OTTAWA — Mike Morreale says people thought he was crazy when he became commissioner and chief executive officer of the fledgling Canadian Elite Basketball League four years ago.
Now he can't imagine Canada's basketball landscape without it.
"I was saying to one of my staff last night, 'Can you imagine if the CEBL stopped existing?' The void that would be created," said Morreale, a former longtime CFL receiver.
Heading into the league's championship weekend, which tips off Friday in Ottawa, Morreale reflected on the league's growth.
"With what has happened in those four years, what we've been able to create, we employ approximately 500 people . . . in the staff, the coaches, the players and everybody," he said.
"That's a big part of Canadian basketball in general, those are jobs that people aspire to, or they get to learn from, and as much as we say we play basketball, it's really all the other things that we're trying to align with Canada basketball and U Sports and NBA Canada and the (Toronto) Raptors and really build the bigger picture of basketball."
Morreale said he hosted breakfast Wednesday morning with coaches and general managers from across the league — including retired players Joel Anthony and Brady Heslip, who are GMs in Montreal and Scarborough, respectively. It was a great example of the league's connection to Canadian basketball alumni.
"Just being able to be a fly on the wall listening to their experiences and what they liked, and recommendations they may have, or just to share stories," he said. "It's interesting to see the dynamic off the court, and it's all about building the culture, right?"
This past season saw the addition of three new teams in the Montreal Alliance, the Scarborough Shooting Stars and the Newfoundland Growlers — bringing its total to 10.
He said the ability to successfully expand by three teams in what was a seven-team league "is a big leap." That's why it's his highlight of the season.
"You kind of roll the dice a little bit, because it's a leap of faith, but it's been incredible, the flavour that's been added from having 10 teams coast to coast, the ability for these guys to travel across the country, for fans to experience different teams coming in, and the talent level is certainly incredible.
"So, it really felt like a different level this year, it felt like OK, this league belongs, we're coast to coast, we've got 10 teams, we've got our foothold. Now, what we want to do and where we want to go?"
Morreale hinted there could be more expansion news in coming weeks.
Morreale said Montreal's average attendance, at about 90 per cent capacity, was another season highlight. And the fact Scarborough made the final four in its inaugural season is a success story.
"It speaks to their approach to the game, and to operating a team, because they're our first external (ownership) group," Morreale said. "So you kind of you don't know, you build it one way, and you kind of pass the torch and you hope that the group takes it the rest of the way and does great things. And they've done that, and then some."
The Shooting Stars are owned by Niko Carino, one of the founding members of Drake's OVO brand, and Sam Ibrahim.
Led by former Raptors guard Jalen Harris, Scarborough advanced to championship weekend with a 108-96 play-in win over Saskatchewan. The Shooting Stars (12-8) will take on the Niagara River Lions (13-7) in the semifinals. Friday's other semi of the all-Ontario final four has the Hamilton Honey Badgers, who boasted the best regular-season record at 14-6, facing the Ottawa BlackJacks (8-12).
"It's icing on the cake for (the Shooting Stars) to also be here from a basketball perspective, it's a great way to enter the league: play well, and then get these guys to actually experience what championships weekend is all about," Morreale said. "Once you experience it, you want to get back every year."
Another CEBL highlight was fielding a team in the FIBA Basketball Champions League of Americas. By virtue of winning last year's CEBL title, the Edmonton Stingers played in the Champions League, but didn't advance past the first round. The winner of this weekend's final will represent Canadian in 2022-23 Champions League action.
This past season's competition featured 12 teams from seven countries.
TD Place will host championship weekend, with the final slated for Sunday. Morreale expects a decent crowd since the BlackJacks averaged about 2,000 fans in the regular season and saw a season-high of over 4,000.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press