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A league apart 

The ABA brings pro basketball back to Halifax next year, but their All-Star Game is in town right now. Sean Flinn reports on the renegade league with the red, white and blue balls.

Professional sports often spawn breakaway leagues intent on going it alone and serving underserved markets. Hockey had the World Hockey Association, which ran from 1972 to ’79. As for football, some would place the CFL in this category. While that league limps along, other failed fraternities—the USFL, XFL and a flurry of indoor iterations—have risen and fallen over the last 20 years.

Basketball has also birthed several leagues outside the NBA, including the Continental Basketball League, gone since 1992, and the all-Canadian National Basketball League, which died in 1994—the now-defunct Halifax Windjammers was one team to disappear with the fall of the NBL.

Then there’s the ABA. The original American Basketball Association goes back 40 years. After its final season in 1975-76, it folded due to financial losses and the lack of a TV deal. Four current NBA teams, including the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, got their start in the original ABA. In 1999, a group of investors revived the league and founded a new ABA.

Enter the Halifax Rainmen, this city’s chance to get in on the league’s current growth spurt. The team’s first season comes next year, but it’s already hosting this year’s all-star game and putting roots down in the community.

“A lot of these teams play in small markets,” says Rainmen owner Andre Levingston, a Detroit native who lives in Toronto, from his hotel room in Halifax. “It’s really important for these teams to go out to the community and to give back. prides itself on being a grassroots league.”

Before the ABA’s Eastern and Western All-Stars tip off this Sunday at the Metro Centre (preceded by a host of events, including a slam dunk competition, a fanfest, university games and a show by chart-punks Hedley), players will head to high schools and community clubs to meet potential fans and players.

Levingston and his management team, including former SMU Huskies star Jadranka Crnogorac and Dal Tiger Paul Riley (both of whom live in Toronto and convinced Levingston to bring a team to Halifax), lobbied to get the all-star weekend in Halifax this year.

“What better way to launch your team?” Levingston asks. “It gives the city the opportunity to see the level of this league. A lot of people aren’t really familiar with the league, but you’ll see some of the best players from around the world”—among them, a six-foot-nine point guard from Beijing touted as the “next Magic Johnson,” says Levingston, quoting league scuttlebutt.

Levingston emphasizes that player quality is key to the ABA formula—these are not has-beens, he says, hobbling and huffing up and down the court. “A lot of these kids that are performing this weekend …are going to be going in the NBA draft this year,” he says.

“What people don’t realize is only 320 players in the NBA. There’s a lot more talent than that in the world,” Levingston points out with a laugh. “The ABA is definitely a platform for these kids. It’s not an arena for these kids to come and get rich, but they can come and make some pay. They can develop and get exposure and have the potential to go up to the NBA.”

Levingston sees an opportunity in Halifax. In cities such as Toronto or Chicago, where multiple teams play and vie for fans, “that entertainment dollar is spread out. It’s very thin. That’s the thing about Halifax: they don’t have all those entities,” he says.

A publicly traded company, the ABA now boasts almost 50 teams. While some teams are located in larger markets, such as the Montreal Royal (formerly the Matrix), they are most often based in small, underserved areas, such as Quebec City’s Kebekwa or the teams in Monterrey and Tijuana in northern Mexico, Mexicali on the Baja peninsula, Toledo, Cape Cod and Beijing (based in Los Angeles).

Team owners and league executives are meeting in Halifax this weekend to discuss how to steward the growth in franchises and other “management issues,” says Levingston.

While Levingston and company seek local owners to invest in the team, league expansion next season could add teams in Mississauga, Ontario, and up to 18 other American markets.

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Vol 24, No 52
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