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CEBL using power of sport to guide Canadian basketball fans through pandemic

Pro basketball league determined to prove safe return to local markets is possible this summer.

CEBL Edmonton Stingers Celebrate 2020 Summer Series Championship
The Edmonton Stingers are seen celebrating their victory in the Summer Series Championship Game last August. The CEBL is working towards another safe return for its third season, but is hoping to avoid a bubble this time around. - Photo: CEBL

Early Saturday morning, front office executives awoke to a voicemail from Mike Morreale.

The commissioner and CEO of the Canadian Elite Basketball League was alerting his seven teams that the start of the season would be pushed back approximately three weeks from June 5 to June 24.

The reasons for revising the schedule make perfect sense.

What stood out about the statement released to the public several days later was a level of honesty and humanity that portrays how the CEBL wants to position itself now and long into the future.

“We made that decision because sometimes you just get a sense for what’s happening,” said Morreale over the phone. “And obviously the recent restrictions in Ontario were kind of the catalyst as we have four teams that play in Ontario.

“We took a look at the landscape and there’s people suffering and there’s a lot of negative things happening, but there’s also a silver lining of a lot of positives that sometimes go unnoticed because we tend to dwell on the bad stuff.”

Mike Morreale

The CEBL distinguished itself last year by successfully conducting a two-week tournament at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, Ont. In addition to providing a proof of concept that it is capable of drawing top Canadian talent during the summer months, the CEBL more importantly showed that it was possible to do so safely when adhering to strict health and safety protocols.

Niagara River Lions Kassius Robertson Playing Defence Against Ottawa Blackjacks Munis Tutu
Niagara River Lions Kassius Robertson playing defense Against Ottawa Blackjacks’ Munis Tutu – Photo: CEBL

Now preparing to play its third season, the CEBL wants the opportunity to show that a safe return to local markets is also possible.

“We can all get through this if we all work collectively to do it and we’ll do our part,” says Morreale. “Our part is to show that we will do everything in our power to prove that this can be done and It can be done safely. We don’t want to take unnecessary risk.

“This is not about the bottom line for us. If it was about the bottom line, we wouldn’t play at all. This is about the future. This is about what we can do for the community now but also about what we can do for the community ten years from now. It has to start somewhere and we need to be part of it. We need to demonstrate that we can lead the way.”

Niagara River Lions vice president of operations Michelle Biskup took the announcement in stride and says that when Monday rolled around it was business as usual. Biskup echoes the words coming from the league office in saying that the priority is continuing to build relationships and to forge an identity in the community.

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“A bubble definitely has been discussed, but it’s not the preferred solution at all,” says Biskup. “I think one of the biggest reasons that the CEBL doesn’t want to do a bubble is because they see how important it is for each team to be playing in their local market.

Niagara River Lions Daniel Mullings Attacks The Basket Against Guelph Nighthawks
Niagara River Lions guard Daniel Mullings attacks the basket against Guelph Nighthawks – Photo: CEBL

“The hope is obviously that fans are in the arena. But if they’re not, at least if the team is playing in their local arena, there is that connection to the community. There’s some sort of normalcy for fans to be watching their team on TV and seeing them in their home arena versus seeing them [in a bubble] in a place that doesn’t look like home to them.”

Michelle Biskup

Furthermore, Biskup indicates that feedback from players has been positive amid the uncertainty and changing landscape of the third wave.

“[The schedule] is still 14 games. They’re still making the same amount of money. Nothing’s changed on that,” said Biskup. “So really there’s nothing for them to be too concerned about. It’s not affecting anything on that side of things.

“It’s just more adjusting those three games. It might be a little bit harder on their bodies because it’s a more condensed schedule. But other than that, they’re happy to adjust.”

One way or another, Morreale says the CEBL remains committed to playing games this summer and wants to provide a light at the end of the tunnel for all Canadians.

“It’s not hard for anyone across our league to understand what we’re really trying to do here,” he says. “It’s bigger than just playing basketball. We have a responsibility to get our players on the court, get our coaches coaching and all that, but also a sense of responsibility to get the community engaged.

Mike Morreale

“We know what goes into pulling off a bubble. We know what goes into playing under these situations. So let us be a way to provide a little bit of hope and a lift to the communities and at the same time, helping our players, our staff, everyone get back to some sense of normalcy for their mental health or physical health and their economic health. It can be done. It takes time and it takes effort, but there’s a bigger picture here.” 

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