Long before he became the commissioner and CEO of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, Mike Morreale was laser-focused on playing professional football.
To the Hamilton native, that meant playing in the Canadian Football League.
As a teenager, Morreale received interest from universities in the United States and throughout Canada.
Morreale felt that to accomplish his goal of turning pro, he would be best served by choosing a school that offered playing time right out of the gate.
Ultimately, Morreale found the opportunity he was looking for in his own backyard. He made the decision to attend McMaster University and went on to have an extremely successful playing career as a slotback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts.
Morreale, now 50, sees many parallels between his experience and the up-and-coming Canadian athletes who aspire to play professional basketball.
With the likelihood of playing in the NBA being far-fetched, he sees both Canadian universities, which use FIBA rules, and the CEBL – in its own right a professional FIBA league – as a gateway for players to find jobs in top FIBA leagues around the world.
“If you want to be a professional basketball player, everybody should understand that the ability to play in the NBA is a very limiting one, but it doesn't mean you can't carve out a tremendous career playing overseas, FIBA basketball,” said Morreale.
“To do that, you need to learn the FIBA game. If you go to the NCAA, you're not going to learn this game and maybe you're not going to play until your second, third or fourth year. To me, playing was way more important than going to a (strictly) winning institution.”
The CEBL, which requires each team to fill the majority of their roster (six of 10 spots) with Canadian players, allocates most of its marketing dollars to growing brand awareness among fans in Canada, including a web-based subscription service called CEBL+ that allows interested viewers to watch live games from anywhere in the world.
However, the decision to play under FIBA rules is garnering more attention overseas than at home.
“The respect factor of the style of game we play and the athleticism of how we play, we're always going to be compared to the NBA here, and we don't want to be compared to the NBA. We're not the NBA,” said Morreale. “We want to be compared to the top FIBA leagues in the world, including the NBL Australia, the Chinese Basketball Association and obviously the EuroLeague. That's our focus and I think a lot of people here are so focused on the NBA and everything around the NBA, they don't realize the high-level basketball that's played in FIBA in general, let alone the CEBL.”
To this point, the CEBL has pushed forward with its vision of being a world-class FIBA league despite the challenges presented by the global pandemic.
“In many respects, our strategy got thrown out the window with COVID, but at the same time, it also helped us in some weird shape,” said Morreale. “But the fact of the matter is, we still need to get people in our buildings. We still need to get people engaged in our players and our teams and buying merch and everything that comes with operating a game. We're always going to be continuing to work. Now we're in three new markets. Now we're coast to coast and there are more teams on the horizon. The league is not done being built.”
Entering its fourth season with a schedule that runs from May to August, the CEBL will debut three new franchises in St. John’s, Montreal, and Scarborough, Ont., and has grown from six to 10 teams since its inception in 2019.
The CEBL, which also has teams in Langley, B.C., Saskatoon, Sask., Edmonton, Ottawa, Hamilton, Guelph, Ont., and St. Catharines, Ont., made headlines on several fronts during the most recent off-season.
The back-to-back champion Edmonton Stingers represented Canada at the Basketball Champions League Americas. Although the Stingers did not advance to the Final 8 of the tournament, they posted a pair of wins in Calgary over clubs from Nicaragua and Puerto Rico to finish 3-3 in the final window of group play.
The CEBL also saw former Stingers guard and three-time MVP Xavier Moon sign a two-way deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. Xavier Sneed, who suited up for the Niagara River Lions, and Canadian Lindell Wigginton, who played for the Hamilton Honey Badgers, also inked two-way deals with the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively.
Morreale includes those accomplishments when reflecting on how far the CEBL has come in such a short time and in the context of bigger and bolder ambitions for the future.
“I really believe there's a lot more opportunities to continue to grow and to get better,” said Morreale. “I guess to put it into perspective, when we were looking at this six years ago, I anticipated one day in the future that we may graduate a player to the NBA, or we'll probably be at 12 teams in our heyday.
“Now I look back and say, wow, I guess maybe we underestimated ourselves or we didn't realize that we could do what we're doing now. The truth is, we know who we are and because we know who we are, I think it's been easy to stick to that game plan. We recognize we're not the NBA, but we also recognize we're the best basketball played outside of the NBA in this country.”
Calgary, Winnipeg, and Quebec City are among the major population centres that have been mentioned as possible locations for future expansion franchises.
Morreale acknowledges more teams are on the way, but that the league will wait until the time is right.
“We'll bring on the teams as they're ready or we're ready. We don't have to be cookie cutter and say, oh, we need an even amount because then we need to have this schedule,” he said.
“We've adjusted through just about everything. We'll continue to make decisions that are best at a specific point in time. So, if it means adding one team next year or no teams next year or three the year after, we'll do what's best at that time. And if we have to jump through hoops to figure out a schedule because it's lopsided or not even, it's odd. We'll just make it work. We've done it before, and we'll do it again.”