Game Fixer

Growth seen in hoops loop

BRIAN BAKER, The Game Fixer

When I was young I created my own basketball league.

I created 15 fictitious players on each of the 24 teams. I had squads in cities across North America. I created storylines, histories, expansions, team and player movement…

Yeah, I was a geek.

I kept my own “American Basketball League” going for a surprisingly long time in what bordered on OCD detail.

Perhaps it was the young writer in me creating a new world, but imagination eventually hits nothing but net, especially when there’s a need.

So in my coverage of girls basketball this year the whispers of a new organization outside of high school piqued my curiosity. Some of Toronto’s most talented high school cagers have picked up the ball for this rep league, and the Sam Spade in me wanted to know why.

Its name: Ontario Junior Women’s Elite League; JUEL for short. The under-19 association has gone province-wide under the initiative of commissioner Fergy Neves.

The idea was sparked by the lacklustre performances of Canadian basketball teams too often seen at the international level.

“Internationally, our country has not done well on both sides — the men and the women,” he said. “There have been models that have come out year after year and they just haven’t done it, for whatever reason.

What makes his approach different?

“Last year Basketball Canada came out with a new model and the new model is the kids are basically playing too much, playing too many games and they’re not training enough,” he said. “The (Ontario Basketball Association), following that model, put out a mass email to all the clubs saying they were going to eliminate the quarter-final games at the provincial championships.”

That knee-jerk reaction caused an uprising at the grassroots level.

Not wanting to stand idly by, Neves went to work. Drafting up his idea for a league of 16 regional teams in January, 2010.

After presenting the idea to the OBA, help was given to promote the structured league focused on developing girls basketball and turning out university, international grade players.

Did I mention that Neves wanted 16 teams? Well, 38 applied.

So a committee of seven was formed to decide on who would be in the first season of JUEL. Eighteen teams in all were given two-year contracts, while three others with single seasons.

All franchises awarded cover almost all of Ontario, including four in Toronto: North Toronto Huskies, Blues Toronto, Etobicoke Storm and Scarborough Blues.

But that doesn’t mean the 905 have been getting some 416ers on their squads. Northern Red Knight phenom McKenzie Sigurdson, who has joined Oakville Venom, is effervescent about an opportunity to play with Ontario’s top talent.

“There’s such good talent that’s in the league,” she said. “Every game you’re playing against the top girls in Ontario.”

She rattles off the names of players, like Gloucester native Kellie Ring, who have played on team Canada’s cadet team.

Her regular season may be over now; a playoff tournament is slated for May 6–8 in Kitchener-Waterloo.

Sigurdson is gearing up for that, but she’s quick to point out that there is interest from the other gender.

“I’ve actually heard from other people that the boys want a JUEL league as well,” she says, with a giggle. “I think the structure of how it is, and the final tournaments are just so exciting with the rankings.”

Which goes to show, a little imagination and a focus on benefiting kids goes a long way.

Neves might have just scored that dying-second trey to form a women’s basketball league in Canada.

He says it’s a long way off, but in five years it could be possible. JUEL would be the base.

“Ultimately for me, it’s that we raise the bar,” he said. “It might be a pipe dream, but we’ll give it a shot.”

Dreams, with a little effort, can become reality.

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