Basketball nomads chase dreams in Canada’s startup pro league

The NBL is a universe away from the elite players gathering in Toronto this weekend for the NBA All-Star game

HALIFAX — Since he turned pro eight years ago, Arizona-native Gabe Freeman has gotten around: He has played in Mexico, the Philippines, and in Rochester, N.Y.

Now, the slashing, athletic forward plays for the Saint John Mill Rats of the startup National Basketball League of Canada, where eight teams in two divisions based in southern Ontario and the Maritimes struggle for recognition and ultimately survival.

“This is a grind, man,” the 2011 league MVP said following a recent game against the Halifax Hurricanes.

Freeman is typical of the many players sweating it out several rungs below basketball’s top tier — good enough to play professionally, but in medium-to-small centres like Charlottetown, Saint John, N.B., and Orangeville, Ont.

It’s a universe away from the elite players gathering in Toronto this weekend for the NBA All-Star game, where even the losers earned US$25,000 last year for the single game, according to the NBA collective agreement.

Related from Raptors GM Masai Ujiri on how basketball is becoming Canada’s game

NBA teams have a salary cap of US$70 million this season.

In the NBL, teams have a salary cap of $150,000 per 12-man squad.

In places like London, Ont., basketball nomads like Freeman, 30, test their mettle in an effort to keep their hoop dreams alive.

“Any time you can play basketball and you are getting paid for it, you have not too much to complain about,” said Halifax Hurricanes guard Cliff Clinkscales. The 31-year-old from Queens, N.Y., is playing in his third season in Canada after previous stops in the NBA Development League.

Freeman is doing his second stint in the NBL after previously playing for the London Lightning.

The action on this night featured a silky smooth performance by Freeman, who at times seemed to glide through the Hurricanes defence at will.

By game’s end his 22 points was second only to the 26 scored by teammate Johnny Mayhane, whose hot shooting helped the New Brunswick club easily outdistance their division rivals.

It would be clear to any observer that these guys can play, yet the league is home to players, mostly Americans, who are destined to travel basketball’s global food chain.

Many have played in leagues around the world, from southeast Asia and Europe to South America and Mexico, and for most the journey has been as distant from multi-million-dollar paydays and travel by chartered jets as you can get.

“You’ve really got to love this game to do what we do,” said Freeman. “We don’t make the best money but we are all trying to get somewhere and sometimes you have to sacrifice the financial part to get to where you want to go to make the money.”

For Freeman at least, getting to where he wants to go means there’s still an NBA dream, however fleeting.

“I think that’s what we all play this game for, whether it’s for a three-day contract, a 10-day contract or whether it’s just to play one game,” he said. “We all do this to go to the next level I would think — that’s the reason why I play.”

For now it means playing in the CBL, mostly before sparse crowds and for teams trying to gain a financial footing.

An adult ticket for the Halifax-Saint John game cost $19; perhaps a thousand people watched at the Scotiabank Centre, an arena that holds 10 times that.

Ian McCarthy, president and general manager of the Mill Rats, helped start the NBL with business partner Andre Levingston in 2011. McCarthy said it had been a “tonne of work” getting the league into its fifth season.

“I think if you look at the history of any league in its startup years you see teams come and go, you see names changed, relocation — it’s sort of a survival-of-the-fittest mode. It does need to be viable but there are strong ownerships in this league that are willing to invest until it gets to that point.”

The league suits players such as Mayhane just fine. The self-described “basketball lifer” from Mobile, Ala., is also into his second stay in the NBL.

“I’m going to try to stay in the game,” said the personable 29-year-old. “I would like to try to do a little coaching and go from there. I have to be around the game.”

Mayhane played a year in Moncton, N.B., before returning to the CBL with Saint John after a brief two-and-a-half month stay in Mexico. He returned after what he tellingly described as a “little money experience ” with the Toluca club.

The CBL plays a 40-game season that runs from late December until the end of April.

Inter-divisional play is a rarity in a league where bus is the main mode of transportation, and where the home team shares its trainer with visitors to keep costs down.

“We’re not spoiled,” said Mayhane. “We’re a long ways from spoiled but it’s a way to feed our family and we’ve just got to do what we’ve got to do.”

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