TORONTO – Andre Levingston has received an earful from critics who tell him there’s no way a Canadian pro basketball league can survive.
Others before him have tried and failed, they say.
“I say they’ve never met anyone like me,” he responds.
Levingston is a founder of the fledgling seven-team National Basketball League, which gets off the ground this weekend with a combine and draft in Toronto.
“We know we’re only going to get once chance to do it the right way, and so we’re not going to blow it,” he said.
Since announcing the league’s formation in mid-May, four teams have joined the original three, coaching staffs have been hired, and a schedule has been drawn up that will begin Oct. 29 with each club playing 36 games. The top four teams advance to playoffs in March.
The league’s early days have made for long ones for Levingston and partner Ian McCarthy, who’ve spent a good chunk of the past few weeks meeting with mayors and heads of tourism in various Canadian cities.
He calls it a labour of love.
“We’ve been extremely busy, but at the same time it’s something that we truly enjoy, it’s a passion of our’s first,” Levingston said. “We love the game of basketball, and what we’re doing for the country, it’s been priceless. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The NBL was formed when three existing teams — the Halifax Rainmen (of which Levingston is president and CEO), Saint John Mill Rats and Quebec Kebs — left the Premier Basketball League amid complaints of poor management. Since then, NBL franchises have been formed in London, Ont., Oshawa, Ont., Moncton, N.B., and P.E.I.
Several basketball leagues and franchises have failed to survive in the past. The World Basketball League — which included six Canadian teams — was founded in 1987 by a group that included NBA Hall of Famer and Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy. That league, which had a height restriction of six foot five and under, folded in 1992.
The all-Canadian National Basketball League, which included eight teams, started up the same year but barely got off the ground, folding after less than two seasons.
Levingston said he and McCarthy are being careful about who they’re allowing to buy into their league.
“We’re not looking for individuals who are looking for a hobby of owning a basketball team, making it easy for them to walk away in the process and leaving cities in financial trouble,” Levingston said. “We’re looking to do things the right way and we’re going to take our time, we’re going to make sure the right individuals are on board with what we’re doing.”
The Oshawa franchise is owned by a group that includes real estate entrepreneur Isaac Olowolafe Jr., while the London Lightning owners are property developers Taylor Brown and Vito Frijia.
All 180 spots for this weekend’s combine at Seneca College are filled, with the first day featuring players from outside Canada, and the second day reserved for Canadians. The league stipulates each team must have two Canadians.
Levingston believes with the possibility of an NBA lockout looming, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see an NBA player suit up in the Canadian league.
“Absolutely, we sent a press release offering NBA players the opportunity to stay closer to home to play,” he said. “We know we won’t get a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant. But not everybody wants to go overseas, they want to stay closer to home. With the lockout looming, these guys need to play basketball and stay sharp, stay in shape, and be able to make a little bit of money. Even the money they make in our league can pay a mortgage.”
Top players are expected to make about $4,000 a month.
The typical NBL player, however, said Levingston, will come from the U.S. college system.
“The average player in our league is a high (NCAA) Div. 1 player that is very athletic,” he said. “The speed of our guys is going to be absolutely amazing, the strength of these players — they’re big, long. . . You’ll see seven-foot players in our league, you’ll see 200 or 300-pound guys that are extremely athletic for their size. The talent level is going to be extremely high.”
The NBL draft will be held Sunday at 7 p.m. at Rogers Centre, and broadcast live online at www.nblcanada.ca.
Halifax, Saint John, and Quebec were able to protect five players from their previous rosters.