Optimism abounds as CEBL prepares to open, but there are no guarantees

CEBL commissioner Mike Morreale (CEBL)

Throughout the winter and with spring approaching, there was considerable excitement building within the offices of the Canadian Elite Basketball League.

The fledgling startup was determined to pull off what several had tried and mostly failed to accomplish: establish a viable, long-term professional basketball league in Canada.

After a promising first season which had ended in a triumphant ‘Final Four’ weekend in Saskatoon, with the hometown Saskatchewan Rattlers thrilling a near-sellout crowd with a win over the Hamilton Honey Badgers, the 2020 campaign projected to be another big step forward on an uneven path.

Mike Morreale, the former CFL star turned CEBL commissioner, rhymes off the off-season milestones like someone looking back on a perfect holiday before the credit cards bills came due.

There was the addition of a seventh franchise – the Ottawa Blackjacks (joining Hamilton, Guelph, Niagara, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Fraser Valley) – headed by former Carleton Ravens head coach Dave Smart and perfectly positioned to tap into one of Canada’s most vibrant basketball markets.

There was a three-year agreement with the CBC to have CEBL games broadcast and live-streamed, augmenting the league’s in-house media production.

After a bit of a wait-and-see approach by some of Canada’s more established international pros in 2019, enthusiasm for the opportunity to play and get paid near home for a 20-game summer season was growing among players. The league’s overall talent level was poised to take a leap, with rosters filling out with players with G League experience and seasons in some of Europe’s top leagues on their resumés.

The business was going according to plan. And then the whole world knows what happened next, if not the specifics. Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 on Mar. 11 and basketball everywhere – and just about everything else – came to a screeching, sneaker-bending stop.

“The Monday after the NBA stuff [happened] and it just hit me,” said Morreale. “It was, ‘Oh [expletive].’ Things changed in a hurry. It felt like the world was going to end. It was daunting. So it was just take a deep breath and try to keep above water, really. For everybody.”

Those efforts to keep moving when everything stopped are hopefully going to pay off over the next two weeks as the CEBL is poised to become the first professional league in Canada to return to competition when they tip off their Summer Series with a double-header on Saturday broadcast live on CBC from the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, Ont.

Like every other league trying to return to play amidst the pandemic, accommodations have been made.

Instead of a 20-game schedule played out from mid-May to late August with a championship weekend initially planned for Edmonton on Aug. 14-16, the Summer Series is a two-week tournament where the seven teams play each other once in the round-robin portion to eliminate the seventh-place team.

The top two teams then earn a bye straight to the semi-finals while the next four teams play in the quarterfinals to get the next two spots. The semis and finals are scheduled for Aug. 8 and 9, respectively.

There won’t be any fans, but at least there will be a season, is the hope.

Can they pull it off? Having gotten this far amidst a pandemic, optimism is building, but there are no guarantees.

The league gathered six teams in St. Catharines beginning on June 30 for a training camp (Ottawa remained home to train) and did the best they could to create “safe zones” between the Best Western Hotel, the YMCA and the practice court, but with a fraction of the resources the NBA – for example — has at its disposal as they gathered at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Morreale said the league’s import players – three are allowed per team and all American – followed the 14-day quarantine guidelines and that all the players in training camp were tested for COVID-19 with negative results, although not without hiccups. A handful of tests were “inconclusive,” which required a second round of testing. There’s daily screening for symptoms and so far no red flags.

“All inconclusive or undetermined tests were immediately referred to Niagara Health and we followed their protocols to the point where all of those undetermined tests were cleared in absolute certainty by Niagara Health,” Morreale said in a text message responding to a follow-up question on the league’s coronavirus measures.

“In the end, our protocols have worked exactly as planned and they have all been done with the direction and in conjunction with Niagara [Region] Public Health.

“We have never been in a situation where the virus has entered into our safe zones and have never experienced any symptoms or conditions or transmission within any of our safe zones since quarantine started due in 30th up until and including [now].”

Still, it’s a lot to ask for a group of 60 or 70 men, mostly in their 20s, to adhere to a largely self-imposed quarantine even if the league has been adamant about masking and social distancing when not playing or training.

“They’ve done a good job,” said Duane Notice, the former University of South Carolina star who will suit up for the Hamilton Honey Badgers again this season after playing for Raptors 905 in the G League the past two winters. “We don’t share meeting spaces with other teams, we’re all separated for treatment, we have to wear [identification] anywhere we go, we’re not fraternizing with other teams. It’s been top-notch and it’s helped me feel safe.”

But players aren’t being tested daily and after they practice and training their time is largely their own, but so far so good.

There was a second round of testing scheduled on Thursday before competition begins.

“At this point if there’s a case, everybody on the team has it,” said Jordan Baker, the former University of Alberta star returning for his second season with the Edmonton Stingers. “That’s just the reality of practicing and playing against people. But hopefully these tests all will come back negative we’re able to get to work on [Saturday].

“…I mean it’s very tough to navigate [but] they’ve done their due diligence in terms of bringing doctors in and having them advise and having Niagara Regional Public Health be a part of the conversation. It’s uncharted territory. I think these tests will give us a better indication of whether or not the restrictions they have in place have been effective. And then we’ll kind of decide from there.”

Privately, some in the league have expressed concerns about the ability and the sturdiness of the league’s plan and procedures. Morreale remains optimistic but knows that can only take his league so far.

“[The pandemic] hasn’t gone away, right?” said Morreale. “it’s still there [but] we’ll just keep moving forward. Fingers crossed we stay healthy and we’re good to go. … I’m never going to be totally relaxed until Aug. 10 when everything is said and done, but it was a decision that we jumped in and we just went for, and I’m glad we did.”

Virus concerns aside, the Canadian basketball community should be too.

The explosion in the popularity of the Toronto Raptors and the remarkable wave of Canadian talent that has made its way to the NBA is proof that the sport is thriving like never before in Canada, but for all the excitement at the top level of the game basketball’s infrastructure is still developing.

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Canada can boast hundreds of elite players, but not all of them crack the NBA, and similarly a generation of coaches and aspiring executives need an outlet above and beyond what’s available at the U Sports level.

A well-positioned pro league with a national presence is the correct next step for the sport and the CEBL seems like the best bet to take it.

The 10-player rosters are 70 per cent Canadian, with three imports – almost exclusively American – and league rules require one roster spot be reserved for an active U Sports athlete. The league is also affiliated with Canada Basketball and recognized by FIBA, which simplifies the process for gaining releases and permissions for players from their winter season clubs, for example.

The league has already provided coaching and management opportunities that didn’t exist before with the likes of former national team veterans Jermaine Anderson and Joel Anthony on the executive team in Hamilton and former Carleton star Osvaldo Jeanty coaching under Smart in Hamilton and Victor Raso – son of former McMaster head coach Joe Raso – on the bench with Niagara.

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The summer season allows pros playing internationally to keep sharp in their off-season, while the length isn’t too onerous.

The league’s salary cap is $6,000 per team, per game, with the average player salary – paid on a game by game basis – coming in at about $700 a game. It allows for cost certainty and differing management styles – is it better to load up with high-end talent or to spread your money around and win with the depth?

The opportunity to play at or at least near home while earning some money and having access to competition and often hard-to-find training facilities has resonated now that the league has one year in the books.

“The type of players that I saw signing before COVID hit, I was like, “Wow!” I was really impressed,” said Notice.

“Armoni Brooks [signed by the Saskatchewan Rattlers] gave [Raptors 905] like 35 when he was playing in the G League for Atlanta. When you have guys like that in the league it’s just a testament to the direction the league is going. More pros, more excitement, and everybody is obviously happy basketball is back.”

The competition, everyone will tell you, is surprisingly good. While most lower level international pro leagues fall off in talent sharply after their import spots, in the CEBL the depth of Canadian talent means the drop off is hardly noticeable and the basketball competitive throughout.

The league is well positioned to be either a stepping stone to higher-profile, better-paying gigs in Europe or Asia or a part-time summer job for more established players giving them a rare chance to compete in front of friends and family.

“It was exciting for me,” said Baker, who played professionally in Germany and Portugal before moving back home to Edmonton. He played every game for the Stingers last season, one of four players with Edmonton roots on a team that – perhaps not coincidentally – led the CEBL in attendance. “I’d been out of the professional game for a couple of years at that point and so to have a team in our own backyard and to potentially have the opportunity to play professional basketball without having to move my whole life overseas was great.

“…You have the luxuries of being back in Canada … and I think the summer component, makes it a little bit less stressful on the guys to be able to, you know, enjoy summer in Canada but also make a little bit of money and play a bit also.”

 
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Morreale knows first-hand what it’s like to play at home, get paid reasonably to do it and build ties with the local community that can serve you in retirement.

He was a star wide receiver for McMaster and played 12 years in the CFL, winning Grey Cups with Toronto and another with his hometown Hamilton Tiger-Cats before spending five years with the CFL Players’ Association in charge of marketing and eventually taking over as president. His relationship with the CEBL began through Richard Petko, who owned the Niagara River Lions of the National Basketball League of Canada – an eight-team league based mostly in central and eastern Canada that plays in the winters.

Frustrated with the vision for that league – a “shoestring business” he called it – Petko hired Morreale as commissioner and founded CEBL Ventures, which wholly owns all seven franchises.

Having played in front of thousands on a national stage across Canada while a football player, Morreale is fervent in his belief that the Canadian professional basketball experience can be something similar.

“I don’t think about it, I vocalize it. I want us to become the CFL of basketball in this country, but even better,” said Morreale. “And I’m not trying to discredit the CFL, but I know how we operate and I know what we’re really good at.”

The vision is a 10-12 team league with national representation. The league is structured so it can be purchased outright by a single buyer or individual franchises can be sold to individually.

That’s still the vision for a roughly four-year business plan, but things happen.

“When I, when I think about the long-term vision and the business plan there wasn’t a year of COVID in there,” said Morreale. “So we had to adjust and then we had to make decisions … so we just put our head down inside, you know, and we just started crossing off all those things that we’re supposed to do and we move forward.”

The next big step comes this weekend.

Starting a professional basketball league in Canada was never going to be easy, but Year 2 wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

When the ball goes up it will an accomplishment in itself.

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