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PEI’s unlikely hotbed of pro basketball

Summerside Storm's Avery Smith charges the net during game action against the Moncton Miracles, Friday, Oct. 26, 2012.

Nathan Rochford/The Globe and Mail

Al Stewart is from the west side of Chicago, not the baddest part of town, but certainly a lot more bad than Summerside, where he lives now in the Quality Inn on Water Street.

A little bit of culture shock for the 29-year-old, 5-foot-10, 175-pound, tattooed point guard, who arrived here last year to play for the Summerside Storm, Prince Edward Island's entry in the National Basketball League of Canada. The pro league, which bills itself as two rungs below the NBA, was formed last year.

"I had never heard of it, honestly," Mr. Stewart said about PEI, and Summerside. "Even though I'm from a big city I can adapt, I can adapt."

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And adapt he has. Mr. Stewart, sporting bright orange Nike sneakers and a big personality, is a fan favourite. He has returned for another season, hoping his team will do better than its second-to-last finish in the spring.

It seems almost an absurd ambition on an island of 143,000 people best known for potatoes, lobsters and a red-headed orphan. Pro basketball?

"Well, I guess a lot of people were sort of scratching their heads, wondering if this will work," said Summerside Mayor Basil Stewart.

They're still scratching.

The Storm is in Mr. Stewart's city due to the imagination and deep pockets of two island millionaires, Duncan Shaw, 43, and his 48-year-old business partner, Darren MacKay.

"Part of the fun of this is just that it is kind of funny," said Mr. Shaw, who, along with Mr. MacKay, made his money selling their software company, Cogsdale, in 2010. They had started it in their basement with "credit cards," he said, and built it to 140 employees.

After the sale, "we were looking at doing something a little bit different, a little lighter …," said the 6-foot-6 Mr. Shaw, who played basketball at University of PEI.

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So, in August, 2011, just weeks before the season, the two paid $100,000 for one of seven teams in the new league, including the Halifax Rainmen, Moncton Miracles, Saint John Mill Rats, Montreal Jazz, Oshawa Power and London Lightning. This year, the league added the Windsor Express in Ontario.

"We had no idea what we were doing," Mr. Shaw recalled. "There wasn't really a business case. We got asked all the time last year, 'How many people do you think you're going to get?' We had no idea. We just put pro basketball in Summerside."

About 2,200 showed up for the first game at Credit Union Place, which holds 4,200. The team sold out twice last season, averaging nearly 3,000. Tickets cost $12.

It costs about $700,000 to run the team; there's a salary cap of $150,000 for players, who, on five-month contracts, earn between the league minimum of $1,600 a month and $4,500 for premier players. The team pays for accommodation and all meals except breakfast. There are several full-time employees, including 30-year-old coach Joe Salerno, a Vermont native.

"He gets the small town …We had résumés from guys who grew up in Atlanta and lived in L.A. and we're going to [get them] to speak at the Summerside Rotary Club?" Mr. Shaw said. "Joe gets that."

Last year, the co-owners say they lost a lot of money – "too much," Mr. Shaw said – and their dream for this year is to break even, while raising $50,000 for island charities.

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They had the provincial Department of Education teach the players how to talk to schoolchildren about literacy, bullying and their experiences. It's expected the players will read to 2,500 kids this year.

"They see what we've become even though in PEI most of them here they don't see a lot of crime. We tell them about the trials and tribulations we have been through," said Mr. Stewart, raised in a tough neighbourhood by his mother and grandmother, who kept a close eye on him.

Mr. Stewart, who studied sociology at Drake University in Iowa and teaches in the Chicago school system in the off-season, keeps busy in Summerside by bowling and watching Netflix in his room.

Coach Salerno has brought in nine recruits this season, including Ayodokun Akingbade, a 28-year-old, 6-foot-10 centre who played last year in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Like Mr. Stewart, Mr. Akingbade, who is from Washington and studied at George Washington University, couldn't point to PEI on a map, but says now he likes the slow pace – fewer distractions and more time to concentrate on his game.

"When I'm at home, you could see 10 to 15 people my height," he said. "It's not a big deal. They just ignore me. But here they acknowledge me, they say 'hello' and they're excited about the season. And I like that."

Last year, fans invited players home for Christmas dinner. Jared Carter, a 7-foot-2 Kentuckian, was invited snowmobiling – he put plastic bags under his size 20 sneakers, and loved it.

So far so good this year. The Storm won its two exhibition games, the first against the Rainmen, who came second in the league last year. Last week fans lined up to get their favourite players' autographs; as of this week, the team has sold 339 season tickets, compared with 160 last year. The season started for real Friday at home against Saint John.

Referring to the storied NFL franchise in the Wisconsin town of 100,000, co-owner Mr. MacKay has a bold prediction: "We're going to be the Green Bay Packers of basketball."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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