There has been an unparalleled level of excitement surrounding the Canadian Elite Basketball League this season, as Jermaine Cole fever takes over the nation. Cole, better known for his stage name, J Cole, signed with the Scarborough Shooting Stars, one of the league’s three new expansion teams before the season, and ever since, a wave of sellouts in every arena he has played in has followed.
CEBL commissioner and CEO Mike Morreale has been complimentary of the impact Cole has already had on the league in his short time in Canada, both on and off the court. With a record-high crowd of 3,538 in Ottawa on Thursday night, Morreale reflected on all of the new fans packed in the arena to see their favourite rapper turned basketball player, and how it could help the other players around the league to eventually make it to the NBA.
“It has really been a bit surreal,” said Morreale. “When I learned about the signing a couple of months ago, I was really excited that we were getting a guy that was committing to playing and passionate about the sport. Obviously, he is who he is. I underestimated the impact he would have, it has been pretty exciting for us.”
The wave of sellouts has been important for the CEBL as a whole, especially after a couple of seasons plagued by COVID-19 restrictions.
“Coming off a couple of years of COVID-19 and the only really year of being in front of fans being 2019,” said Morreale. “It was just the right move at the right time, and it kinda worked very well. It gets more eyeballs on our players and our game, and that’s tremendous.”
On the court, some have feared that Cole would steal a roster spot from a more deserving player, and while on some level that is absolutely true, he isn’t incapable of playing basketball. Cole has a past playing basketball, but it never went far, and now, he’s back playing the sport he loves.
“The good thing is, he’s not a sideshow,” Morreale said. “He’s a basketball player, and he’s either going to earn his minutes or he’s not. We’re still going to play a game.”
By all accounts, Cole has been a model teammate and want’s to be known as one of the guys before anything else. When he steps on the court, he’s no longer J Cole the rapper, he’s Jermaine Cole the basketball player, something his teammates have appreciated.
“He’s super down to earth,” said Shooting Stars forward, Isaiah Mike. “It’s not very often that you get an A-class celebrity trying to start over their whole career in a completely different field. It’s almost like he’s a student of the game trying to learn as much as he can as a pro basketball player, so it’s pretty cool.”
For the CEBL, however, there’s more to it than just selling tickets for the temporary attraction. There have already been numerous names to come and go from the CEBL that used the league as a launching pad for their career, and that plan hasn’t changed at all. That’s still the goal, even after Cole is gone at the start of his tour.
“Before there was a Jermaine Cole, there were five guys that played here that are now had a stop in the NBA or were back overseas,” Morreale said. “It’s all part of the plan, and growing the game on the court, but also the game off the court. It gets us more teams, it gets us more markets, it gets us more eyeballs. I can tell you that the phone hasn’t stopped ringing from high-level agents because players want the chance to come here.”
“It certainly does,” Morreale said in response to a question asking if superstars being at games helps the league get some ‘clout’. “When Drake Tweets that he’s watching a CEBL game from his house, that’s kinda cool too.”
With the stands filled, the CEBL has done the hardest part of winning over the new fans, making them give the product a chance. If a player and personality like Cole are what it takes to get people out to the game, then so be it. The important thing is to get them to come back when Cole isn’t playing.
“We really want to win those over that haven’t seen us,” Morreale said. “Our core fans that are here, they know what we are all about. It’s the new fans, and the young fans that find someone like J Cole interesting. That’s culturally what we are all about, the music, the art, the lifestyle. It’s really important that we not only show them great basketball, but great entertainment, and bring them back.”
With three new expansion teams hitting the floor in 2022, Morreale isn’t certain if more teams will be added for 2023, but there’s no question that more teams in key cities are on the horizon.
“We’re talking about it, and we’re in discussions,” Morreale said. “I’m not sure if 2023 will be a year that we add, but certainly for 2024, it’s highly probable. I think we’ve realized that we are a big market league, so getting to Calgary and Winnipeg, somewhere in BC, Quebec City, etcetera. It’s becoming more real, and there’s more outside interest.”
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