From B.C. to Tokyo: Canada Basketball, CEBL hope to grow game at home and abroad

Never has the synergy between the Canadian Elite Basketball League and Canada Basketball been more apparent than right now.

CEBL star Trae Bell-Haynes in camp with Team Canada ahead of Olympic qualifier

Niagara's Trae Bell-Haynes, right, defends against Ottawa's Junior Cadougan during a 2020 CEBL game. While Cadougan has suited up for Team Canada as recently as 2017, Bell-Haynes' inclusion in the pre-Olympic qualifier training camp shows how the league can benefit Canada Basketball and vice versa. (CEBL)

Never has the synergy between the Canadian Elite Basketball League and Canada Basketball been more apparent than right now.

Canadian basketball is firmly in the spotlight: the women's team just played its first games in 16 months and the men's team is less than one week away from its last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria.

In between, the CEBL will begin its third season, with opening night Thursday as the Ottawa BlackJacks host the Niagara River Lions.

The game will be absent one star — River Lions guard Trae Bell-Haynes is currently in camp with the men's national team in Tampa, Fla. Given the recent spate of dropouts from the roster and a lack of guard depth, the 25-year-old possesses a decent shot at making the team.

Canadian coach Nick Nurse mentioned Bell-Haynes, also the reigning German league offensive player of the year, as one of three guards competing for playing time behind likely starter Cory Joseph on Monday.

"[He's] coming off a really good year in Germany, has a really good feel for running the team. … He's got good pick-and-roll ability, he's got some good quick jets on him, he gets off the pick-and-roll and downhill fast," Nurse said.

If he winds up as one of 12 on the roster, and if Canada books its ticket to Tokyo, Bell-Haynes could miss the entire CEBL season.

And that's, in part, the point, says CEBL commissioner Mike Morreale.

"That's the pathway. That's the accessibility. We continue to provide opportunities for guys to continue to play and get better and that makes them ready for international [basketball]," he said.

Fifteen CEBL players have played games for the national team, while seven are on the current FIBA AmeriCup 2022 qualifying roster. Alex Johnson of the Hamilton Honey Badgers suited up for Canada at the recent Olympic 3x3 basketball qualifier.

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The CEBL, in which 75 per cent of current players are Canadian, is the only domestic pro league to partner with Canada Basketball, a key differentiator from previous attempts at forming a Canadian league.

Canada Basketball president and CEO Glen Grunwald says the league has done things "the right way."

"They've been fully cooperative and supportive of our efforts as we have with them. The amount of Canadian players that get to play in front of friends and family is important. And the ability to entertain fans in the spring and summer. It has been a very exciting development," Grunwald said.

Local growth

By operating out of local markets, the CEBL can reach Canadians without as much access to other pro sports. There's no Toronto team, but there's Hamilton, Niagara, Ottawa and Guelph in Ontario. There's no Vancouver, but there's Fraser Valley in B.C.

Of the 19 players in camp with Team Canada, eight have their hometowns listed as Toronto, with another three from neighbouring areas Brampton, Mississauga and Vaughan.

Not only can the CEBL infiltrate new markets to grow a bigger pool of basketball talent in the country, but it provides more opportunity for those already in the industry.

"Our alliance with Canada Basketball is very strong because we employ hundreds and hundreds of people that in one way, shape or form fall under the Canada Basketball banner," Morreale said.

"And more importantly, we now have provided the developmental pathway for not just players and coaches, but executives and support staff and broadcasters and officials and you name it."

Within the country, the CEBL is expected to expand to Montreal next season. In the NBA, Chris Boucher, Luguentz Dort and Khem Birch recently became the first Quebec trio to start in the same game.

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International surge

But it's Canadian basketball's international footprint that both Grunwald and Morreale see as the future of the relationship.

"Basketball is a global brand, and we are well positioned to take advantage of that," the CEBL commissioner said.

Morreale says the CEBL is working with multiple national federations to arrange home-and-home series with other domestic leagues to be played in the off-season months.

Grunwald mentioned the possibility of the CEBL joining the FIBA-sponsored Basketball Champions League of America, a tournament similar to UEFA's Champions League in soccer.

"I'm hopeful that the CEBL will find a way to field a team in that competition and make us proud as they go forward there," Grunwald said.

Just as the CEBL helps Canada Basketball, the inverse is true too. Canada winning an Olympic basketball medal for the first time since 1936 in Tokyo would undeniably boost the profile of the sport in the country.

And if Bell-Haynes is there, the CEBL would own a slice of that history.

"We are a relatively small country in terms of population, but we're punching much above our weight in terms of our impact on the sport around the world," Grunwald said.

From Guelph to Tokyo, the impact should only expand in the coming months.

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