Probably the best kept basketball secret on the Canadian east coast, the Halifax Rainmen are poised to take the PBL by storm this season. We recently caught up with owner Andre Levingston on the eve of their first game to talk about the team.
The Halifax Rainmen may be the best kept basketball secret on Canada’s east coast. Since 2008, they have been a succeeding in a minor league basketball environment that has up until the last five years been volatile and unpredictable at best, team owner Andre Levingston has managed to keep the franchise not only afloat, but sailing into a bright future. Despite a rocky start in their inaugural season, Levingston has steered the team to a new league and looks to build on the great successes both on the floor and off. With three returning players including All PBL Defensive Team Tony Bennett and crowd favorite Eric Cruikshank along with several new components to the roster, the Rainmen looked poised for a big season which may include Play Offs. The Can Ball Report had recently caught up with Andre on the eve of the new season to talk about the team, it’s decision to jump leagues and what to expect this coming season.
Can Ball Report - First off, congratulations on another upcoming season of Rainmen Basketball.
Andre Levingston - Thank you.
CB - No problem. It’s good to hear that there’s another successful basketball franchise in Canada. So I want to ask off the bat, how did the team come to fruition?
AL - Well, originally I was asked to be a part of an ownership group in Toronto. There was a group from the US that was looking to put a team in Mississauga and I was approached to be a part of. However the people weren’t really serious and it fell through. I pulled out but I was excited about the opportunity so I made the decision to purchase my own franchise not knowing where to put it. I friend of mine and my lawyer at the time, both of whom had played college ball in the area, convinced me to take a trip to Halifax to see the love f the game in the city. So I made a trip to Halifax, met with the mayor and some business people to discuss the opportunity of professional basketball in the city and they seemed genuinely excited about it. So I made the decision to move the team to Halifax.
CB - It’s obviously worked out pretty well. Thinking about the city of Halifax, what drew you to the city?
AL - Well, several different things ‘cause at that time I hadn’t even heard of Halifax before. One, the people are extremely nice. I hadn’t experienced people that were this nice as a whole. Everyone wanted to help, everyone was supportive, people opened up their homes to me, and I was a stranger! The other thing was their passion for basketball. There are about 350 minor basketball teams just in the city of Halifax alone! Their love for the game really drew me to say that this was where we needed to put and grow this franchise.
CB - How did you feel that this community could support this franchise?
AL - Well, I’ve been saying this since the inception of the team, especially with minor basketball at this level, is that they don’t get a lot of corporate support or even community support. One thing that I knew would be important for the survival of this team was that we would have to be grass roots. It had to be where the community can touch these guys, and here in Halifax these guys are like NBA players. We do a lot in the community and support a lot of charities so we’re grass roots.
The other thing is when you’re a new franchise you don’t have companies beating down your door to support what you’re doing. In our first year we were in a really bad league (the ABA) but the one thing that people commended me for was that we honored our commitment. When we got here, I had said that we will play all our games because the ABA had a rep of teams wouldn’t complete their games. I promised the city that we’d play all our games and we did that.
The second thing is that I made a commitment that as long as I’m a part of this organization, Halifax would have a professional basketball team. And we’re fulfilling that. Every year we’re getting more support, because we can’t be successful without great partners. Because of our commitment that we’ve made to the city and giving back we have big companies calling us and wanting to invest in the Rainmen. Our attendance has gone up, our season ticket sales have been up and you don’t get big companies like Rogers on board with you unless you’re doing something right because they won’t want to mess up their brand for anybody. And having guys like Rogers, Wilson and Alumitech just gives us corporate credibility so things are going well.
CB - Can you give us a quick rundown of the team’s season in the ABA?
AL - I could list off a ton of negative things but all I know is that we had made a commitment to the city and we had to live up to that or it was going to mess up what we wanted to do. It cost me lot money to fulfill the obligations but at the same time I learned a lot. Being in the ABA gave me the opportunity to experience professional basketball so I grew from that since I’ve never done that before. I could name off ten bad things about the ABA but there were good things too. However, it was a volatile league and I knew it was time for us to make a move from that because we couldn’t grow the way we wanted to being a part of that (particular) league. Our city deserved better, our corporate partners deserved better and I made the decision to pull out.
CB - Now pulling out of the ABA, was there any issue with keeping the name of the team?
AL - We owned the name Halifax Rainmen, the league didn’t. It’s not like the NBA where league owns the name.
CB – So after you left the ABA, why then did you decide on the PBL?
AL - At the time, I had some knowledge of the owners of the (Premiere Basketball League). Tom Doyle and his partners set out to come up with a league with definite business mandate that everyone had to follow for success. If you notice with professional basketball at this level, it’s always been done wrong. Hockey teams can do it, baseball teams can do it, but for some reason minor basketball always got it wrong. So they set out to create a league. We didn’t play in it the first year because we were still in the ABA. When we had the opportunity to talk over the summer after I’d made the decision to pull out (of the ABA) and it seemed like the perfect fit. They were committed, focused, they have a business model that everyone has to follow, they make sure owners have credibility and they’re growing it slow and they’re doing it right.
Right now, the only leagues that you can really play in (during this time outside of the NBA) is our league or the D-League. The CBA is no longer around which makes our league this year very, very strong. It going to be very competitive this year and the league is going to be very strong (top to bottom).
CB - Has there been issues with Halifax with regards to the other teams in the league and added expenses?
AL - It’s been a challenge. One of the mandates for us (in the ABA) was that we were responsible for 100% of our own travel costs. Other teams’ travel was covered by the league because that can get on a bus and travel three, four hours and play the entire schedule. We don’t have that luxury here which we understood because there’s some things we can do here that other teams can’t do. We were able to create more income here, corporate or otherwise, and other teams didn’t have the same corporate support so we didn’t balk at that. Yes it was challenging and still is challenging. But I made a commitment to the city that professional basketball would be here and we’re getting more and more corporate support every year so that’s just something that we’re going to have to take (on the chin).
CB - Has this caused any issues with scheduling?
AL - Not at all. We have our venue dates and we play once a week so we don’t have two, three teams in here a week or vice versa. It works out.
CB - So being on a plane for all those games gives the players a next level feel I imagine.
AL - Absolutely. That’s one of the things that we really pride ourselves on is that we want to run our organization like it’s the NBA. Everything here is first class. We take care of the players. We fly them in, we have a professional training camp, everything is on point. Everything we want here is first class because when our guys leave here, we want them to take that message out that. There’s nothing going on at this level in minor basketball, including the D-League for the most part.
CB - With a small, tight knit basketball community in Halifax, has there been any issues with attendance at Rainmen games with the many high school and local university and college team in the area?
AL - No, not at all. Our biggest challenge our first year, was that one no one knew about the ABA and those that did knew it was bad. People were leery to invest long term seasons ticket or at the corporate level because they didn’t know if we were going to be around next year. And I’m not from here so people had to see that I was serious and committed and willing to be here.
I’ve made Halifax my home and I live here full time, our footprint is in the community so people won’t think I'm just going to pack it all up and run. The first year I ran the team out of my pocket with no corporate support because I was serious about this team being successful and I knew it could be here. Our attendance in our second year over our first is up 36% and our first game is sold out so we’re heading in the right direction.
CB - Now you mentioned the D-League. I recall a story about the league coming out to Halifax so is that a direction that the team is looking to do going forward?
AL - Last year, we had actively pursued the D-League. We thought that was the direction we wanted to go in. We had submitted the application and gave them everything they asked for. Within a week they were here and we hosted the D-League (including) the president Dan Reed. He was impressed with what we had put together in just one year. Again the situation at the time, we were denied because there were no north east teams at the time and it would have cost too much for teams to fly into Halifax and so they made a decision. They really liked what we were doing in Halifax, we see it’s really working, financially we had everything in place but the travel was just too much. And things were not in place on their side to deal with players crossing the border, immigration, things of that nature so they passed on us at the time. And we accepted that. However, right now we are extremely excited about being in the PBL. Our fans are excited about what we have, excited about the league, so right now we are not considering the D-League at all. You can never say never, but we’re very excited about where we are right now.
CB - Let’s talk about the talent on the Rainmen roster. Looking at the roster you have players that have had some experience playing at high levels in college, playing in other leagues domestically and overseas, and you even have an NBA draftee. How did you manage to get players of this caliber to come to Halifax?
AL - Well, coach Les Berry and I spent our whole summer scouting. We spent a lot of time building relationships with players and agents in the community and of course the name Halifax is getting around. There are no other teams doing what we’re doing. And when players come in here, they are amazed at our execution, our professionalism. We’re not an organization that runs for the season and then shuts it down until next season, we run year round. We have a corporate office, we have full time staff because we want to raise the bar and continue to raise the bar but we also want to make our league strong and proud.
CB - With the team being where it is, is there a push to have local talent on the roster?
AL - It’s not a push but if you can have local talent it always helps. The fans like to be able to recognize someone they know. Our first year we didn’t have anyone, last year we had Canadians but no local guys and this year we have a couple of local kids. Garry Gallimore who played at St FX and Devin Norris who played at Dalhousie and Jevohn Sheppard from Toronto who played at Michigan. It’s good to have them. We want to help develop basketball in Canada, and that what we are – a developmental team. That’s just what we are. And not just from a basketball standpoint but a staffing standpoint, from a coaching standpoint. We want our staff to have opportunity and to dream big. We’re just preparing ourselves for bigger and better.
CB - Looking forward to the coming season, what are your thoughts on the team?
AL - I’m very excited. We’ve been extremely busy since the end of last season and we just can’t wait to get going. I think it’s going to be an amazing year. I think we’ll be talented, we’ll know just how talented very soon. I think we’ve done our homework and we’re ready to show Halifax and the rest of the basketball world that there’s something special going on here.
CB – Well thanks for talking with us Andre and best of luck through the season. We’re looking forward to seeing the Rainmen in action.
* The Rainmen play their firest game of the regular season Jan 3 against the Lawton-Fort Sill Calvary in Okalhoma. For more on the Rainmen, check out the website www.rainmenbasketball.ca. *