Andre Levingston can hear the skeptics chortling: Just what Canada needs, another fly-by-night professional basketball league doomed to fail.
As president and chief executive officer of the fledgling National Basketball League of Canada, slated to begin operation in late October on seven fronts in Central and Eastern Canada, Levingston understands that the criticism comes with the territory.
“Of course we’re going to have the naysayers saying that this isn’t going to work,” the 46-year-old said. “But those are the people who will never buy a ticket, will never have an interest in going to a game. So we don’t worry about that.
“All we have to do is take care of our business, do what we say we’re going to do. And if we do that, I have no doubt that this league is going to achieve great success.”
The roadside is littered with the failures of other leagues that have tried to make a go of it in Canada, including the National Basketball League, which rose from the ashes of the World Basketball League and folded in 1994 after just 1 1/2 years of play. The league was for players 6 foot 5 and under and some might say its operators were short-sighted.
This year, the three Canadian franchises in the U.S.-operated Premier Basketball League – the Halifax Rainmen, the Saint John Mill Rats and the Quebec Kebs – all quit the league shortly after the championship game. Allegations of biased officiating and match-fixing prompted the shutdowns.
The Rainmen (owned by Levingston), the Kebs and the Mill Rats form the basis of the new league and have welcomed franchises in Moncton, Summerside, PEI, and in the Ontario cities of Oshawa and London.
The London franchise, to be known as the Lightning, have confirmed that former NBA player Michael Ray Richardson will be its first coach.
The NBLC teams, which had to pony up $100,000 in franchise fees to join the league, will play a 36-game regular season. Each team will have to carry at least two Canadians and work within a $150,000 salary cap. The minimum wage will be $400 a week.
Levingston is a Detroit native and former U.S. college basketball player who earned his wealth in the telecommunications business, which brought him to Toronto. Levingston also dabbled in several other business ventures, including a car-detailing operation he started in 2003 with former Toronto Raptors star Morris Peterson.
Five years ago Levingston began his own basketball team in Halifax, playing the first two seasons in the American Basketball Association and the last two in the Premier league, averaging 4,000 fans a game this past season playing out of the Metro Centre.
“I’m not afraid of somebody else’s failures,” Levingston said. “When I went to Halifax, people said it’s not going to work, no one will ever support it. But people love basketball in this country and it’s the fastest growing sport. It’s an opportunity for us to put something in place that can give our kids the opportunity to begin a dream about a sport they couldn’t dream about before.”
The league will hold its draft on Sunday night at Rogers Centre in Toronto, and this week at Humber College in Toronto some of the prospective players have taken part in a predraft training program. Tree Rollins, a 7-foot-1 former NBA player for 18 seasons, acted as one of the instructors at the camp.
“I think this league has a chance,” Rollins said. “The talent is there, the athletes are there and the salary alignment, as I’ve seen it, looks fair. But if you don’t pay your bills, problems will always come around.”
Players looking to make an impression included Reeon McNabb, a 19-year-old Toronto native chasing his basketball dream in spite of personal hardships, including the stabbing death of his father in 1996. In June, McNabb became the legal guardian of his 15-year-old brother. A chance to earn a weekly paycheque playing basketball would lighten his load, McNabb said.
“This is huge for me,” he said. “Taking care of my brother, I don’t really have the opportunity to go to the U.S. or Europe to try to play. This league is right in my backyard.”