How the CEBL’s success is pushing Canada Basketball to the next level

Olu Famutimi and Kimbal Mackenzie playing for the Guelph Nighthawks in the 2020 CEBL Summer Series. (Credit: Ward 1 Studios)

Olu Famutimi’s basketball career began before the world of Canadian hoops took shape. Before basketball was widely covered around the country. Before Canada’s national teams made headways at almost every international event. Before the game of basketball took over The North.

Things were very different for players like Famutimi back then. They typically had to transfer away from Canada as early as high school, as that was the only way to achieve the goal of becoming a professional basketball player. Save for playing for their home country in international tournaments, Canada’s best hoopers only returned home once their careers were complete.

Fast forward to 2020, and Famutimi has returned back home, except his career is not done yet.

Over the past 20 years, basketball in Canada has launched into a different stratosphere, and so much has changed. Opportunities for home grown players have continuously increased, culminating into perhaps the best showcase of Canadian talent yet, the CEBL.

Now, instead of travelling the world in search of basketball glory, Famutimi is playing in front of a national audience on his own home soil. He can look at his teammates and know that things have changed for the better since his early days in basketball.

“I think guys coming up now, it’s a blessing for them,” said Famutimi, a forward for the Guelph Nighthawks, “Because I didn’t have this when I was younger.”

With the CEBL’s Summer Series marking its 2nd season since its inception, the league houses a wide variety of Canadian hoopers arriving from different backgrounds. Some arrive via the U Sports pathway that has very clearly become a point of emphasis for the league. Others make their return home after stints at American colleges. Many players are years removed from their college days and have travelled back from professional seasons all across the globe.

For all, however, it provides a unique opportunity to both advance their professional careers, and help shape the basketball landscape of their home country.

Kimbal Mackenzie, a teammate of Famutimi on the Nighthawks, embodies the opportunity provided. A native of Oakville, Ontario, he grew up a short drive away from the CEBL Summer Series venue in St. Catharines. In order to advance his career, he moved away from home, and played college ball at Bucknell, in central Pennsylvania. Once his college career was over, he ended up right back in the area where he began.

“It’s nice to be back. There’s times where I’m at the hotel and I’m like damn, 30 minutes away from home which is nice. It’s different from being in Pennsylvania or overseas,” said Mackenzie, “So it’s a nice feeling to know that your family and friends are right there.”

Last summer in the CEBL marked Mackenzie’s first stint playing professional basketball, and he took advantage of the opportunity, leading the Nighthawks in scoring. He used his strong performance as a springboard, getting him a contract in the Spanish LEB Gold league this past season. Just one year in, it became clear that the CEBL could provide young Canadians a chance to push their career to the next level, and that’s exactly what happened with Mackenzie.

“I think the CEBL is doing a great job of giving us a platform to show our talents and play ball,” said Mackenzie, “It’s an amazing opportunity for guys coming back, you can see so much talent in this league and guys really want to play.”

Rashawn Browne started in the same lane as Mackenzie, as after a stellar high school career at Bill Crothers, he attended New Mexico State University with future pro Pascal Siakam. However, after realizing that the NCAA Division 1 path was not the way to go for him, he decided to transfer back to Canada, where he attended the University of Manitoba. After three seasons with the Bisons, Browne cemented himself as one of U Sports’ best guards. So much so, that the Saskatchewan Rattlers selected Browne with the first pick of the second round in the CEBL USports draft.

Thanks to the great partnership between the CEBL and U Sports, it makes it possible for the best of Canadian university athletics to garner professional opportunities right out of school. For Browne, it gave him a chance he may not even have had if he stayed down south, battling it out for a rotation spot. Now, the runner-up for the U Sports player of the year has played the first season of what could be a long basketball career to come.

“I think it shows the growth of the U Sports pathway,” said Browne, “I feel like if we take a deeper look at the U Sports game and a message to all the players in similar situations I was in, coming back from the US or looking to transfer to another school in the US, really consider transferring back to U Sports because it is really growing.”

Browne now walks around on the court with a chip on his shoulder. He plays with extreme intensity, and is one of the most vocal players in the entire CEBL. For many, Browne could be a great example of what playing college basketball in Canada looks like. He knows that there are others that are in a similar situation he was in, and hopes that more players give the U Sports pathway a shot.

“I hope to continue to show people that it’s possible. The Division 1 route is great, but it’s not for everybody,” said Browne, “I think there’s a lot of people like me that could come home and see great success.”

The road from U Sports success to professional opportunities wasn’t always as fruitful, however. It wasn’t too long ago that Canada’s best were almost completely devoid of professional opportunities, let alone ones in their home nation. Edmonton Stingers forward Jordan Baker won the Canada West Player of the Year in 2014, and that led to some contract offers overseas. Still, after two seasons abroad, Baker decided that he couldn’t live a life travelling around the world, and hung up his laces.

Now, Baker just finished his second season in the CEBL, and won the Canadian Player of the Year award. It’s clear that he was not devoid of talent, he just needed a chance to play at home. Thanks to the CEBL, he’s able to take advantage of something that simply just didn’t exist when he graduated.

“People don’t understand how difficult it is to play overseas. You’re away from your family, away from your friends and it’s a grind,” said Baker, “But being able to be back in the summer in Canada, around friends and family, being able to play in front of your parents and your wife, that’s exciting, that’s fun.”

Looking throughout the league, every team has a Canadian basketball story to tell. Whether it’s Niagara’s three-headed Toronto backcourt of Trae Bell-Haynes, Kassius Robertson and Daniel Mullings, Fraser Valley’s revamped roster with senior national team member Junior Cadougan or Ottawa’s roster of entirely Canadian raised players.

The opportunities don’t end with the athletes. Charles Kissi’s basketball career ended before the boom of Canadian basketball even occurred. A star guard at McMaster University, Kissi enrolled into the Toronto Police Services, where he was an officer for 10 years. On the side, he coached basketball in the community, and eventually took a part time position with the Ryerson University women’s team in 2009. From there, Kissi’s coaching career skyrocketed.

He went on to be the head coach for the Rams, before he gained an incredible opportunity shadowing then Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey in the 2012–2013 season. He used that year as a springboard, helping him become the head coach of the Brock Badgers men’s team. After rebuilding that program to national success, Kissi became an assistant for the Raptors 905, the G-League affiliate of the Raptors. Now, thanks to the CEBL, Kissi is the head coach and general manager of the Guelph Nighthawks.

Nighthawks coach Charles Kissi on the sidelines at the 2020 CEBL Summer Series (Credit: Ward 1 Studios)

“I think it’s important to continue to give people opportunities, and this league is a great way for us to do that,” said Kissi, “This league is a tremendous way for people, whether its coaching opportunities or playing opportunities, this league is perfect for that.”

Kissi’s journey shows people all across Canada that if basketball is your passion, there is a place to start achieving your goals. There are programs and plans in place to jumpstart a career, just as Kissi did over 10 years ago. Now, Kissi is in a position to pay it back, and he looks forward to provide chances for other eager basketball players and coaches.

“The game is growing in this country and it’s our job, my job, and anyone in a position of power to give people opportunities,” said Kissi, “I’ve been given opportunities and obviously worked for them too.”

With coaches like Kissi leading, and players like Famutimi, Mackenzie, Browne and Baker putting on a show on the court, the CEBL has tons of positive momentum on its side. The current state of the league is improving with each game, but the projections for the future know no bounds.

There’s no better example of this than Hamilton Honey Badgers guard Caleb Agada. After Honey Badgers star Duane Notice went down with a devastating achilles injury, Agada, two weeks removed from returning from his pro season in Israel, joined the team. The short turnaround was well worth it for the Burlington, Ontario native. After all, he sees the potential of the CEBL as a global league.

“I love the CEBL, even when I came home from Israel, I messaged our GM and I asked him, do you need me? I wanted to play right when I got home,” said Agada, “I know it’s respected all around the world. Even my European friends and my American friends are asking me questions, because it’s spreading. It’s a great league and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

The league is certainly spreading, something that seemed almost unimaginable 20 years ago when Olu Famutimi left Canada for a better opportunity in basketball. So much has changed for the better, and the CEBL is a massive reason why. Now, Famutimi watches down, sort of as a big brother to his younger teammates. He’s watching the future of Canadian basketball on the court alongside him, and the future is as bright as ever. To those guys, Famutimi keeps his message simple.

“My message to them is to just take advantage of it, because a league like this can give a lot of these players opportunities to go a lot further.”

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Ryerson University Sport Media

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Matthew Winick

Matthew Winick

Ryerson University Sport Media

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