By Sam Laskaris
A Mik’maq First Nation is part of the ownership group that has been announced for one of Canada’s newest professional basketball franchises.
The Membertou First Nation, which has about 1,400 members, is located a mere three kilometres from Sydney in Nova Scotia.
The city will be the home of the Cape Breton Highlanders, an expansion squad that is gearing up for the 2016-17 season in the National Basketball League of Canada, or NBL Canada as it is more commonly known.
The league, which was founded in 2011, will feature 10 clubs during the upcoming season, which begins in December.
Team president Tyrone Levingston moved from his home in Detroit to Cape Breton Island last year to get the franchise off the ground. He sought out numerous local investors to help launch the squad. Levingston said a business leader in the community put him in touch with Membertou First Nation officials. A deal was eventually struck to have the First Nation join the ownership group.
“They saw it as an opportunity to extend their reach,” Levingston said. “And for us it was a chance to extend our reach. It was a great addition to our ownership group.”
Levingston added the club is planning to have a great relationship with the First Nation.
“We’re going to do a ton of work with them,” said Levingston, a former defensive back who played football at Delaware State University. “We’re looking at possibly hosting some Aboriginal camps and clinics for the people out there.”
Levingston said the franchise currently has 17 shareholders. Besides the Membertou First Nation, eight other individuals were announced as part of the ownership group in late August.
The other owners prefer to remain anonymous.
Levingston said he’ll soon be approaching other First Nations to see if they also want to be included in the ownership group.
Like all other NBL Canada clubs, the Highlanders will be required to carry a minimum of four Canadian players on their roster. Levingston said the possibility exists that the squad might even have an Aboriginal player at some point. “You never know,” he said. “We hear there’s a lot of (Aboriginal) talent out there. We’re going to have an open tryout for anyone who thinks they have the skills to play pro basketball.” Though there are no concrete plans at the moment, Levingston said it makes sense to honour the diversity Cape Breton Island has to offer at various Highlanders’ contests.
“Cape Breton Island is such a melting pot,” he said. “There’s a lot of different groups here. So we will definitely consider having an Aboriginal night and a Scottish night and an Irish night. And the Asian population is growing in Cape Breton Island so we could have an Asian Night as well.” NBL Canada is split up into a pair of divisions. The Highlanders are in the Atlantic Division along with the Halifax Hurricanes, Moncton Miracles, Saint John Mill Rats and the Island Storm, based in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Meanwhile, there’s also a five-squad Central Division featuring clubs from Ontario. They are the Kitchener-Waterloo Titans, London Lightning, Niagara River Lions, Orangeville A’s and Windsor Express.
The Highlanders will play their home contests at a facility called Centre 200. This venue is also the home of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, who participate in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Centre 200 has a capacity of about 5,600 for basketball matches.
Levingston is hoping his squad can attract some decent support in its first season.
“We budgeted for 1,500 fans,” said Levingston, whose father Andre was one of the founders of NBL Canada and the owner of the Halifax franchise, previously called the Rainmen.
“I’d obviously love to pack the house every night. At 1,500 we’re doing OK. At 2,000 we’re happy. Anything more than that we’re dancing.”
To test the basketball interest in Sydney, an exhibition contest was held there last December. That match, which featured Halifax against the Island Storm, attracted about 2,100 fans.
“That was the whole idea behind that game – to see if basketball could work in a small market like Sydney,” Levingston said.
The Screaming Eagles averaged more than 2,500 fans per home game this past season.
“We don’t want to compete with the Screaming Eagles,” Levingston said. “We want to work with them. We want to become a staple in the community like they are.”
The schedule for the upcoming NBL Canada regular season has yet to be released. Though they do not know their opening night opponent yet, the Highlanders will begin their season on Dec. 26.