How Men’s Canadian Basketball Can Continue to Claim its Summers

Canadian Basketball has made it. Let's start acting like it, even if the SMNT still has to prove its global relevance.

While I lay sick in bed, missing the Globl Jam festivities, Associate Executive Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, Nate Pomeday, told me over the phone, “[Basketball is] more than an emerging sport in Canada, it has emerged.” 

It sounds like a pretty obvious statement, but Pomeday is second-in-command for THE professional development and advocacy arm for high school, college, international, travel and club team coaches. It has over 5,000 members, and Coach Calipari, as well as other renowned NCAA coaches, sit on the board. NABC was imprinted across Calipari’s United States polo sleeve at Globl Jam.

What Pomeday, as well as Calipari, said so glowingly about Canadian basketball differs significantly from our own narrative of “the rise of Canadian basketball.” It’s as if Canadian basketball is eternally emerging without a clearly-defined summit. A product’s life cycle can only be in growth mode for so long, a business only in bootstrap mode for so long.

It’s been over ten years since he-who-shall-not-have-more-dirt-kicked-on-his-name was drafted first overall, and over nine since Andrew Wiggins accomplished the same. 2019 was a significant milestone, but two Canadians – Wiggins and Jamal Murray – have brought the Larry O’Brien back up north for two consecutive seasons. Yes, Canada still has to prove itself on the international stage, but with a star-studded training camp roster, and two days of training camp under its belt, there’s much to be cautiously optimistic for. Besides, the international game is the only area that still needs proving for men’s Canada Basketball.

While the Raptors have given Toronto much of its identity, two Canadian basketball pillars – Globl Jam and CEBL – have solidified this nation as a summer basketball destination. 

Global Jam and CEBL are giving players, coaches, and front offices valuable reps in the off-season. Kentucky’s young guns got reps in against older players before their season, and last year, Keyonte George got a taste of elite basketball before Baylor and the NBA. NABC secured an agreement with ESPN+ to cover last year’s games, and this year, NABC secured an agreement with CBS Sports Network to broadcast all Kentucky games, as well as two women’s Team USA / Louisville games.

Coach Cal got to spend Kentucky’s off-day practicing in Aubrey’s gym, and lounging in his Bridle Path pool.  Canadian coach Gordon Herbert and Justin Serreese got a chance to test their Xs and Os before coaching on bigger stages (Herbert will coach Germany’s SMNT in Okinawa).  

CEBL playoffs start today, and the league is in Year 5. The Scarborough Shooting Stars, co-owned by Coach Cal’s favourite rapper’s right-hand man, made J. Cole’s hoop dreams come true, and is giving former high school sensation Kyree Walker a chance to prove himself. Coach Chris Exilus has spoken highly of his development despite still being only 22 years old. Outside Ontario, Winnipeg has proven its massive appetite for pro ball, filling Canada Life Centre with over 8,200 fans, breaking its own inaugural home-opener attendance record. Other CEBL cities have proven a huge appetite for summer hoops.  

For Americans like Teddy Allen, who’s played a pivotal role in Winnipeg’s on-court success, and others like Ahmed Hill and Cat Barber – both who have put their stamp on the CEBL by scoring 1,000 total career points – there’s no other place they’d go to develop professionally during the summer. Given the length of a CEBL season, players who stay and get to know and grow with their teammates have a better chance to develop in comparison to Summer League’s brevity (one CEBL GM has even referred to Summer League as a waste of time). And given the G League players thriving in the CEBL (thanks for blazing the trail, Xavier Moon), the difference in quality is not as clear as one might think.   

Two Canadian Globl Jam standouts represent the impact of these two professional infrastructures; Thomas Kennedy and Aiden Warnholtz both stayed and developed at home. The former recently signed a two-year deal in Germany’s top league, Bundesliga, after playing for the Hamilton Honey Badgers and Vancouver Bandits as a U SPORTS player, and Scarborough Shooting Stars as a pro. Warnholtz has developed on the Niagara River Lions – first as a U SPORTS player then as a pro – and will also head to Germany to play in their Pro A division.

So all this to say, we should move beyond the self-limiting “rise of Canadian basketball” narrative. A small shift would be to simply expect that elite basketball wants to be here in the same way Vegas pulls the basketball world in for Summer League. There’s considerable nuance – because looking at success and re-confirming our growth is much different from the expectation that we’re already a basketball hub. 

And I’d be remiss without mentioning the pro-am’s role (and even the Jack Donohue Classic) in making Canada a summer hoops destination. Inspired by LA’s Drew League and New York’s Dyckman, Toronto’s Crown League and Drake’s OVO Bounce united the hoops community. Globl Jam and CEBL further professionalized, nationalized, and internationalized it.

An American organizer revived and re-branded Crown League as the Toronto Pro-Am this year – and spectators got to see Dillon Brooks’ competitive fire (and other Canadian NBA players) up close inside Kerr Hall, and the showcase will continue into Caribana Weekend. Yesterday, Vancouver-based Ball Don’t Stop took advantage of this weekend too by headlining Shaedon Sharpe at Scarborough’s Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.

To paraphrase our Vice-Chairman, we need to continue to believe in this country. One of the NBA’s best guards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, sat casually on the Globl Jam sidelines, just enjoying life. In CEBL arenas, NBA players are often spotted. These sightings are now the norm. Canada found a gap in the basketball market, and created a solution by providing an international tournament for those between the U-19 and senior level, and a league for pros, especially Canadians, to keep themselves sharp in the summer. 

When we think of basketball development in the summer heat, we shouldn’t put Rico Hines’ runs or Vegas on a pedestal. Canada as a whole – all those cities slightly north of the 49th parallel – should come to mind. And we shouldn’t act surprised when the world recognizes it because it has already. 

It’s only when we look in the mirror that Canada’s basketball greatness can be missed.