There’s nothing quite like the dream of playing pro.
Every kid who played basketball knows it. The nights spent on the local court, swatting away mosquitoes and shooting threes long past dark. The shrill, reverberating squeaks of Air Jordans on hardwood in an empty gym. The imaginary voice in your head, exclaiming how you—yes, you—just shot a buzzer-beater to win the NBA championship.
This dream becomes a reality for only the best of the best. Out of approximately 500,000 high school basketball players in the United States, less than three per cent will play college ball. Less than one per cent of those players will reach the NBA.
It’s even worse for Canadian players, who play in a country with less basketball infrastructure and fewer opportunities than the U.S. Forget playing in the NBA, even going pro in leagues in Europe, Asia or Australia is improbable at best. The opportunities are slim to none.
That is, until three years ago, when the Canadian Elite Basketball League entered the pro ball landscape. The league, which began its biggest season ever on May 25 with a record 100 games in 69 days, is filling an important role in the domestic basketball development pipeline.
It is providing jobs and opportunities for players and personnel at home. It is improving the calibre of the Canadian talent pool. It is changing the way the world looks at basketball in this country.
In short, the CEBL is revolutionizing Canadian basketball.
Before the CEBL entered the scene, the National Basketball League of Canada was the only pro basketball league in the nation. It was established in 2011 and expanded to 10 teams in 2016, but has consistently struggled with team stability. In 2017 alone, two teams folded. Only four teams competed in 2022.
This inability to become more than a “shoestring business” frustrated Richard Petko, owner of the NBLC’s Niagara River Lions. Petko, along with former CFL receiver Mike Morreale, launched the CEBL in 2017 and began competition in 2019 with six teams, including Niagara.
River Lions head coach Victor Raso, who played U Sports basketball at Carleton University from 2013 to 2015, said the state of the sport in Canada was dire when he played.
“Every pro league in Canada that existed … while I was growing up was almost like a joke,” Raso said. “Every single league failed miserably. There were always problems.”
But as it prepares to enter its fourth season, the CEBL is thriving. The league recently grew to 10 teams with expansion to St. John’s, Montreal and Scarborough, Ont. and is eyeing future expansion to Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Quebec City.
Last month, famed rapper J. Cole signed with the Scarborough Shooting Stars, making international headlines and sending the Canadian basketball community into a frenzy.
“I never would’ve believed where we’re at today,” Raso said.
The most immediate manifestation of the CEBL’s success is on the court. In December 2021 and January 2022, as the NBA dealt with a crisis of COVID-19 infections, five CEBL alumni signed contracts with NBA teams, becoming the first players in league history to do so. This included Javin DeLaurier and Xavier Sneed, who both played for the River Lions in 2021.
Also on the 2021 River Lions were Carleton Ravens players Lloyd Pandi and Grant Shephard. One of the CEBL’s most visible impacts on basketball development is the learning experience it provides U Sports athletes through developmental contracts, which allow players to maintain their university eligibility while receiving pro experience over the summer.
Shephard, who sports a tidy fade haircut and subtle earrings, experienced exactly this during his time in the CEBL in 2021. By the end of the season, he was particularly close with DeLaurier.
“It just puts your skills in check for how quick and strong you are,” Shephard said. “You can have good moves and play style, but at the next level everyone’s bigger and faster, so you have to adapt and be able to do your thing with that speed and strength increasing.”
Alongside basketball skills, the 20-plus U Sports players who are drafted each year also get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a pro. Pandi and Shephard witnessed first-hand how soon-to-be NBA players train, work out and recover.
Now Pandi, who was named 2021-22 U Sports Player of the Year and won a second national championship with the Ravens in April, is going pro and declaring for the NBA draft, a rare step for U Sports talent.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for development,” said Raso, who was also an assistant coach at Carleton for the 2015-16 season. “The perspective these guys have changes pretty significantly once they (play) professional basketball.”
Beyond player development, what really excites people involved with the game in Canada is the opportunity the CEBL provides — the chances for Canadian players that didn’t exist even five years ago.
Willy Manigat, head coach of the men’s basketball team at Brock University and the former director of regional scouting for the CEBL’s Ottawa BlackJacks, has seen this transformation first-hand.
He played U Sports basketball at Carleton and the University of Ottawa from 2005 to 2012, winning two national championships. After graduating, Manigat got lucky.
He signed a pro contract with the NBLC’s Summerside Storm before the 2012-13 season, launching a career that would take him to Germany, Morocco and Croatia before he became an assistant coach for Carleton in 2016.
Manigat was one of the few Canadian players who got an opportunity in the NBLC. The league has no Canadian player requirement, meaning teams can—and often do—rely on talent from abroad.
When Manigat played for the Storm, only two other players on the 12-man roster were Canadian.
“It just felt like Canadians weren’t given a fair shake,” Manigat said. “It was really a league in Canada, as opposed to being a Canadian league.”
The CEBL is different. The league requires six Canadian players on every 10-man gameday roster, as well as a minimum of two Canadian players on the court at all times for each team. Seventy-five percent of current players are Canadian.
The league operates with a salary cap of $8,000 per game, with a minimum of $400 per player per game and a maximum of $1,500. U Sports Development players receive $300 for each game they are active, with the funds going into their academic bursary.
“Now, there’s opportunities. There’s options,” Raso said. “You don’t have to necessarily be [U Sports greats] Phil or Tommy Scrubb to play professional basketball. You can be just the best player on your U Sports team because, if you’re in the market of a CEBL team, you’re gonna get a shot.”
As a result, Raso said there will be far more U Sports players going pro.
“That is something that is unheard of. We never had that,” Raso said. “There was maybe three guys (who went pro) when I graduated.”
These opportunities are also changing the way players view Canadian basketball. Growing up, Raso said aspiring pro players are told never to play in Canada. While changing that mentality is a slow process, it’s starting to happen with the CEBL.
It’s not just Canadian players whose perception is changing. Word is getting around among international talent, including players who have reached the NBA.
Walt Lemon Jr., who played 11 games for the New Orleans Pelicans and Chicago Bulls in 2018 and '19 and signed with the BlackJacks for 2022, said he doesn’t know much about the CEBL but the success of league alumni last winter is building a name for the circuit in basketball circles.
“Everyone in the world’s goal is to play in the NBA,” Lemon said. “To see certain guys that played in this league previously and then literally the next season they get an opportunity in the NBA, that’s going to attract more talent. For me, that was a real big (factor) for me coming here.”
This change in perception is impacting the Canadian development pathway. For years, high schoolers have fled to the U.S. to play at prep schools. Even at the university level, the dream is always to play D1 in the NCAA. U Sports isn’t typically part of the traditional path for a Canadian to go pro, but the chance to play pro at home is changing that.
“There’s multiple pathways for kids to take now,” said Jason Thom, director of basketball operations for the CEBL. “What’s interesting is a lot of (players) don’t know it.”
That’s the main barrier today. Despite a new world opening to Canadian players, there’s still a stigma attached to playing here.
“It’s a re-education,” said Thom, who is also the director of North Pole Hoops, an organization providing exposure for high school players in Canada through showcases and tournaments. “The education starts at a young age—‘Hey, here’s the pathway’—but the education continues with what they’re seeing before their very eyes right now.”
Part of the solution is simply having homegrown talent in front of homegrown fans. Instead of university players being a blip on the radar—here for five years, then gone to play abroad—players now have a platform in the CEBL that brings them closer to home.
But what about coaches? What about athletic therapists and game-day staff? Where can a basketball executive go to get a full-time, paying job in Canada? Like players, the platform for those involved in the coaching and administration side of the game has lagged significantly behind its counterpart in the U.S.
This has held the game back. Thom estimates basketball infrastructure in Canada is at least 10 years behind the actual player talent. To compare basketball to hockey—with fully-fledged funding, corporate sponsors and developmental leagues such as the Ontario Hockey League—is almost laughable.
“If we have people trying to work in the space that are part-time or volunteers as well, we’re never going to be able to reach the levels of all the other countries in the world,” Thom said. “We’re not going to have the structure here to really be able to see (basketball) reach its full potential.”
The CEBL is helping change that. People working in basketball in Canada, such as university head coaches, can continue working and gaining experience over the summer in the CEBL.
This isn’t true for everyone, though. As good as the CEBL is for men’s basketball, the same opportunity isn’t available for women’s basketball players or personnel.
This holds true across sport. In 2019, the same year the CEBL launched, the Canadian Premier League began its first season. Like the CEBL, the CPL fills an important role in the domestic soccer development pipeline—but there’s no equivalent for the women’s game.
“Everything that is so great about the CEBL for the men’s game in Canada is missing for the women’s,” said Christine Stapleton, director of sports and recreation at Western University and a member of the U Sports board of governors.
Stapleton served as the women’s basketball head coach at the University of Regina from 1993 to 2002 and worked at Canada Basketball for more than a decade. She said it’s time for women’s pro leagues in Canada in basketball, soccer and hockey.
“There’s a great template in development (in the CEBL),” Stapleton said.
Commissioner Morreale said he has had conversations with Canada Basketball and others about developing a women’s league, and has spoken publicly on the impact it could have on the game. Still, there are no indications yet that a league is in the works.
That could change, as the CEBL continues to generate buzz about pro basketball in Canada. The league is already reaching new heights, with J. Cole’s arrival in Scarborough drawing attention from hundreds of millions of users on Twitter and Instagram—including Drake, who shared the news of the signing on his Instagram story.
Drake showing love to J. Cole playing professional basketball in Canada 🙌🏼 pic.twitter.com/Qwr5XhYU3M
— Joey (@gothamhiphop) May 26, 2022
Scarborough’s first three games of the season, all on the road, are nearly sold out. While astronomical ticket sales may just be a flash in the pan, the CEBL is setting out to prove its impact on Canadian basketball is here to stay.
“Talking to a couple guys that played and a couple of coaches who coached in this league in previous summers, they say it’s on the rise,” Lemon said. “You do well here, you get opportunities out there in other places.”
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