CEBL’s Calgary Surge believe ‘city is ready’ for pro basketball14 min read
Clayton Henry has been waiting on this day for years.
The chance to shine once again in his hometown …
But this time on the bigger, brighter stage with the Calgary Surge of the Canadian Elite Basketball League.
“I’m really excited,” said the Calgary native, once a high-school star with the Bishop McNally Timberwolves. “I mean … basketball hasn’t been in Calgary for forever. And I just know how much people just have been missing out on the experience of pro basketball being here.
“So I’m excited to be on this team coming back to pro basketball here.”
Yes, Calgary, it’s been a while.
Twenty-nine years, to be exact, since a pro team bearing the Calgary name has graced the floors of the city.
The Calgary 88’s — that was the team first trying to break through then in the b-ball world — followed by the Calgary Outlaws.
It worked for a while — from 1988-94 — and then it didn’t.
Fast-forward three decades, and now — finally — it’s the Surge making their way into the hoops void here, beginning with Saturday’s historic opener in the CEBL at WinSport Event Centre (4 p.m.).
“It’s really big,” said Henry, a 6-foot-4 guard and defensive specialist for the Surge. “I mean … everyone I see that knows me and just knows since I’ve been on the Surge, they’re just like, ’It’s just crazy.’ Like it’s crazy! It’s like everybody’s talking about it. Everyone’s excited. They’re asking me how to get tickets.
“And the excitement for me and my family is crazy, because they’ve been waiting for a pro team, too, because they want to see me play. I haven’t played in Calgary since high school. So they’re super excited. It’s going to be really exciting.”
Jason Ribeiro, one of the main men — along with fellow community advocate Usman Tahir Jutt — behind bringing the franchise to life, is certain of that.
Just hours ahead of tip-off, the Surge vice-chairman and president is in pinch-me mode, unable to contain his enthusiasm for what’s been a venture that’s actually only been months — not even a year — in the works.
“It’s been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” Ribeiro said. “I’m gonna say, without getting emotional, that to see how the community has embraced this team before we’ve ever played a game and to be almost sold out — if not already sold out — for our first game is incredible. To see our basketball operations staff and our front office staff gelling together but — most importantly — gelling with the ebbs and flow of community in Calgary, I’m just so excited. I’m so excited to be bringing basketball to the masses in the city and so proud of the team that has put this together.
“The city is buzzing. The city is ready.”
That was the thought many moons ago when the 88’s were introduced to Calgarians as a original member club of the World Basketball League — a loop restricted to players 6-foot-5 and shorter.
The team owned by Jon Havelock and Michael Smith played their home games at the Saddledome with stars such as Chip Engelland — the WBL Sixth Man of the Year in 1988 who is now the shooting coach for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder — Sidney Lowe — a current assistant coach with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers — 1984 NBA champion Carlos Clark, defensive star Perry Young and Kelsey Weems, the WBL’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1991.
The coaches included 1988 WBL Coach of the Year Mike Thibault — now the GM of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics — and Roger Lyons.
“I was eight at the time in 1988, but I remember going to a couple games,” said Calgary basketball guru Eddie Richardson III. “I remember hanging out with the memories around that, being a kid around the sport. Part of the enjoyment of basketball for me was gathering with kids and friends around basketball. So, yeah, I that was the biggest takeaway of the 88’s.
“Like for me, it was just fun. You know … it was just people and music and entertainment. And I enjoyed just watching the game at that age. So I was just eyes wide open at that time.”
The 88’s were actually among the league’s top teams, finishing 151-78 over four-plus seasons before the WBL folded ahead of the conclusion of the 1992 regular season.
Twice, the Calgary squad made the league championship series, losing both the 1989 and ’90 finals to the Youngstown Pride.
But it was the Pride owner, Michael Monus, who reportedly took the league down. After he was convicted of having embezzled $10 million from a privately owned company he had founded to finance the WBL, the league fell apart.
The Outlaws were short-lived, to be sure.
Months after the WBL went down, the National Basketball League picked up the pieces with four of the WBL’s teams joining two expansion teams to form an all-Canadian venture.
The 88’s weren’t one of those teams, as Calgary went without a b-ball side for a year-and-a-half until the Outlaws joined the NBL as an expansion team in its second season.
Playing mostly out of the Jack Simpson Gym at the University of Calgary in 1994, they lasted just 24 games — going 13-11 — before the league collapsed.
A decade passed before the next big-ish league team came to the city.
That was the Drillers, a semi-professional side that played just one season in the American Basketball Association.
They took on the 2004-05 ABA campaign, finishing with a 5-10 record, before folding.
Seven years later, a second attempt in the semi-pro ABA was put up by the Crush.
That team, owned principally by Salman Rashidian and coached by Richardson, lasted from 2012-15 playing in the SAIT gym.
And it was another strong representative of Calgary, going unbeaten — 12-0 — in the nine-team Pacific Northwest Division during its inaugural season.
Veteran talent John Riad was a huge offensive force for the Crush, and among the fan favourites was fellow guard Kelvin dela Pena — a Calgary native who starred for Bishop McNally in high school and for the Mount Royal Cougars in college ball, becoming an all-Canadian in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association at age 17.
“The Crush was ahead of its time, honestly,” Richardson said. “Basketball was growing exponentially all across Canada. We jumped in very early, and we were ready to go. Our talent level, honestly, was one of the best in North America for the ABA, with the men we had on that team. Our style of play was very similar to the style of play that you’re seeing now with pace and space, ball movement and three pointers. So it was it was fantastic.
“But unfortunately, there were no leagues — consistent leagues — that were set up. You know, the ABA was — I won’t say fly-by-night — but it wasn’t as organized as we would want it to be. And there wasn’t as many committed teams. So unfortunately, after three years, it just wasn’t feasible to continue with the travel schedule that we had created from our general manager, Sal. So … yeah … unfortunately, we just weren’t able to continue with it.”
The Crush finished with a 26-8 record over three campaigns before a lack of funding reportedly ended its run.
“That was just the start — the Crush whet a lot of people’s beaks just understanding that this is fun basketball,” continued Richardson. “You know, we had 1,000 people that went to each game at SAIT. But again, same thing like the 88’s …”
The league just wasn’t strong enough.
“But I think what that was was an eye-opener to a lot of people saying, ‘Well, hold on — basketball could work here if it’s done right and we have a consistent base.’ And so now, with the CBL and having their consistency and the amazing job that they’ve done, you know, we’re able to have a team, which is so exciting.”
So now the basketball is in the hands of Jutt, Ribeiro and the Surge.
A 20-game schedule — beginning at home Saturday against the provincial rival Edmonton Stingers and running through the end of July — is set in place for the relocated club, previously known as the Guelph Nighthawks.
And the Surge are part of a 10-team league — the largest ever for an all-Canadian sports circuit — that has firmly established roots in the country.
That, say insiders, is a major reason why this iteration of basketball in Calgary is here to stay.
“We almost remained tunnel vision and didn’t want to spend too much time dwelling upon what didn’t work before,” Ribeiro said. “Our instincts are community, period. And I think if I were to draw one contrast between the ventures previously is that, in many of those cases, the league wasn’t strong.
“The Canadian Elite Basketball League is strong. It’s here to stay. I’ve got great confidence in commissioner Mike Morreale’s leadership and confidence in our partners.”
The second key cog to long-term success is that Jutt and Ribeiro aren’t just making the Surge experience about basketball, unlike the Calgary ventures before this one.
“Let’s be clear — this is a basketball venture, too,” Ribeiro said. “But the super sauce or the secret sauce here — the fairy dust — is that it is community and you’ll see us show up to places where there isn’t a basketball.
“But we’re bringing energy, and we’re bringing these players that you’ve met, and they’re role models, and they’re community-minded. We’re bringing fashion, we’re bringing music, we’re bringing art … and our goal is that people leave Saturday knowing very well that this is not just about an élite team that plays basketball at a high level in a league that plays basketball at a high level.
“This is about community through and through, and all of those facets of community that basketball speaks to in a way that I, frankly, think other sports don’t.”
After his time with the Crush, Richardson is on board with all of what the Surge are bringing to both the court and the community.
He also knows the landscape has changed with regard to the sport. He’s helped grow basketball in the city as the lead man of the high-profile Genesis Basketball program since 2006 and, in recent years, as the basketball director and male national head coach at Edge School.
The upswing around these parts is no longer on the shoulders of Dan Vanhooren and his University of Calgary Dinos, who have helped lift the profile of hoops over the last few decades with their legacy program, as well as the SAIT Trojans and the Mount Royal Cougars.
“I think that the chances of success for the Surge are very high,” agreed Richardson. “Because the market now is completely different than it’s been before. A lot of people don’t quite understand the amount of players in youth basketball that is here in our city. The last time I checked, I think this was in 2020 or right before COVID, we were looking at we had more registers in basketball than we did in hockey — if you can imagine that — for club environment basketball in the spring and summer. So the growth of the game is so much more prominent than it’s been.
“And the amount of eyes on the game and the connectivity is higher. Basketball is a very social driven sport. You know … the accessibility to players and information around basketball is just like any sport now — it’s right at our fingertips. So I think we have such a great chance for this to work because the connectivity can be a lot stronger than it’s ever been before.
“We’re set up for success here in Calgary with the Surge, which is very exciting.”
Adding to that excitement is how the players themselves are embracing the opportunity, especially those from the area and with family close at hand.
“Well … it’s so cool,” said Surge 6-foot-4 guard Mason Bourcier, of Kelowna, B.C. “Like the fact that my dad (Fred) can drive a few hours and come see me play here is crazy. He’s my biggest fan. So just to know that he could hop on a flight and be here in one hour is amazing.
“But also seeing the rise in Canadian basketball, especially for Calgary seeing the love and support and the welcome we’re getting is fantastic, man,” continued Bourcier, who became the Surge’s first-round pick — third overall — in the 2023 U SPORTS Draft after a sensational career with Canada West’s Trinity Western Spartans. “I couldn’t say anything better about the situation — this is perfect. All the way from the high-ups, all the way down to each player, they’ve taken care of every area that they can think of, and it means more to developing the game in Canada than I can possibly say, especially for a kid like me where I have all these dreams.
“Without this, I don’t think I’m reaching that next level, but this gives me that trampoline to just keep finding another level, so it’s invaluable, man. Even I can’t even put a price-tag on it, because it’s still evolving.”
That’s the same way Henry — the Calgary kid who went on the play with the NCAA’s Palm Beach State Panthers and New Mexico State Aggies — feels about the chance at hand.
He doesn’t know where the tickets for friends and family are all going to come from — with the 3,000-seat capacity of WinSport Event Centre already being tested by the hype for the Surge — but he’s happy to be home …
He hopes for a long, long time.
“I feel like it’s gonna be a home experience for the fans,” added Henry. “With the music, the players, the food, and the type of people that around the organization, it’s just gonna be professional. So it’s gonna feel like home, and everyone’s going to just love it. It’s going to be big entertainment — probably the biggest entertainment Calgary is going to have for the summer.
“I know a few guys just at the U of C, and those guys are rare and legends at that school. So I just I know how much people love basketball here. I played for McNally in the city finals. It was just high school, but the whole city was just excited about that. So I know how excited people are going to be for an actual pro team here.”
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