NBA in Montreal: Hoop dream or reality?


Montreal fans show their appreciation for NBA basketball as the Toronto Raptors play the New York Knicks during second quarter pre-season Friday, October 22, 2010 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

24 banners hang from the rafters.

Outside, golden statues of hockey deities like Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau guard arena. Bleue, blanc, rouge pulsing in the local veins.

A block away from Montreal’s Bell Centre a discordant sound echoes. Bounce, bounce, bounce. A kid pounds a basketball on the rue Ste-Catherine sidewalk en route a playground game. It’s a paradox in an offbeat city, an athletic fabric woven in different worlds.

Basketball has been quietly blooming in the hockey mecca, despite over a century spent standing in the shadows.

Yet traction for even the remote possibility of NBA basketball reaching the city suddenly arose in May with a report in the Journal De Montreal: Canadiens owner Geoff Molson was interested in bringing a franchise to the city, and had sent Canadiens VP Kevin Gilmore and Michael Fortier to New York to discuss with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

A follow up report by La Presse added an interesting wrinkle: that Molson-owned Evenko wants to host ten Raptors road games this coming season.

While it’s still a long shot, to be sure, it raises the obvious question: Can Montreal support an NBA team?

To find the answer, you must look at familiar considerations: venues, money, and fan support. But to truly understand the league’s potential place in the city, we have to start from the beginning.

Dr. James Naismith, born in Almonte, Ontario, made is his way to Montreal in 1883 to walk the steps of McGill University. The university became his palette. It’s where he gained a mindset, spirituality, and a passion for sport. He studied a mix of physical education and religion, soon becoming the school’s first Director of Athletics.

Months after leaving McGill, Naismith turned a YMCA gym in Springfield, MA into his laboratory. Armed with two peach baskets, a ladder, and a list, he concocted a game that blended athleticism, grace, and team play. There was spirituality to the games; a mythos that five players could suppress their egos and win as one.

The game caught on fast, yet while basketball spread like wildfire across America, hockey had won the glory and hearts of Montreal.

It took nearly a century, but Naismith’s game would make its way back, eventually.

1981 was a harbinger of things to come. A grizzly bear of a man named Bill Wennington began honing his craft at Montreal YMCA’s as a teen, he burst onto the Big East basketball scene. Wennington played at St. Johns alongside Chris Mullin, before going on to win three NBA championship rings alongside Michael Jordan in Chicago.

In the years that followed, the floodgates opened back home at the grassroots level. Fellow big men Joel Anthony and Samuel Dalembert, both currently in the NBA, arrived a generation later. They were followed by the likes of Khem Birch—a standout NCAA forward currently in the NBA’s D-League—and Olivier Hanlan, a gifted guard out of Boston College selected by the Utah Jazz in this year’s NBA draft. That’s potentially four Quebecois NBA players next season, despite never having a NBA team in their province.

The game is blossoming so much it’s hard to find an empty gym in Montreal these days.

There’s the Filipino Basketball Association that’s been around since 1971. Church leagues, house leagues, YMCAs, wheelchair ball, playground ball, university ball, and club programs like Brookwood Elite, who play travel tournaments in America’s competitive AAU circuit.

“Kids are now able to play basketball year round with the numerous AAU programs during the summer and camps that have started,” says Lizanne Murphy, Olympian and member of Canada’s Senior Women’s National Team. “We could have a lot more talent coming out of Quebec if we developed smarter players for the next level. That is all part of the process in development, however you have to start with excitement—and we have that.”

The NBA has been paying attention.

With the NBA Canada Series returning this October, the league will have visited Montreal for five consecutive pre-seasons, the only market on the globe with such a healthy courtship.

The growing fan base is a young mosaic of millenials flowing from the myriad of downtown universities and colleges, as well as first and second generation immigrants from all regions of the globe. This market was not bred on hockey dogma; The Habs are not their religion.

Yet ironically, for this basketball venture to work, the games will need to share a home. The Molson Family posses a valuable commodity: an NBA-ready arena, something cities like Seattle are scrambling to match.

The Bell Centre, erected in 1996, is a modern mecca with great sightlines and one of the largest jumbrotrons in the NHL. The suites are apt for corporate sponsors, the downtown location is ideal, and following exhibition games over the years NBA players and coaches rave about the crowds. Throw in the kicker that Molson distribute MGD, which is also the official beer of NBA Canada.

Of course there is dissent as well.

Many point to the long held belief that Montreal is an ‘event city’. There is the decaying Olympic Stadium where Gary Carter used to catch. The MLS and CFL teams lack sellouts. People who’d like to see Montreal land an NBA team fear a similar fate as the Vancouver Grizzlies— that fans will stop attending when mediocrity sinks in.

There is a tradition of excellence that those 24 banners represent that creates a certain sense of expecations or even entitlement that may still linger over the city today. Critics point to it with the demise of the Expos.

The Expos suffered from poor executive decisions in the waning years of the club. The 1994 team, which had the best record in baseball, was gutted after that season was cut short by strike. The franchise was never the same, the fan base trickled away, and the squad eventually relocated to Washington, DC.

“Nothing is more of a commitment than baseball, and Montreal committed to that with excellent attendance for 81 games a year for many, many years,” said Brian Wilde of CTV Montreal. “Sure it stunk at the end but with that type of fire sale and poor attempt that would have been a Stendhal syndrome scenario to keep supporting that team. All that is required is a good product and (Montreal) does not have to be an event city at all.”

Financially speaking, adding a Canadian NBA franchise would not figure heavily in the league’s lucrative American TV deals. Likewise, there is the weak looney that Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace stated was key to the franchise leaving Vancouver. Then there’s the issue that The Bell Centre with seating for 21,000 would make Montreal the second largest arena in the NBA behind Chicago, an issue that haunted the Expos later in life. And the elephant in the room is sovereignty; Quebec’s independence conundrum has scared businesses away for decades.

The beautiful thing about this is timing.

Adam Silver says the NBA has no immediate desire for expansion, and most pundits believe Seattle is sitting first in line, with a host of other cities following before Montreal is in the conversation. Montreal’s window of opportunity won’t likely occur until at least 5 to 10 years from now, when the young fan base has settled into careers, and deeper pockets, and children of their own to inherit the game.

“The media is afraid to talk about (things) other than hockey, because hockey pays the bills,” said veteran basketball broadcaster Pascal Jobin, back in 2012.

But there has been a tectonic shift in recent years, with many newspapers and broadcasters now providing weekly, and even daily basketball coverage.

The building blocks are all there, sitting blocks away from James Naismith’s roots.

Will Montreal get a team?

It all depends on a kid dribbling a ball in a hockey town, and if you believe in his hoop dreams.


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