The NBL Canada is set to embark on its eighth season on Thursday. Yes, you read that correctly its eighth season.
When the league announced it's existence to the world in a pop-up press conference in mid-2011 many in the Canadian basketball community gave it little chance of succeeding. Year in and year out the league has operated for better or for worse in the eastern part of Canada and to its credit has delivered on the promise of creating jobs for Canadians hoping to play pro.
In its first year, the minimum number of Canadians sat at just two players per team with the league maintaining that it was just a minimum and never a maximum. Now the league minimum is up to five Canadians per team with many within the league believing that number could rise in the future.
Teams have come and gone since 2011, but when the ball goes up in the air on Thursday night to start the season the NBLC will once again feature ten teams.
Whether you want to admit it or not, the NBLC is here and it's time to come to terms with the fact that it's not going anywhere.
One of the most supportive voices of the league has been its Deputy Commissioner Audley Stephenson. Stephenson was named Deputy Commissioner a season ago, but prior to that, he was very much the unofficial face of the league - leading the charge in helping the league grow a fanbase, creating engaging social media content and telling the stories of the league and its players. He's traded in his megaphone for a collared shirt and tie but his enthusiasm about the NBLC remains unmatched.
"When I think back about the league and our humble begins where each team had a requirement of two Canadians and now that number has been increased up to five and the fact that the entertainment value and the talent…there's been zero drop off," Stephenson told NBA.com. "In fact, it's been just the opposite where the game is even that much more exciting, fans are even that much more thrilled in what the next matchups look like and the games have been that much more competitive, it speaks to the growth of the game.
"Our Canadian ballers can compete at a very, very high level and watching across the league at our competitiveness, the action and entertainment value is as high as ever that's what gets me most excited. It shows you that there are lots and lots of opportunities for this league and provides an opportunity for Canadian players to stay close to home and play ball."
When the league started one of the selling points the owners tried to get across was the benefit the league would have on the Canadian player. Early detractors were skeptical on how committed the league was to the Canadian player. The fact of the matter is they were right, only having two spots dedicated to homegrown talent left general managers and coaches in the league - who were mostly American and had ties to many American players from previous leagues - the out to choose talent from overseas over those in Canada. When they did fill those two mandatory roster spots with Canadians, they were often buried on the bench with not much of a shot in earning a spot in the rotation.
They were some teams however in those first few years that seriously took a look at Canadian talent and gave them a chance, namely the Oshawa Power who later became the Mississauga Power and then the Raptors 905 after Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment bought them and brought them into the G-league.
But the Power were in the minority of getting and playing Canadians. Eight years ago a league like the NBLC could operate under those circumstances, but with the development of Canadian basketball since then there are no more excuses and that's something Stephenson and the league is aware of. Getting the minimum number to at least five Canadians per roster was a massive step that shouldn't be overlooked.
Now taking the league national should be the next. Right now, all 10 teams operate in the Eastern part of the country and the west to this point hasn't been able to stake claim to a franchise. It's one of the biggest things holding the league back from calling itself a true national league and one of the top priorities for the league as they look at what the next eight years may look like.
"I think out West is at the top (of the priority list)," Stephenson continued. "Because what that really does is it creates more opportunities. More opportunities by way of more exposure, more potential for advertising, sponsorship, the expansion and growth of the NBL Canada brand itself…the awareness all of those things happen when you go out west.
"I think the big thing that it really does for you is you truly...truly and legitimately become a national league. Now you're coast to coast, you're across Canada and you have the attention of the entire country.
"Westward expansion is high on our radar we've had numerous conversations, there definitely have been interested parties so that's something that we don't see far off in the future from happening."
While expanding out west is on the NBLC's radar, another domestic league has beaten them to the punch. The CEBL (Canadian Elite Basketball League) will begin play in the spring of 2019 with six teams - three in Ontario and three out west in Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC. The CEBL boasts the same mandate as the NBLC and is already set to play out West, but Stephenson doesn't see the league as competition nor a threat but rather a welcome addition to the Canadian basketball landscape.
"I don't view them as a competitor at all," Stephenson said. "And really if you go back to why we're in this and why we started this it's the elevation and the growth of the game of basketball and what's now happening is another league has started up or on the verge of starting up and what they're going to do in their own way, is help elevate and grow the game.
"The fact that they're playing at an entirely different time of the year…when I talk about them not being viewed as a competitor that's probably the number one factor. I think it's wonderful for the development of our players that there are even more playing opportunities made available. I think there's a lot of plus about the CEBL in terms of their potential and what they can do but in no way shape or form are they viewed as a competitor or rival, I think both leagues can work very complimentary to one another in terms of what they offer our Canadian players."
The loud voices that used to bury the league are softening as the NBL Canada continues to truck along. The league has had its fair share of black eyes in eight years, they've made some mistakes and through it all have found a way to stick around. Many around the Canadian basketball community continue to ask the question "how is this league still standing?". Maybe it's time to start asking the question "how can we help this league stay around?".
There are a ton of Canadians who have pro talent but for whatever reason can't make an overseas roster, or don't want to travel and are forced to step away from the game they love earlier than they would like. With leagues like the NBLC and the upstart CEBL in the fold, it provides an opportunity for those same players to play at home in front of friends, family and even scouts.
The NBLC doesn't have to be the be all end of for a player, in fact, the league is open about encouraging players to take the next step and ultimately make more money in other leagues.
It could also serve as a bookend to a career as St. John's Edge star and former national team member Carl English told NBA.com - who at 38 years of age gets to play pro ball in his hometown.
It can kick-start a coaching career as it did for former Power and London Lightning head coach Kyle Julius.
Whichever you chose to you look at it Canada needs a pro league and as the NBL Canada gets set to launch in its eighth season maybe it's time we start embracing it.