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The National Basketball League and this weekend’s inaugural All-Star Game festivities are a slam dunk for Halifax.

click to enlarge SCOTT BLACKBURN

The Rainmen are behind by two points, with two minutes and 19 seconds left on the clock.

For the first time in the game, coach Pep Canals trades his stern look for a teeth-baring smile. He climbs onto the scorer's table by the sidelines, claps his hands and urges the Halifax fans to cheer. "Come on!" he screams, his energy more contagious in the Metro Centre than the common cold.

A young fan, loyal to the men dressed in white and sky blue, stands up and tries her best to distract the visiting rivals. "You smell like sewer you stinkin' sewer rats!" she howls with the force of a seasoned basketball buff, louder than the cowbell ringing close by. In a sea of more than 3,500 Rainmen fans, the little blonde firecracker---10 years old, tops---manages to stand out.

At 27 seconds left, Halifax takes the lead.

The crowd goes crazy, but team president Andre Levingston isn't celebrating yet. Standing by the bleachers he's focused: arms crossed, eyes glued to the court.

Ten seconds.

Middle-aged boys start to take off their shirts and jiggle with joy. People jump out of their seats and a clapping thunder fills the air. This is it, tonight's our night.

Home team victory!

Pandemonium erupts. Even Levingston's cold-stone stare is broken by a smooth nod, smile and a thumbs-up to the players. He joins the team, exchanges high-fives and gives out a few pats on the back. Then it's off to talk to the press---this president is always on the job.

Game on

The Halifax Rainmen franchise was founded in the summer of 2006 by Levingston, an American entrepreneur. The team began playing in the semi-pro American Basketball Association during the 2007-08 season. The ABA was reckless and unorganized, and as the Rainmen's debut season began, 20 teams left within the first five weeks, opting to play with other leagues instead.

The Rainmen were the best team in terms of attendance, but they too left the ABA, only one win and two weeks before the playoffs.

In June 2009, they went on to play with the Premier Basketball League, which was formed by former ABA teams the Rochester Razorsharks and the Maryland Nighthawks, citing extreme dissatisfaction with the way ABA CEO Joe Newan ran his league. The initial roster of the PBL included eight teams who had been with the ABA, including the Manchester Millrats and Quebec Kebs.

The Rainmen got off to a strong start their first season and qualified for the semi-finals the two following years. Critics questioned whether basketball could thrive in a hockey-consumed city like Halifax. But those doubts were shattered as the team became one of the top franchises in attendance, averaging crowds of nearly 3,000 spectators. Halifax was officially a basketball hub.

After three seasons, the Rainmen announced they were leaving the PBL, just one hour after the 2011 playoffs. Like other teams in the league that year, the Rainmen called into question the PBL's impartiality and had numerous complaints about officiating. The team has now embarked on a new venture, the National Basketball League of Canada, with Andre Levingston being both president of the Rainmen and interm president and CEO of the league.

The NBL was founded last May by three former PBL teams: the Rainmen, the Saint John Mill Rats and the Quebec Kebs. Those three core contenders attracted four more teams from Eastern Canada: the London Lightning, Moncton Miracles, Oshawa Power and Summerside Storm.

In 1993, a Canada-only professional basketball league---also named the NBL---got off the ground, only to fold in its second season. That NBL didn't succeed, but Levingston is convinced this one will. "Our mission is definitely to grow together and spread basketball across the country," he says, happy to challenge the doubters who say a Canuck league won't work. "We believe in it."

The Rainmen had a successful debut season in the NBL, going to the finals and pushing the best-of-five-game championship series to the fifth game before losing to the London Lightning last weekend. Although they didn't win this first year, Levingston believes his guys and their new league have what it takes to make it in seasons to come.

"As long as we stay focused and on time, on task and on a mission, professional basketball will grow in this country and Canada will be a destination for some of the best basketball players in the world."

If you didn't have a chance to catch the Rainmen in action this season, don't fret. The Metro Centre will be packed with players during the NBL's first All-Star Weekend, with events like youth basketball clinics and the dunk contest on Saturday March 31, and the All-Star game Sunday April 1.

It's hard to say for certain whether we have the most passionate fans in the league, but one thing is for sure, we fill the most seats. The Rainmen's attendance ranked highest during the NBL's first season---a clue Halifax fans might be the greatest around.

Not only do we bring out the biggest crowd, the Rainmen venue is also the largest among the league, making it an obvious choice for the All-Star Weekend.

"It means a lot for me to have the game the first year," says Levingston. "I wanted our fans to be a part of history."

The captain

Joey Haywood bobs his head to bumping beats playing over the stadium speakers. With a huge grin, he wiggles while he dribbles, meshing basketball with a subtle shoulder dance. Standing 6'1'', Haywood joined the Rainmen as a point guard in 2011, and quickly proved to be one of the best players in the country. In January he was voted by fans as a captain for the All-Star game (London's Eddie Smith is the opposing All-Star team's captain).

Until coming to the Rainmen, Haywood spent three years building up his reputation and winning over Halifax fans, playing CIS basketball for the Saint Mary's Huskies. But before SMU, his court was made of hard, uneven asphalt instead of shiny, maple wood.

As Joey "King Handles" he made a name for himself on the international street-ball circuit, travelling across the US and Japan for five years after high school with well-known street crews NOCTIC, AND1 and YPA. The internet is full of videos showcasing King Handles' fast, flashy flair.

Street ball is about fancy footwork and loud moves, with an air of arrogance and utter disregard for the rules and fundamentals. In street ball it's more than just being a team player---you're an entertainer. And Haywood is no stranger to the entertainment business, having dabbled in Hollywood with small roles in four different flicks, including the 1997 kids' film Air Bud when he was 13.

Haywood was born in Vancouver in 1984 and raised in Burnaby, BC. His parents emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago during the 1970s, and worked hard to give their family a comfortable life in their adopted home.

"They came here but they didn't really have a job or anything else," says Haywood. "My dad worked really hard and got a job at the port and my mom took care of old people and stuff, but it was pretty tough for them."

The NBL is a minor professional basketball league, and unlike the National Basketball Association, its players aren't making millions. With a team salary cap of $150,000, no one's swimming in a pool full of money playing in the NBL. Top players are expected to make around $4,000 a month, adding up to $48,000 a year before taxes. But Haywood and most of the players aren't trying to get rich, they're just doing what they know. What they love.

It's been almost a decade since Haywood began playing basketball as a profession, and 10 years from now he hopes to still be playing ball, using the game to reach out to kids. "I'd love to have my own basketball camp. I can see myself in Italy, Spain or somewhere in Europe. I'd like to travel."

The coach

Pep is defined as energy and high spirit. Synonyms include effervescence, vivacity, vigour, gusto!

It's also the nickname of the Rainmen's new coach, Josep Clarós Canals. And he lives up to the definition, not being afraid to jump on tables and chairs to get the crowd rooting for his team. "My objective is to win and I'll do anything to win," he says. "The more our fans push us, the harder we work."

When answering in English, his responses are straightforward and to the point. But after I start to speak in Spanish, his native tongue begins to delve into details, his tone a lot chipper than before.

Canals started his coaching career in 1993, as assistant coach at Northeast Missouri State University. Since then has worked in 11 countries, including Holland, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and his home country of Spain.

Livingston hired Canals for the inaugural NBL season after receiving his resume and talking over the phone. "Every time I spoke to him I just got more impressed," Levingston says. "The one thing that always stuck with me was his passion---his passion matched mine."

Numerous coaches wanted the chance to join the Halifax team, but none stuck out like Canals. "When he called me he had researched every player that had ever played for the Rainmen," says Levingston. "He knew every player by full average, turnover, assist, everything. And this was before I had even offered him the job."

Growing up with basketball from the age of four, Canals dreamed of playing professionally, but as a teenager he realized he could make more of an impact off the court, shooting orders instead hoops. "From an early age I would always ponder on why does a coach do this, or why doesn't he do that," he says. "I started to notice that as a coach I could contribute a lot to the game and for a longer time than I could as a player."

Canals is still the head coach of the national basketball team of Mexico. He's set to be in Halifax until April, but whether he'll be returning to the Rainmen next season is still at question. All he knows is he'd be glad to come back.

The CEO

Andre Levingston moved to Michigan when he was three years old and started shooting hoops by age five. He grew up in one of the worst parts of Detroit for drug-fuelled violence and crime, although a strict household kept him away from serious mischief. Levingston spent his time at the YMCA, where he met local hoops hero Ronnie Vaughn. Vaughn gave the fresh-faced, 11-year-old Levingston words of wisdom he still follows.

"He told me if you're really serious about getting better and being a professional basketball player, you need to realize that professional athletes shouldn't drink and shouldn't smoke," says Levingston, "and they should be in great shape all the time."

Levingston played college ball in California for Chico State and obtained a degree in child psychology. He didn't make it to the NBA, but still thanks Vaughn's wisdom for his success: "It allowed me to go to school for free. It's allowed me to meet some amazing people from around the world and be involved with basketball today."

If not for ball, Levingston's life could have taken a wrong turn. "A lot of friends from my neighbourhood didn't make it off the block," he says. "They're either dead or in jail, or just living a really bad life."

He remembers lean times growing up, when there wasn't much money for food or to pay for heat in the winter. "You could definitely justify why you maybe choose to go down the wrong streak. When you don't give kids opportunities and they have to find ways to survive for one reason or the other, sometimes they make the wrong choices."

Keen to give back to children, Levingston returned to Detroit and taught for six years at an inner-city elementary school while coaching hoops at the high school level. Sadly, the hard work was't enough to pay the bills. Sick of being a tired, broke school teacher, Levingston searched for a new way to make a mark while still making a living.

"It was time for me to try and create something for myself. I was tired of working for other people," he says.

He become owner of a limousine company, part-owner of a restaurant and founder, with NBA Player Morris Peterson, of a custom-car business. Then one day his lawyer called about an opportunity to bring professional basketball to the Mississauga area.

"I almost jumped through the roof," Levingston says. "Here was the opportunity for me to get back involved with basketball."

Things didn't work out in Mississauga, but after visiting Toronto, Levingston was determined to bring a basketball franchise north of the border even if he had to do it on his own. "I fell in love with Canada. I was blown away. The first time I crossed to Canada I said, 'I want to live here.'"

From dangerous Detroit to wholesome Halifax, the decision to move to the HRM was not based on the game alone. After learning about the city's disappointing history with the black community, Levingston believed that bringing pro basketball to the city could help make a change through sports. "When I got to Halifax the first place I wanted to go was North Preston," he says.

Since the Rainmen's founding in 2006, the team has contributed with a plethora of philanthropy. Levingston and his players speak at schools, donate proceeds to a number of organizations---recently donating to NoBull, a cause against cyberbulling---and have helped with fundraising to provide for those less fortunate, both in Halifax and abroad.

"We just try to do what we can, where we can," Levingston says. "We know we can't change everything overnight." Helping the community is so important to being one of the Rainmen, that if you lack the generosity you might not make the team. "We've passed on some really good basketball players because we didn't feel they'd make the impact in the community that we need."

After six years, the Rainmen are as much a city staple as lobster and donairs. The league's position, however, is less sure. There hasn't been a definite yes or no about a 2012-13 NBL season yet, although teams like the Moncton Miracles and Summerside Storm have already begun reminding fans to renew their season tickets. And the league is looking into expanding, considering adding a couple of teams from Ontario and a franchise in Sydney. Levingston knows it won't be easy, but demise is not a definition he's familiar with.

"We're looking for individuals with guts to say 'I know what this is, I know this is going to be hard work but I am willing to be involved in it and stick it out and commit financially to this and help build this great game that we love across the country,'" he says. "It takes time to build what we're doing and we understand that. We'll have this conversation five years from now and we still won't be where we want to be, but we're at a great starting point."

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