Pro-am league aims to put Mon­treal on bas­ket­ball map

Six-team sum­mer loop fea­tures NBA, col­lege play­ers look­ing to stay sharp

Montreal Gazette - - SPORTS - JU­LIAN MCKEN­ZIE

Or­lando Magic for­ward Khem Birch was a bit skep­ti­cal at first. He had heard about pre­vi­ous failed efforts to launch a pro­fes­sional am­a­teur bas­ket­ball league in his na­tive Mon­treal.

“There have been peo­ple who have been try­ing to do this for a long time,” said Birch. “So, in my mind, I was just like, ‘again?’ ”

The Buck­ley broth­ers — Damian, Dwayne, Dwight and Dil­lon — are the brains be­hind Ballers Ech­e­lon, a pro-am sum­mer bas­ket­ball league that’s based in Mon­treal and slated to tip off on Fri­day at 7:15 p.m. at the Con­cor­dia Univer­sity Ath­letic Com­plex at the Loy­ola cam­pus.

All four Buck­ley broth­ers played bas­ket­ball in Mon­treal while grow­ing up. Damian and Dwayne were all-stars for Con­cor­dia, and Damian is an as­sis­tant coach for the Stingers. But it was the youngest, Dil­lon, who came up with the Ballers Ech­e­lon idea be­fore get­ting his broth­ers in­volved.

“I came to them and I was like, ‘Lis­ten, this is what I have in place and I think this could be some­thing big­ger than what I’m mak­ing it,’ ” Dil­lon said.

Launch­ing a pro-am hoops league is dif­fi­cult and the Buck­leys are start­ing from scratch. Un­like the Toronto-based Crown League, Ballers Ech­e­lon doesn’t have any big name spon­sors or part­ner­ships. Play­ers pay a fee to join the league and there’s the added ob­sta­cle of avail­abil­ity, specif­i­cally for the pro play­ers who can only com­mit to a few games be­cause of their sched­ules.

There are also smaller issues, such as or­der­ing uni­forms, lin­ing up peo­ple to run the scor­ing ta­bles, and staffing the can­teen for food and drink sales.

“This is an ev­ery­day ven­ture,” Damian said.

Ballers Ech­e­lon claims to be the first league of its kind in the city. It will fea­ture pro­fes­sional play­ers, in­clud­ing Birch and two-time NBA cham­pion Joel An­thony, on a lim­ited-com­mit­ment ba­sis. Ballers Ech­e­lon will also fea­ture other pro­fes­sion­als — such as for­mer Syra­cuse guard Kris Joseph and Na­tional Bas­ket­ball League

This league is needed for pro­vin­cial pride. On­tario is al­ways the prov­ince that we talk about for bas­ket­ball in this coun­try.

of Canada star Kevin Loiselle — as well as Cana­dian univer­sity stars and for­mer NCAA play­ers.

“You want to play against the best so that you can push your­self to get bet­ter,” Loiselle said. “(Ballers Ech­e­lon) is go­ing to help a lot.”

“In the sum­mers, we do runs, but it’s not the same as get­ting this kind of com­pe­ti­tion with games and ac­tual refs,” Stingers point guard Ri­cardo Monge said. “It gives you the op­por­tu­nity not to lose that feel for the game dur­ing the sum­mer.”

Six teams will play until early July. All games will take place at the John Dore Court, named af­ter the long­time Stingers men’s bas­ket­ball coach.

“In ev­ery big city across the United States and Toronto, there’s a pro-am league,” said Damian Buck­ley. “We don’t have one here in Mon­treal. We have a lot of tal­ented play­ers, even way back when we used to play.”

Last Sun­day, the league held its in­au­gu­ral draft, com­bine and me­dia day at the Con­cor­dia Univer­sity Ath­letic Com­plex. Coaches were on hand to scout play­ers scrim­mag­ing in the gym­na­sium be­fore the draft took place in a con­fer­ence room one floor up. Birch was the first player se­lected in the draft. Two of the most well-known sum­mer leagues, out­side of the NBA, are the U.S.-based Drew League and the Crown League. While NBA stars James Har­den and DeMar DeRozan have made ap­pear­ances in the Drew, the Crown has boasted its own star power since play be­gan in 2015. The league has a spon­sor­ship deal with Nike and has fea­tured a num­ber of top play­ers, in­clud­ing An­thony, Miami Heat for­ward Kelly Olynyk, for­mer No. 1 over­all NBA Draft pick An­thony Ben­nett and Cleveland Cava­liers for­ward Tris­tan Thomp­son. Ballers Ech­e­lon com­mis­sioner Dwight Wal­ton, a Mon­trealer and for­mer Cana­dian in­ter­na­tional pro player, said the goal in Mon­treal is to reach the heights of the Crown League. “This league is needed for pro­vin­cial pride,” Wal­ton said. “On­tario is al­ways the prov­ince that we talk about for bas­ket­ball in this coun­try.” It might take some time be­fore Ballers Ech­e­lon reaches the sta­tus of the Crown or the Drew, but play­ers like Birch see po­ten­tial. “Bas­ket­ball is get­ting big­ger in Mon­treal,” said Birch, who av­er­aged 4.2 points a game in 42 games with the Magic this sea­son. “It’s trendy right now. Ev­ery­one wants to play bas­ket­ball. The tim­ing is per­fect and I think it can only get bet­ter from now.” Ballers Ech­e­lon’s in­au­gu­ral games Fri­day will see the Cy­clone against the Wild­fire at 7:15 p.m., fol­lowed by the Storm fac­ing the Eclipse at 9 p.m. All Ballers Ech­e­lon games will be played at the Con­cor­dia Univer­sity Ath­letic Com­plex at 7200 Sher­brooke St. W. On Satur­day there are games on tap at 3 p.m., 5:15 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tick­ets for Fri­day’s games cost $5 for adults, $3 for youths ages 8 to 17. Tick­ets for Satur­day ’s games, and for the rest of the sea­son, cost $7 for adults and $5 for youths ages 8 to 17. Ad­mis­sion for chil­dren younger than 7 is free. Tick­ets can be pur­chased at the Con­cor­dia Univer­sity Ath­letic Com­plex. Sea­son mem­ber­ship cards, cost­ing $50 for adults and $30 for youths ages 8 to 17, can be pur­chased at baller­sech­e­lonlg@gmail.com.

ALLEN McIN­NIS

Dwight Buckey, left, and his broth­ers, Dil­lon, Dwayne and Damian run Ballers Ech­e­lon, a pro-am sum­mer bas­ket­ball league that tips off on Fri­day night at the Con­cor­dia Univer­sity Ath­letic Com­plex. All four Buck­ley broth­ers played bas­ket­ball in Mon­treal...

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