Professional basketball roars back into Niagara Thursday night when the new Niagara River Lions take to the court against the visiting Edmonton Stingers.
Formerly in the National Basketball League (NBL), the River Lions are now part of Canada's newest professional basketball organization, the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL). The league has its head office in Thorold.
Largely to move away from the busy winter and spring sports season, the new league will operate from May through August.
The CEBL has pledged to, "Feature Canada’s best up and coming basketball talent with international players from other FIBA ruled leagues, during their off-months, to provide elite quality basketball entertainment for Canadians."
The River Lions play home games at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines and the home opener is Thursday, May 16 at 7 p.m.
Guards Alex Johnson and Ryan Anderson spoke to the ThoroldNews about the new league, and their new team from their home office on Front Street in Thorold.
Johnson is from Toronto and played college ball at NC State University, and this is his first season with the River Lions. He spent last season with the London Lightning in the NBL.
"I was at a draft combine and was very interested in this league," he said. "The River Lions called and offered a spot so I was happy to come here."
Anderson is originally from Seattle Washington and played for the Windsor Express last season. He played college ball for Nebraska and spent some time in Germany as well.
"Germany was a great experience learning a new culture and the basics of a new language," he recounted.
"I was familiar with this (River Lions) organization from the NBL. I knew it was a great organization with a great fan base," he said.
Johnson and Anderson have spent a lot of time as opponents but seven years ago they played together in Ottawa, when Johnson was the number one draft choice in the NBL.
Anderson said he, too, had is eye on Niagara.
"I thought if the opportunity ever arose to come here, I would," he said.
Johnson finished with his former team in April and was right back on the court practising with the River Lions.
"For me, the transition was a bit easier," said Anderson. "We didn't make the playoffs so I had nearly a month off before reporting to the River Lions."
Both veterans, at age 31, say this league seems to be doing everything right.
"This league is spot on. They care about the product that's being put out there," said Johnson.
Anderson added, "The league is A-1 to me. I've played in many places and this league is very professional. It's cohesive - the jerseys, the presentation of the players, the sponsorships, the fan base - are all A-1."
The team travelled west on the weekend, winning its road opener against the Saskatchewan Rattlers by a 99-97 score. They then lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Edmonton Stingers.
They get a chance to redeem themselves against the Stingers at home Thursday night.
Both players are impressed by what they've seen so far in this very young season.
"The fan base in the first two games was great. It was fun to play in front of the crowd and the energy out west," said Anderson. "Those locations haven't had a team so the turnout was tremendous."
The two veterans also feel they can help the younger players.
"The travel involved is new to the young guys, who aren't used to it like Ryan and me. We can help the young players with that," said Johnson.
The River Lions have only two returning players from their NBL days, Samuel Muldrow and Guillaume Boucard.
And even though the first two games were extremely close, Johnson said, "We're not playing to our potential yet. There are things we need to clean up, but we're on the right path."
Anderson offered, "I think this organization learned a lot coming from the NBL - what to do and not to do.They have a blueprint on what to do, which has put them in the position to have a great inaugural season."
He said, on the court, they already learned a valuable lesson in the loss to Edmonton. "I think that's part of growing up - playing with new guys, learning how to finish and how to execute; it's all part of growing as a team," he said.
The league also promises to make the games community, family-friendly events. "Each game will bring local music, foods and entertainment together in ways that create high energy, family-friendly experiences," promises the CEBL website.
Besides Niagara, Edmonton and Saskatchewan, the league includes: the Fraser Valley Bandits, the Guelph Nighthawks, and the Hamilton Honey Badgers.