Is Canadian Basketball Hooped?

CanBasketball Corp

Career opportunities for CIS stars are just the start of what ails Canada’s forgotten sport.

Written By Lachlan Ross (ISN)

May 3, 2013, Victoria, BC (ISN) – In the University of Victoria locker room, the Vikes men’s basketball team celebrated their first round playoff victory over the Calgary Dinos.

A game winning tip-in by teammate Terrell Evans forced fans onto the court, but the win belonged to fifth year guard, Ryan Mackinnon, who lead his team with 33 points and eight rebounds. As cheers bounced off lockers and echoed around the team room for the last time in the 2011-12 season, hoops success for Mackinnon was inevitable. Coaches, UVic alumni, and current pro players were all but guaranteeing the Second Team All-Canadian jobs playing in Europe. What they didn’t tell him was the lack of opportunities a Canadian basketball player faces while chasing their hoop dream.

Where to go after University ball

The main issue Canada’s top University ballers face upon graduation is where to play. The NBA is an unrealistic goal for most of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) talent pool, which is lower caliber than America’s National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), and a Canadian professional league has never lasted more than four seasons due to lack of fan support and funding. With opportunities scarce in North America for CIS studs, most head to Europe in search of six figure salaries and world-class basketball, bested only by the NBA. Boasting 50 leagues and divisions across the continent, Europe appears a plentiful playground of contracts and careers for the CIS elite. But for Canadians without European citizenship, like Mackinnon, playing prospects vastly shrink.

Through help from an agent and UVic alumni, Mackinnon arrived in the small town of Oberwart, Austria, to try out with the Oberwart Gunners. Part of the Admiral Basketball League, Austria’s top professional division, the Gunners are made up of 11 local Austrian players and four American imports.

Most European clubs have rules allowing only one to four foreign “import” players on their roster. So Canadians without the European citizenship that would qualify them as “local talent” are competing with America’s top college graduates for these few import positions. Oberwart had already filled their four-import quota. Mackinnon was fighting to make the roster.

“Oberwart was a great spot for me,” says Mackinnon. “The team, management, and fans were all great to me and I immediately felt like I was making an impact on their squad… I felt as if I was one of the better players on the team behind a few of their American imports, but management was looking for either a pure point guard or a bigger guard/power forward, which stuck me right in the middle.”

Many professional teams worldwide fill import spots with players predicted to be fan favourites; ultra-quick point guards, or rim rattling forwards signed for their athleticism. For six-foot-four, averagely athletic Mackinnon, whose skill-based game at shooting guard relies on core fundamentals and a crafty wit on the court, he fit neither of the two roles.

“I started realizing that especially in my position, there was nothing too significant that had me stick out from the pack,” he says. “At the end of the day I was a small two guard vying for a spot which was usually taken by a home grown player and not an import.”

Mackinnon was released from the team.

Leaving Oberwart, Mackinnon trialed at three other clubs in Germany, but found the same problem of import spots being filled with talented American athletes. Europe had been presented as the place to play, but after lacking opportunities, Mackinnon decided that at 23 his competitive basketball career was finished. Vancouver Island’s wonder kid had failed to play abroad.

“[Of] players who play in Canada [CIS] now, maybe one or two a year can play in a major division in Europe,” says Canadian basketball hall of fame coach, Ken Shields. “To play in the Euroleague [Europe’s top competition], or even first division, CIS players have virtually no chance unless they have a passport.” Without an established domestic or professional league in Canada, Shields says CIS stars have nowhere to go after graduation. “Ryan Mackinnon was the best player in Victoria, [Canada West] All-Star, second team All-Canadian, and he couldn’t get a job.”

Growing the sport in Canada

In 2011 the National Basketball League (NBL) became the newest attempt at developing a pro league in Canada. Following the former National Basketball League (lasting two seasons, 1993–94), and Ontario Professional Basketball Association (one season, 2004), which both failed to find funds in a hockey hungry nation, the new NBL had history against it. American based leagues had also tried including Canadian franchises such as the World Basketball League (Calgary, Halifax, Hamilton, Saskatchewan, Vancouver, Winnipeg, 1988-92), and the Premier Basketball League (Halifax, Montreal, Quebec, Saint John, Toronto, 2008-11), but the Canadian franchises either left the leagues or folded. The only current Canadian team to play in an American league is the Calgary Crush who have played in the American Basketball Association since 2011. The Crush were joined by Toronto based ABA-Canada Revolution in 2011-12, but like many unstable ABA franchises, the Revolution pulled out of the 2012-13 season.

The new NBL came together when Halifax, Quebec and Saint John left the American based Premier Basketball League to join teams from London, Moncton, Oshawa, and Summerside, forming an all-Canadian competition. Now moving into their third season, the difference this time is that the NBL is expanding rather than facing bankruptcy like its previous counterparts.

“The objective of the league is to grow the sport of basketball in Canada,” says league deputy commissioner, Susan Gordon. “We want to get to the point where Canadian basketball players don’t have to go overseas to play… They will have a good, strong, well paid place to play here at home and that will give Canada Basketball a much larger pool of players to draw from as well for the national team.”

Seeing success breeds it

Canada Basketball hall of famer and past UVic point guard, Eli Pasquale, attributes his journey to two Olympic Games (1984, 1988) and a pro career in Argentina, West Germany, and Switzerland to stumbling upon a team Canada game on television.

15-year-old Pasquale was parked on the couch of his Sudbury, Ontario home flipping between the three free-to-air channels. It was a Saturday afternoon like any other, but his finger paused on the remote as CBC hit the screen. Team Canada had an exhibition game against the USSR in front of an empty Maple Leaf Gardens arena, a warm-up for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Pasquale had never seen his national team on TV, but as a kid who loved playing the sport, left it on. The USSR were the defending Olympic champions, winning one of the most controversial finals in basketball history against the US in Munich. But as Pasquale sat in his family living room, eyes stuck on the screen, Canada upset the champs. Pasquale was awestruck by Canadian guard, Billy Robinson, who despite his tiny stature dominated international play.

“Seeing success will breed more of it,” says Pasquale. “Grade 10 I decided I wanted to play for Canada and get to the Olympics, but I got to see [the national team play]. I don’t know if I would have made that decision if I hadn’t seen them.”

Like Billy Robinson inspiring a teenage Eli Pasquale, local boy Steve Nash, grew up with stories of Pasquale’s play at the University of Victoria. Local heroes inspire Canada’s future hockey stars from the Western Hockey League (WHL) and National Hockey League (NHL) franchises, and in successful basketball nations, this is the strategy too.

“The strength of the majority of the top leagues [in Europe],” says Canada Basketball assistant general manager, Rowan Barrett, who played in Spain, Italy, and France, “has a lot to do with ensuring that they have a certain amount of domestic content within those teams.” Barrett says the leagues drive local growth of basketball by featuring local players. In using athletes from their community or country, the league inspires regional youth by presenting a viable opportunity to play there. Building these foundations of youth interest in local professional teams, then breeds talent for senior national teams. With young basketball players having hometown heroes to mimic, their hoop aspirations feel reachable.

But with Canadian NBL teams being made up of predominantly American players, some question how much the league benefits Canadian basketball. NBL teams had to meet a two Canadian player quota in the first season, and a three player quota in 2012-13, meaning that the NBL is becoming a home for some local talent. Compare this to the Oberwart Gunners, whose system allows only four foreign players, and there is an obvious lack of local content. Gordon says the NBL wants to increase the number of Canadian players on teams, but “maintain the quality and the entertainment product that we’re putting on the court.” With a team salary cap currently set at $150,000, and top paid players being past NBA and NBA Development-League Americans, there is no great financial incentive for talented Canadian’s to stop chasing contracts in Europe.

Despite this, Gordon says by targeting communities that have never seen pro ball before, which are the towns and cities the NBL franchises, her league could become the one that raises awareness of Canada’s national team.

Rebuilding the national team

The Canadian men’s national team has qualified for just one of the past six summer Olympics. With Eli Pasquale at the helm in 1984 and 1988, Canada placed fourth and sixth. Pre-Pasquale, the team placed fourth in 1976 with Billy Robinson. But two decades of poor results since ’88 have lead to a lack of media attention and interest from the Canadian public.

“I think it’s very important to be inspiring the athletes that you want to come represent the country,” says Barrett “and I think that our [National team’s] performances on court have not been ones that inspire the masses or inspire the athletes.”

Barrett, who played for Canada at the 1998 and 2002 World Championships, and at the 2000 Olympics, says he saw a gradual breakdown in the belief of success in Canadian basketball from fans and athletes. The absence of Canada’s elite athletes from international competition included NBA players Rick Fox (who played for Canada while in college in 1990 and as a young Boston Celtic in 1994, but not once he became an established Celtic, or a three-time NBA champion Laker), 12-year veteran and 2004 NBA All-Star Jamaal Magloire (having never played), and most notably, two-time NBA most valuable player, Steve Nash, retired from international play in 2004 at the peak of his NBA career. Many Canadians believe Nash could have helped Canada to the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, which were both narrowly missed in qualification rounds. Hours after the 89-91 Olympic qualifying loss to Panama in 2011, a Toronto newspaper’s online column published “Thanks a lot, Nash!” And then failure to qualify for the London Games saw a complete staff overhaul in Canada Basketball.

“Our goal, our mission, is the 2016 Olympic games and really bringing our program back to international prominence,” says Barrett who was appointed to the Canada Basketball board in 2012.

Barrett says they have now filled their positions with staff experienced in the pro leagues around the world. With Nash heading the takeover as general manager, he employed NBA coach and past national team captain, Jay Triano, to head coach the senior men’s team. Barrett says that if a national program hopes to use their eligible NBA players, it is important to understand what an NBA team wants to see in that player’s summer development. This involves focusing on individual player growth, rather than just team preparation, so that the athlete can elevate their play at all levels, not just within the structure of that national team.

“Having people like [Triano] on the staff helps us to break through some of the barriers that have existed with knowledge and definitely with a spirit of collaboration [with player’s professional teams] to build the athletes to be the best potential basketball players they can be.” Barrett says he believes it has to be a partnership with NCAA and NBA teams because the development of a player is all year round. An example he gave of the partnership with NCAA schools is ensuring college players brought into the national camp kept up with summer studies.

Domestic influence on Olympic success

Many countries that have been at the forefront of international basketball in recent years, such as Spain (Olympic silver 2008, 2012) and Argentina (Olympic gold 2004, bronze 2008), have had teams predominantly made up of domestic players, not just NBA stars. These examples of successful countries with moderate populations show the importance of national team development through having professional basketball accessible to the next generation of players.

An instance of international success from a lower scale population can be seen in Australia. With only 22 million people, compared to Canada’s 34, and a number of sports like cricket, rugby, Australian rules football, swimming, and soccer being more popular than basketball, Australia has still managed to place seventh at the previous two Olympics and fourth in 1996 and 2000.

The Australian club model is a smaller scale version of the model employed throughout Europe. In the professional National Basketball League of Australia and semi-professional Australian Basketball Association there is a limit of two import players per team. Keeping such a low import allowance has ensured that the countries top teams are made up of homegrown talent, demonstrating to local youth the opportunities available in their city or state. Australia uses a multi-tiered club based model, like Europe, rather than the school based system employed in North America. This means that junior club teams feed into senior teams, which then feed into the Australian Basketball Association and top players to the National Basketball League of Australia. Avoiding the school system means there are no age or graduation limitations affecting the game at any level, and there is always somewhere to play.

“Australia’s men’s and women’s leagues provide tremendous opportunities for their young kids to aspire to play,” says Shields, who coached with the Australian national team in 2004, “so that the Australian youth, they know that they’ve got that professional league that they can aspire to play in.”

Shields says while it’s not possible to shift Canadian basketball to a club based system like Australia or Europe, similar to hockey in Canada, there is something to be learned from the success of European leagues. The top basketball clubs in Spain for instance play under the banner of football clubs to instill a history and sense of pride as a sports organization rather than just a basketball team. Powerhouse football club, Real Madrid also has one of the top basketball teams in the Euroleague, as does FC Barcelona. In merging sporting teams into one named organization, fans from other sports under that banner will feel greater connection to the team. This overcomes one of the biggest obstacles Canadian basketball franchises have faced in building a following from scratch.

“I think that it could be done in association with the CFL [Canadian Football League],” says Shields, who has approached several CFL teams about having a football team in the winter and a basketball team in the summer and fall. The teams would follow the same structure as the CFL, being based in the same cities and using the same restrictions on import players, maintaining mostly Canadian content. This would mean bringing a basketball team into an already established sporting community, rather than starting anew. “I think that taking the best of the European model and the American model where it’s professional and there’s a chance there for it to go.”

“If you look at the European leagues,” says Barrett, “you see that they have clubs underneath them, you know many of their spectators at their games are coming directly out of their clubs. I think you need to look at that model in terms of having a span reaching right down into the youth ages.”

Barrett says that the influence of having top players accessible to future fans and stars is obvious. “When I start looking at the players coming out of our country that are in the NBA or on the way to the NBA, and I look at how many of them have come from BC or Toronto, I think I would be remiss to not mention the impact of the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors have had on the growth of our game.” Canadian NBA players like Tristan Thompson, a Toronto native, say their inspiration to play basketball came from watching the Raptors as a child.

Olympic ambitions

Unlike many elite Canadian players, Eli Pasquale’s top goal was to play for his country. Despite being dubbed the top guard in Canada coming out of high school, the Northern Ontario talent chose to play CIS (then CIAU) rather than NCAA in the States.

“I never really thought of [going to the NCAA],” says Pasquale. “My thought process was, I want to play in the Olympics, I want to play on the national team… My goal was to get to the Olympics, get to the national team and ultimately what was the best place that could do that for me.”

Pasquale was convinced by coach Shields to move across the country and attend the University of Victoria where he coached. Shields told Pasquale that his program, which had multiple six-foot-nine and ten players, had the size of international teams Pasquale would face at the Olympics. As a six-foot-one point guard, learning to maneuver around professional sized big men at every practice would assist his international skill set.

“These are the people that you need to prepare to play if you’re going to get to the national team or the Olympics,” Pasquale says Shields told him. Together they won five CIAU championships in Pasquale’s five years at the University. Pasquale’s jersey is now retired to the rafters and the school’s court named after Shields and his wife, who coached the women’s team.

Pasquale, who now coaches junior teams in Victoria, says that the lack of opportunities for CIS graduates hinders Canada’s success internationally. With players like Mackinnon ending their careers at 23, Pasquale says, “We lose a talented pool that we never have a chance to see if they can help out the country or get somewhere. Mackinnon’s a player. He can really play. How many guys that are 23, if they keep playing, when they’re 27 might be really good?”

As Mackinnon finishes a year abroad, he returns to complete a physical education degree at the university that saw him make the 2008-09 CIS All-Canadian Rookie team, be named a 2010-11 Canada West Second team All-Star, and the 2011-12 Basketball BC University Athlete of the Year, UVic Vikes Male Athlete of the Year, CIS Second team All-Canadian, and a Canada West first team All-Star. Now with no years of playing eligibility left, the closest competitive team to play for is the Calgary Crush, who remain in the unstable American Basketball Association.

“All the good [international] teams have a real pool to choose from,” says Pasquale. “Our pool is shrunken by our own doing.”
“Lachlan is a fourth year creative non-fiction and journalism student at the University of Victoria.” Follow Lachlan Ross at: