By Martin Cleary
The Ottawa soccer and hockey communities had their moments in the sun over the past two decades, receiving increased fields and ice pads respectively to accommodate growth in their sports.
But basketball, which has been seeking its slam-dunk celebration for more than a quarter of a century, is still waiting its turn.
The basketball community has been making noise since the early 1990s, but it hasn’t made a difference.
But there’s a good case to be made for the City of Ottawa and local businesses to step forward and invest in the creation of more basketball courts. This would match the continued growth in the sport by today’s youth at a time when basketball is a winner in Ottawa and the sport remains highly popular across Canada.
Retired public servant Leo Doyle is one of many people who believes basketball deserves a better shake in the nation’s capital and he’s doing something about it.
A basketball coach and the Ottawa Shooting Stars’ vice-president, Doyle has created the Ottawa Basketball Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to connect, advocate and enable the betterment of basketball in Ottawa.
On June 10, the network will play host to Growing the Game Together: The Ottawa Basketball Summit at the University of Ottawa. Organizers will study the important issues about local basketball, especially the need for more basketball courts to meet the demands of children wanting to play the game.
The network wants to promote access to the game by bringing together local basketball clubs, community groups, under-represented organizations and other stakeholders.
In its advocating role, the network strives to encourage all levels of government “to adopt policies and funding models that allow community basketball organizations to build capacity for growth.”
As “a solutions partner,” the network also aims “to develop strategies to manage public facilities more equitably and efficiently and champion efforts to build and repurpose spaces for basketball.”
Alongside Youth Ottawa and the Overbrook Community Association, the Ottawa Basketball Network tipped off the conversation with a May 1 event at the Overbrook Community Centre. New York University sport business professor David Hollander, who recently published a book called How Basketball Can Save the World, was the featured guest.
At the upcoming summit, Doyle expects to examine a variety of issues, but the emphasis will be to continue to push for more venues.
“Space is one of the big items,” he said in a phone interview this week. “We have to build a critical case that we need more basketball space.”
In Canada, which has graduated the most players to the NBA out of all countries except for the United States, Ottawa is considered one of the hubs of the game.
The Carleton University Ravens have won 17 of the past 20 U Sports national men’s basketball championships, and the women’s team has earned two of the last five Canadian championships. The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees also have developed national top-10 men’s and women’s programs.
National Capital teams have a solid track record of success at the OFSAA high school and Ontario Cup basketball championships. The Canada Topflight Academy, the Capital Courts Academy and Training Centre and the Louis-Riel Basketball Academy are developing the skills of young players so they can play at their highest post-secondary level.
Ottawa was the home to Canadian basketball coaching legend Jack Donohue, who brought a high profile to the men’s program in the 1970s and 1980s. In neighbouring Almonte, the Dr. James Naismith Museum is dedicated to the founder of the game.
The Ottawa BlackJacks joined the Canadian Elite Basketball League in 2019 and in its first three seasons (2020-22) reached the playoff semifinals each time.
And Canadian basketball fever was stirred to new heights with the arrival of the Toronto Raptors in 1995 and their NBA championship in 2019.
“I grew up in a small town in Nova Scotia,” Doyle said. “If you had success at something, you leveraged that. We haven’t leveraged the phenomenal success we’ve had with our university basketball teams and had the result of more spaces (courts).
“The realization is there’s a demand to play basketball … but we don’t have the infrastructure and resources to accommodate it. I think if we can build an advocacy network, we can make progress and find opportunities to play.”
During his working days, Doyle attended a national career counselling convention and one of the speakers talked about how the arts culture could help young people develop skills for future employment. That made sense to Doyle and he figured basketball could be just as effective as a skills development platform.
As an example, Doyle once told unsuspecting Ottawa Police Services Sgt. Maria McKeen several of the forces’ new recruits had basketball referee development training.
“Referee training is transferable to 23 occupations,” said Doyle, whose working background included human resources.
Doyle added the same is true for young basketball players as they learn skills in practices and apply them to games and work as a team on the court trying to find success through various plays, discipline and work ethic.
However, there is light on the horizon for the development of more basketball courts in Ottawa.
Doyle noted that former Ottawa councillor and sports commissioner Mathieu Fleury and Rideau-Rockcliffe councillor Rawlson King had a motion passed in 2022 for the city to examine repurposing under-used, single-pad hockey rinks.
“It’s a start,” Doyle said.
He added the city is shying away from maintaining single-pad arenas and prefers double- or quadruple-pad ice arenas. Doyle would like to see single-pad ice surfaces – such as Bernard-Grandmaître, Brewer and Bell Centennial arenas – converted into basketball venues.
A precedent was set in 1992, when the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre moved into the former Lions hockey arena on Elmgrove Avenue.
Doyle was amazed by what he saw when he visited the Saville Community Sports Centre on the campus of the University of Alberta – 12 FIBA-sized gymnasiums for basketball. He was told the cost was $9 million with government assistance.
Earlier this month, Ottawa played host to the Ontario Cup provincial basketball championships for 1,500 players on 130 teams. But the championships had to be spread over 17 separate secondary and post-secondary schools.
“That’s hugely labour intensive and high risk,” said Doyle, who knows a mega-tournament like that could run much more efficiently, if it was played in a multi-court venue.
The recent Ontario volleyball championships were played inside the Enercare Centre on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. The centre was converted into a volleyball venue with 58 courts.
Doyle would like to open the conversation with Ottawa’s four boards of education to talk about a better way for the basketball community to use elementary and high school gymnasiums.
He also referred to a program in Edmonton called Fair Play. This after-school program for elementary and high school students offers instruction in five sports, including basketball, during the school year. The cost for basketball was $35 a month.
Basketball is a popular sport in the Ottawa-Carleton Elementary Athletic Association as about 11,000 students hit the court each year to represent their school.
“But not many play club basketball because of the capacity issues,” Doyle said.
“To grow the sport and meet the demand, we need other spaces. Basketball is joyful, an affordable sport and something we can use to build relationships. Let’s get the conversation going.”
This article is part of the Ottawa Sports Pages’ weekly Inclusion in Sport series. Read more about local sport inclusion initiatives at: OttawaSportsPages.ca/Ottawa-Sports-Pages-Inclusion-In-Sport-Series/.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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