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Walling: National Basketball League a success in first year

AJ Walling
3/26/2012 9:43:56 PM
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The London Lightning are the first champions of the National Basketball League of Canada, winning the title, 116-92, over the Halifax Rainmen Sunday in London, Ontario.

While the final score seems a little one-sided, believe it when we say that the final was a very close series.

London grabbed a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five and for a while it looked like a three-game sweep. The first two games were played in London and won by the home team.

Game Three was at the Halifax Metro Centre and for most of that game, London led.  In fact, they led by five points with a minute left in the game and saw "the miracle at the Metro Centre' as Halifax scored six in the last 60 seconds to win the game.

A closer Game Four for Halifax - a win - and the series was tied for the final game in London.  The victory by Halifax made it the first time that London lost back-to-back games all year.

That set the stage for the final Game Five.

It was a one-point differential after the third quarter before London took over and dominated the fourth; the London Lightning becoming the very first champions of the NBL Canada.

But the London win is really not the story.  The story is this newly formed league of seven franchises that made it through the season without a stumble.

Oh, I am sure there were some, but this fledging league kept whatever concerns to themselves. No teams folded.  No games cancelled.  No showing up on the court with six or seven players. Don't laugh; this was the norm in the other minor pro leagues that Halifax, Quebec and Saint John went through.

For Halifax (the Rainmen), Quebec (Kebs) and Saint John (the MillRats), they had a history in two of the most pathetic minor pro leagues in North America.

Three years ago they were in the ABA (American Basketball Association) which in covering sports since the 60's I've never seen anything like it. There were tons of teams in the ABA - as many as 70 or 80 in many divisions. Some divisions had sixteen teams while some had three and one had only themselves (I kid you not). In the initial year of the Rainmen, no less than 15-20 teams folded.

Many times teams showed up in Halifax with six players - yes six - to play a pro game against a home squad with 12.  The reason was many players were not allowed to cross the border for dubious or nefarious deeds committed in the United States.

There's a story going round that one General Manager travelled on the road with four or five players. He'd hit a new town, ask for directions to the local YMCA and sign two or three players to one-game contracts.

The Utah Dream folded five years ago and they were replaced the very next night by the Utah Stars. Players travelled from Buffalo to Rochester but would not play unless Rochester gave them money for gas.

There are 100 horror stories from the ABA in the two years I followed Halifax, the Kebs and Millrats.

Then there was the PBL (Premiere Basketball League).  They were a bit better but had a franchise that folded within a month of starting.  They also had a team kicked out of the league only to be ordered back by a court.

As I found out, this is minor pro basketball in the USA.   It seems that teams folding are common and expected in this level of minor pro ball.  In Canada it isn't.  We expect our hockey teams to ice squads and play every game in a season.

The AHL was in Halifax for 23 years and the Mooseheads for 18.   I can only recall two or three times that games were postponed, never cancel, as a result of a major snow storm that prevented a team from taking off or arriving at a destination.

"It's been a tremendous year for the NBL," league president Andre Levingston told TSN.ca. "Unlike the other leagues, we played a full schedule on every set date and never had a problem.  After being in the ABA and PBL, this was a tremendous accomplishment for the league."

The league is looking ahead to season two and expansion, says Vito Frijia, owner of the London Lightning.

"We've had some serious inquiries from several teams; mostly in Ontario," he says.

Kingston, Hamilton, Ottawa and Belleville have been mentioned as cities in Ontario while Fredericton, New Brunswick and Cape Breton (Sydney) Nova Scotia have been touted for eastern expansion. Cape Breton was in the Global league in the very early nineties as the Cape Breton Breakers.

The London owner says this year was an amazing success.

"We started the season with some two thousand fans and increased in every single game. Sunday's final sold out the lower bowl at the John Labatt Centre with a great crowd of 5,106.

London finished first during the regular season and built a following.

Oshawa struggled at the gate, as did Quebec, but both teams stayed the course. Halifax led the league in attendance with over three thousand but many cities had 2,000, which seems to be the mark of success attendance wise. The league's smallest centre - Summerville, PEI - was a glowing success with crowds of two and three thousand and tons of community involvement.

I attended the inaugural press conference of this league, which featured representation of Saint John, Quebec and Halifax who were in the ABA and PBL.   They ultimately were joined by four other teams. I really expected one or two teams to fold or not have enough money to finish the season, but I was mistaken.

In the ABA, franchises were going for $20-$40 thousand so owners would buy teams for these prices and didn't know how to run a business or didn't have enough money for things like travel or player salaries.

The smartest thing the NBL of Canada did was demand $100,000 from each owner and got it, just in case there was a problem.  If there were problems they never reached the public like the ABA and PBL did.

And the NBL promoted Canadian content by having two Canadians on the predominately American rosters. But in several cases, Canadians excelled.  Maybe they could increase the Canadian content and someday be like the CFL.

The NBL could hold its head up high.  It has been a great season and they've gained a great deal of creditability.  They've earned the kudos.

For TSN.ca I'm Alex J. Walling

AJ can be reached via email at:  ajw@eastlink.ca




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