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Three years ago, the CEBL opened for business as a six-team outfit with no franchises east of Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. After its inaugural season, the league was stable enough to add a seventh club, in Ottawa. Then came the pandemic. It could have crushed the fledgling organization, but commissioner Mike Morreale (the former CFL receiver) spearheaded the formation of a two-week tournament in the summer of 2020 in St. Catharines, Ont., so that the CEBL could crown a champion — more than you can say for Morreale’s old league, which didn’t play at all that year. In 2021, the CEBL returned to a full regular-season and playoff schedule.
Now, as it prepares to tip off its fourth season on Wednesday night, the CEBL has one-upped the CFL in a few more ways. With three new expansion franchises set to take the court, the CEBL now boasts 10 teams (one more than the CFL) and a footprint that reaches from coast to coast (the CFL is still trying to get a proposed Maritimes team off the ground). Meanwhile, as the CFL is in the news for the wrong reasons (an on-again, off-again players’ strike), the CEBL is making headlines for signing a famous rapper to play for one of its teams.
Just to be clear, no one is saying the CEBL has surpassed the CFL. The basketball startup is still a long way from catching the venerable football institution in terms of attendance, revenue and cultural cachet. But comparing the two all-Canadian leagues illuminates how things are looking up for the CEBL, which continues to grow while seeming unafraid to try new things. Here are some details to know ahead of season four:
The league keeps growing. This is true in terms of both the quantity of teams and their geographical spread. By adding expansion clubs in Toronto (the Scarborough Shooting Stars), Montreal (the Montreal Alliance) and St. John’s (the Newfoundland Growlers), the CEBL is now in locations spanning from Langley, B.C. (the Fraser Valley Bandits) all the way to the eastern edge of the country. It’s truly a national league now. The other teams are the two-time defending champion Edmonton Stingers, Saskatchewan Rattlers, Guelph Nighthawks, Hamilton Honey Badgers, Niagara River Lions and Ottawa Blackjacks.
The Shooting Stars landed a rap star. Platinum-selling artist J. Cole (née Jermaine Cole) signed a deal last week to play for Scarborough, which also features local former NBA all-star (and current Toronto Raptors employee) Jamaal Magloire as an executive. With J. Cole, there’s obviously a stunt element to signing a 37-year-old who never played college ball and whose pro experience consists of three games last year with a team in Rwanda. His availability is also questionable, as the rapper is set to begin touring on June 10 — just five games into the season. But his addition has already brought considerable North American media attention to the Shooting Stars and the CEBL.
The Michael Jordan of the CEBL is gone. Xavier Moon won the CEBL Player of the Year award in 2019, ’20 and ’21 — that’s all three years of the league’s existence. The 27-year-old American guard also led Edmonton to the championship in each of the last two seasons, taking Finals MVP honours both times. Moon signed with the Los Angeles Clippers’ G League affiliate last fall before joining the big club in December and getting on the floor for 10 games. He’s one of several CEBL players who made the jump to the NBA last season as the world’s top basketball league struggled with COVID-related absences. Another is 2021 Canadian Player of the Year Lindell Wigginton, who’s now with the Milwaukee Bucks after leaving Hamilton. While it hurts to lose stars like this, it might be good for the CEBL in the long run because it shows the league can be a pathway to the NBA.
A new Moon might be on the rise. With their superstar gone, Edmonton may lean more on forward Jordan Baker, who won the Canadian Player of the Year award in 2020 and then averaged 14.9 points and 9.4 rebounds last season. Another strong Canadian is Kadre Gray, a former U Sports star at Laurentian who averaged 15.3 points and 4.6 assists for Ottawa last season and is now with the Fraser Valley Bandits. A candidate to inherit the Player of the Year award from Moon is Guelph’s Cat Barber, an American guard who averaged 17.6 points last season before earning a brief stint with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Elam Ending is still in effect. Basketball nerds have been saying for years that the NBA should adopt this enlightened method for closing out games. Rather than playing for a set amount of time, teams race to a target score (in the CEBL, it’s determined by adding nine points to the leading team’s total with four minutes remaining). This eliminates the annoying tactic of the trailing team intentionally fouling near the end of games in order to get the ball back, and ensures every contest ends with a game-winning bucket. The NBA tested the Elam Ending at its All-Star Game in 2020 and everybody loved it, but the league hasn’t had the stomach to try it in meaningful games. The CEBL has been using it since 2020.
Every game this season is being live-streamed by CBC Sports. The slate begins with Wednesday’s three opening-night contests — Montreal vs. Hamilton at 7 p.m. ET, Fraser Valley vs. Ottawa at 7:30 p.m. ET and Niagara vs. Saskatchewan at 9:30 p.m. ET — and continues through the Aug. 12-14 Championship Weekend in Ottawa. Each game can be seen on CBC Gem, the CBC Sports app and CBCSports.ca, and a game of the week will also be broadcast on the CBC TV network starting in July. See the full streaming and broadcast schedule here. Read more about the three new franchises in this story by CBC Sports’ Myles Dichter.
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