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​How Winnipeg has embraced their first professional basketball team in 20 years

Teddy Allen Teddy Allen - Kyle Thomas/Winnipeg Sea Bears

Winnipeg seems an unlikely basketball city. Historically, it doesn’t have the same associations to highest tiers of the game as, say, Toronto or Vancouver, which have had NBA teams of their own as well as flourishing local scenes. Only one player from Winnipeg, or the entire province of Manitoba at large, has ever reached the NBA, when Todd MacCulloch split four seasons with the New Jersey Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers in the early aughts.

But when the CEBL’s Winnipeg Sea Bears came through the tunnel for their first ever game in franchise history in May, they did so to a sold-out crowd — and a league attendance record — of 7,328 fans at the Canada Life Centre. Full rows of stands. Energy enough to feel it in your face.

“The fans were all cheering and going crazy,” says Sea Bears player and Winnipeg-born Chad Posthumus. “I think everybody kind of was like, wow, we're here. The Sea Bears are here in Winnipeg. This is an actual thing now. It’s not just talked about, it's not just dreamt about on paper.”

The appetite for professional basketball in Winnipeg wasn’t just a curiosity that sated itself after a single game. Throughout a successful season that sees the Sea Bears going into the playoffs with a 12-8 record that ties for the second-best in the league, they’ve also boasted one of the strongest home crowds in CEBL history. They led all teams in average attendance this year (5,484, compared to the Edmonton Stingers in second with 3,859) and ended the regular season with four consecutive sell-outs.

For Saturday’s season finale, there was such demand that the Sea Bears chose to expand in-arena seating to include every lower bowl seat as well as, for the first time, the building’s suite level. As a result, they were able to break their own attendance record from the start of the season with a new high of 8,230 fans — and they might break it again still. For their first playoff game on Friday, they’ll open the upper bowl for fans and make full use of the Canada Life Centre’s listed maximum capacity of 15,321.

To team executives, including those that were a part of the effort to bring the CEBL to Winnipeg, this has been beyond even their most positive projections. To the players, it has been a profound experience to be a part of — even for those that play for the competition.

“A lot of times when we’re playing, other players from other teams will be like, ‘Wow,’” says Sea Bears star Teddy Allen. “‘This is really y’alls home games.’”

Kyle Thomas/Winnipeg Sea Bears

It has been more than 20 years since professional basketball last graced Winnipeg. Before the Sea Bears, there was the Winnipeg Cyclone that played in the International Basketball Association from 1995 to 2001, and the Winnipeg Thunder that played in the World Basketball League in 1992 and then the National Basketball League from 1993 and 1994. These were short-lived teams within short-lived leagues; experiments that never really took off, and were perhaps doomed from the start. In sports, the city has been historically better known for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets as well as the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, both of which have enjoyed fierce local support over decades of tenure within the community.

The CEBL is also a young league, only in its fifth season of play with 10 teams across Canada. Earlier on in their lifecycle, the league specifically chose to field teams in Canada’s smaller cities, such as Guelph and Hamilton, where there would be less competition with other professional sports. The move to Winnipeg represents one of their more ambitious expansion markets to date, and the Canada Life Centre — a true, major-league calibre arena shared with the Jets — is easily the largest home venue in the CEBL. There are teams in the league that could hit their capacity limits and still fail to reach what the Sea Bears draw on average.

This level of infrastructural support for a new team in an emerging league goes far, and the Sea Bears have already been able to tap into a groundswell of local support. It helps to win games, of course, but the team’s internal belief is that the fans would have been there, win or lose.

“As a city, we actually have a great basketball history. We had a couple of teams here in the ‘90s that people really loved, and then also, it's a great sports town. Fans really support all the teams here in Winnipeg,” says team president Jason Allen. “As we were doing the due diligence around [the question of] should we bring a team here, the overwhelming response was, ‘We would love to see it. Please do it. Bring a team here.’”

“I would almost go as far as to say they’re more excited than us even, if you can imagine that, because they haven't had pro basketball in Winnipeg for 20 years, right?” Posthumus adds.

Growing up in Winnipeg’s St. Paul area, Posthumus is a product of the city’s basketball pipeline and intimately familiar with its grassroots scene. He’s seen firsthand how far things have been able to advance over the years. His father, Charles, is a longtime coach in the community who was critical to the early growth of the Winnipeg Minor Basketball Association youth league in the late ‘90s, where Posthumus began playing. The Basketball Manitoba program, which Posthumus also describes as key to his growth as a player, has become an increasingly competitive one, able to hold its own against Canada’s traditional powerhouses such as Ontario and British Columbia.

Now a key member of the Sea Bears’ frontcourt – and their first official signing when they came to town — Posthumus has enjoyed an extensive career playing basketball. He’s made stops in Japan and Argentina, as well as with four other CEBL teams over nine years of professional experience. This is, however, the first time his family has been able to watch him play without making a full trip across Canada or overseas. For most of his playing years, greener pastures have existed elsewhere. After finishing his high school career as a top-five player in the country, Posthumus played a season with the University of British Columbia and then transferred to the NCAA Division I level in the United States. As far as professional options, the Sea Bears represent the first in Winnipeg since he started playing pro.

“Being able to play at home, it’s really special. Friends and family that have followed me and supported me through my years playing, now they're able to actually show up on a weekly basis to come see me play here in Winnipeg,” he says. “It's something I want to do for the next three or four years if I still can, and definitely cherish it.”

Kyle Thomas/Winnipeg Sea Bears

Part of the CEBL’s mission is to continue the growth of Canadian basketball, as well as to provide Canadian players such as Posthumus with the chance to play at home. The league requires its teams to meet a 70 percent minimum threshold of Canadian players on their roster, and in many cases, teams have signed players directly from their home cities or out of nearby collegiate programs. Playing in a familiar community is an easy sales pitch, of course, but it also goes to show how teams have been able to deeply ingrain themselves within the fabric of their cities.

From the moment of their inception, it was a priority for the Sea Bears to be an involved and positive influence to the Winnipeg basketball community. In addition to Posthumus, the Sea Bears roster local-born players Simon Hildebrandt and Justus Alleyn — Hildebrandt also being freshly awarded this year’s 2023 U Sports Rookie of the Year with the University of Manitoba. The team’s practice roster is almost entirely comprised of players from the area, and University of Winnipeg head coach Mike Raimbault is on the coaching staff as an assistant.

“I would say that one of the guiding principles when [Winnipeg-born] David Asper, the owner, and I were talking about what we wanted from this team if we could have whatever we wanted, we talked about the importance of giving back to community and being a part of a positive initiative here in Winnipeg and Manitoba,” says Allen.

The players on the Sea Bears, including those who are from out of town and in some cases from countries outside of Canada, have embraced this concept. Allen credits the team with being “unbelievably generous” with their time, participating in local initiatives including free camps for kids as well as coaching clinics.

The relationship is reciprocal. The city has shown love, so the players show love back.

“Everywhere I go, people are always asking, ‘Are you Teddy?’ or, ‘Do you play for the Sea Bears?’” says Teddy Allen, who comes from Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s been a lot of stores and businesses that want to do things, work with us or work with me. It’s just been a lot of great support. I wasn’t really expecting all this support.”

Allen, the Sea Bears’ go-to man and one of the leading scorers in the CEBL this season, has been responsible from some of the team’s most must-watch entertainment to date. In June, he tied the league’s single-game scoring record with 42 points against his former team, the Scarborough Shooting Stars. That game was an away game in Scarborough, but just a few weeks later, fans were able to be present when he recorded another 40-point game against the Hamilton Honey Badgers, this time at home.

A veteran of multiple NCAA Division I programs, Allen has played for large crowds in college before. He’s no stranger to this. At the same time, he knows it isn’t something to take for granted at the professional level, when there isn’t always the same built-in fanbase for small teams within newer leagues.

“Playing D-1, I’ve played for a lot of huge crowds and things like that,” he says. “A lot of the times in pro ball, the support’s not always there as much on a night-in, night-out basis like how it is in college.”

The goal ahead is a championship, and of course it is, but there would be some special meaning for the Sea Bears to bring a championship home in their inaugural season after such faithful first-year support from the fans. It’s easy to want to win for a city that rides for you how Winnipeg — the best fanbase in the CEBL, Allen reminds me — has for the Sea Bears.

“I know all the guys really appreciate it,” he says. “It makes guys feel good that they care about you.”

Kyle Thomas/Winnipeg Sea Bears

The postseason begins Friday for the Sea Bears with a play-in game at home against Edmonton. It should be an open field this year; the CEBL’s best teams — which includes Winnipeg — were separated by a razor-thin margin in the regular season standings. The Sea Bears will be led by a MVP candidate in Allen, as well as Posthumus’ relentless presence on the boards and the pure shooting of top reserve Jelani Watson-Gayle. They’ll have to overcome the loss of a starter, E.J. Anosike, to the Nigerian national team over the weekend, but this team still has the tools to hang with any other. The expectation is that they’ll have another record crowd in the building when they tip off their first game of the playoffs.

Of course, impact isn't always measured in wins or losses — or even championships. Just by way of being real and being in Winnipeg, the Sea Bears have come across something, a raw hunger for the game, possibly greater than what anyone thought before. In the ways that matter most, they may have already made their mark.

“You have eyes, ears, you can feel it, you can see it. You're a young kid in the stands at the Canada Life Centre, watching a Sea Bears game now,” says Posthumus. “It's a lot more tangible, and it's a lot more in your reach. I think having that in your own backyard, being able to be there is a lot different than, oh, there’s a pro team over in Toronto playing basketball in the NBA with the Raptors.”