CEBL commissioner Morreale eager for Summer Series tip-off

Commissioner Mike Morreale says he can't wait to start the tournament and celebrate its finish. But those 15 days in between won't be easy.

26-game tournament begins play on Saturday in St. Catharines

Canadian Elite Basketball League commissioner Mike Morreale says he can't wait for the tournament to start and to celebrate at the end. But those 15 days in between won't be easy. (Don Somers/CBC)

When the ball is finally tossed up after a roller-coaster four months, Mike Morreale will breathe a sigh of relief.

Morreale is the commissioner and CEO of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, which will tip off its refigured Summer Series on Saturday when the Niagara River Lions play the Hamilton Honey Badgers in St. Catharines, Ont.

It will be the first professional, non-exhibition team sports game held in the country since COVID-19 shut down leagues in mid-March — and it's been some heavy lifting for a league dealing with a global pandemic in just its second season of existence.

"It's going to be amazing for me personally. And then I'm going to say 'Please get to August 10th as fast as possible,"' laughed Morreale, the commissioner and CEO.

"I want it to start because we've worked so hard, and then I just want to get to the end and we can celebrate what we've been able to do. But I know it's not that easy. It's those 15 days in between."

WATCH | Summer Series is the start of a new journey: 

A new basketball experience captured in a stylistic, fun, energetic, and yet powerful manner. This will be the CEBL war cry. The start of the CEBL Summer Series. Start of a new journey. Start of #OurGame. 1:30

The league's seven teams have convened in St. Catharines for a 26-game competition that ends with the championship game on Aug. 9.

Morreale, who was a slotback in the CFL for 12 seasons, said he began to worry about the CEBL season about a week after the NBA shut down on March 11. It's been an exhausting four months of pivoting and refiguring amid the unpredictable coronavirus and its safety protocols.

"Every day has been crazy," he said. "I keep thinking that the next day will be easier but nope. Not the case when you're in a pandemic, that's for sure.

"It's hard to put [the difficulty] into words, we've spent the last eight weeks in operational planning to get to the point where we could return, but at various points, if not almost all points along the way, there was never a clear indication that this thing is going to go, right?"

3 safe zones

The seven teams gathered in St. Catherines for training camp just over a week ago. Players and coaches have undergone several COVID-19 tests. While the NBA is in a contained "bubble" at Walt Disney World in hard-hit Florida, Ontario's Niagara Region has largely kept the coronavirus at bay.

There are three safe zones: the team hotel, the training arena, and the Meridian Centre, where games will be played in front of no fans. Players follow the same Ontario guidelines as the general public, meaning they can venture out to purchase groceries and other essentials, but family members and other outsiders aren't permitted into the safe zones.

Outside of the NBA, the seven squads feature a who's who of Canadian players including Justin Jackson, Owen Klassen, Duane Notice, Olu Famutimi, Grandy Glaze, Daniel Mullings, and brothers Phil and Thomas Scrubb.

"That's what this league is about . . . to give Canadian players and coaches opportunities to showcase their talent, and be home," said Charles Kissi, head coach of the Guelph Nighthawks, and Raptors 905 assistant coach. "A lot of guys are playing overseas or in the States for the majority of the year and to be able to come home and play in front of their friends and family, or closer to home, and earn a living doing it, I think is pretty neat, it's a great opportunity for them."

WATCH | CEBL set for sophomore season on CBC:

The CEBL Summer Series 2020 tips off on Saturday with a double-header on CBC. At 1:30 p.m. ET the Hamilton Honey Badgers take on the Niagara River Lions, followed by the Guelph Nighthawks and expansion Ottawa Blackjacks at 3:30 p.m. ET. 0:52

Morreale said in terms of talent, "when we hit the court starting Saturday there will be no better Canadian basketball talent anywhere than on the court for the next 15 days."

In a global sports world reeling from the pandemic, he's proud to be able to give Canadians a place to play.

"They haven't played in four months, right? So this serves as not only an opportunity to get back onto the court and put a few bucks in your pocket, but also that really necessary game film for them to either continue their career or for the younger guys to start their career," he said. "And then the exposure to the brand because we will theoretically be the only game in town in Canada."

'I'm not scared to fail' 

Working closely with Ontario health authorities, the three-week tournament is the culmination of "eight weeks of every day just trying to push down another hurdle," he said.

"And before you knew it, we were in a position to say, 'Oh my goodness, I think we have a chance to pull this thing off.' I'm glad we can pave the way for not only other pro sports leagues but minor sports and amateur sport. How do those guys come back? So we can be almost the de-facto guinea pig."

WATCH | CEBL's return to play plan:

The CEBL is the first league in Canada to start up again during the pandemic, but how did they do it? 1:29

Morreale said he drew on his years as an athlete to push through the uncertainty.

"I'm not scared to fail," he said. "And I think that has really helped me in the way I lead. Some people may have thought I was partly insane, but I also believe that we have the opportunity now when everyone is at home, and we have a captive audience and everybody's looking to see what's next . . . then we can move mountains."

The Saskatchewan Rattlers won last year's inaugural CEBL championship.

The Rattlers are joined in St. Catharines by the Nighthawks, River Lions, Honey Badgers, Fraser Valley Bandits, Edmonton Stingers, and the expansion Ottawa BlackJacks.

One or two games per day will be held through Aug. 5. The quarterfinals are Aug. 6, the semifinals Aug. 8, followed by the championship final at noon on Aug. 9.

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