from his pharmacy chain to finance the operation.)

In the 1990s, the surviving Canadian teams formed the National Basketball League, which lasted a year and a half before going under.

Then, on May 12, 2011, Ian McCarthy and Andre Levingston, owners of the Saint John Mill Rats and Halifax Rainmen of the PBL, announced the creation of the National Basketball League of Canada. “Today is a great day for Canadians,” McCarthy said in a press release. At that point, the league had three committed teams — Halifax, Saint John, and Quebec City — each of which was frustrated with the erratic officiating and general precariousness of the PBL.

At the time, NBA players were locked out thanks to a collective-bargaining dispute, and basketball fans were looking for a fix. The NBL recruited teams in four other cities: Oshawa, London, Moncton, and Summerside. Each team was required to have at least two Canadians.

The London Lightning, led by head coach and former NBA all-star Michael Ray Richardson, won the first championship. Fringe NBA players like Rodney Buford and David Harrison signed on. NBA player Eddie Robinson said the NBL offered him a chance to revive his career. The salary cap was $150,000 per team, spread across a 12-man roster. Nobody was getting rich, but it was a start.

It’s been an imperfect journey — the deciding game of the 2015 championship was won by forfeit, as the Halifax Rainmen walked out following a morning brawl with their opponents from Windsor, and London is the only founding franchise still active — but the league has managed to hold on, carving out devoted regional audiences. London remains the model franchise: it’s captured four championships and built a loyal following. Its fans prepare homemade baked goods for each other and for the players, with whom they’re on a first-name basis. It’s a family friendly atmosphere by design. “If we’re not playing or practising, then we’re doing something to give back to the community,” says Audley Stephenson, the NBL’s deputy commissioner. “The fans connect with these guys, and what we’re most proud of is our ability to have an impact in the community and be a part of the fibre of these places that we play.”

The league has also attracted recognizable NBA talent — most prominently former Houston Rockets draft pick Royce White and NBA champion Glen “Big Baby” Davis — and it now requires five Canadian athletes per team.

Still, athletes didn’t have the option to play year-round in Canada until the founding of the CEBL. Six teams competed this year in the distinctly Canadian organization. The league-finalist Hamilton Honeybadgers had an entirely homegrown roster, from the players to the coaching staff.

“Basketball in this country is not what it was 25 years ago,” says Mike Morreale, CEBL CEO and a former wide receiver in the Canadian Football League. “Every other league that has come and gone, for the most part, has been a bunch of American guys thinking they can start a basketball league, and they don't invest anything, and, a year later, they're gone. We were really excited about the opportunity to make a splash and do something that has an opportunity to last.”

In the CEBL, teams have 10-man rosters and are required to carry a minimum of seven Canadians. Each team also reserves a roster spot for one Canadian university athlete. “We’re building a basketball ecosystem,” Morreale says.

The league was founded by Richard Petko, owner of the Niagara River Lions, which were previously part of the NBL. Petko and Morreale were dissatisfied with their NBL experience and wanted to branch out. “I went and met with [the NBL], and it just wasn’t for me,” Morreale says. “It didn’t have a business plan that I felt was something I wanted to get behind, and Richard, I guess, felt the same way, and he said, ‘Okay, well, how would you do it if you wanted to do it?’ And we started down that path.”

Stephenson says that the CEBL’s summer schedule ensures that the two leagues won’t be in competition. “The more options we can provide our Canadian players, the better,” he says. “They can chase their passion while earning a career in front of their family and friends. It only helps to grow the game overall, because our players are now playing year-round, and they are getting better year-round.”

Liam McMorrow, a 7’2” centre from Scarborough, has played in the NBL and across Asia. He sees the need for domestic leagues and says playing overseas is not an appealing option for everyone. He points to Negus Webster-Chan, also from Scarborough, who has played in the NBL, the CEBL, and, at one point, alongside Raptors stars Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet in the NBA G-League. “He has always told me it's not about the money,” McMorrow says. “I think guys like Negus probably just want to stay in Canada. And the fact that they have two options now for a normal season and the off-season, I think that's really good.”

But money is still an issue. “The thing is, are the top Canadian players getting paid enough?” asks Joey Haywood, better known as King Handles, one of Canada’s most prominent streetball legends. Haywood grew up in Vancouver and, in the early 2000s, starred in the Notic Mixtapes (Canada’s answer to the streetball tapes made famous by And1). He was featured in SLAM magazine, appeared in the movies Air Bud and Like Mike 2, and provided motion capture used for animation in the NBA Street video-game series. After graduating from Saint Mary’s University, Haywood joined the Halifax Rainmen of the NBL, winning the Canadian of the Year award in both 2012 and 2013.

“If you're getting the minimum or a slight pay bump every year, those top guys aren't going to stay in the NBL or CEBL if they are getting low-balled,” he says. “How much are they willing to pay really, really good Canadian players to stay?”

The NBL salary cap is now $180,000 per team: housing is provided and meals are covered. In the CEBL, players earn between $500 and $1,500 per game for the 20-game season. (By way of comparison: players in the NBA G-League earn a base salary of $35,000 for a six-month, 50-game season.)

Morreale believes there is a long-term sustainable future for the CEBL and for minor professional basketball in Canada, more generally. Momentum, he says, is on their side.

“The Vince Carter effect was the first wave. The guys that play in our league are all part of that Carter effect,” he says. “And then you look at what is going to happen with the Raptors championship and Kawhi Leonard — that's another 20-, 25-year run, in my opinion.”

“Everything we’re hearing through our relationships with minor basketball and prep academies is that signups to play basketball is out of this world,” Morreale says. “They’ve just gone through the roof. It bodes well for the future.”

Back in Saskatoon, Posthumus continues to train for his next job. He could return to the NBA G-League, head overseas, or stay in Canada. He’s grateful to have those options. “We have both of these leagues here now, and it’s only making each one better by improving the talent of the guys by having the opportunity available to play year-round basketball in Canada,” he says. “The level of play has gone up substantially, year after year.”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

Author
Thinking of your experience with tvo.org, how likely are you to recommend tvo.org to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely

Most recent in Ontario Hubs