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The most important member of St. John’s new basketball team won’t be in uniform

In this 2016 file photo, Island Storm head coach Joe Salerno, gives instruction to the team’s players during a practice in Charlottetown, P.E.I. In NBL Canada. coaches like Salerno (who moved to the Moncton Magic in the off-season) often have to multi-task, with scouting and player recruitment regularly being part of their duties.
In this 2016 file photo, Island Storm head coach Joe Salerno, gives instruction to the team’s players during a practice in Charlottetown, P.E.I. In NBL Canada. coaches like Salerno (who moved to the Moncton Magic in the off-season) often have to multi-task, with scouting and player recruitment regularly being part of their duties.

This is paraphrased a bit, but there is a point near the end of the movie “Ocean’s 11,” where Danny Ocean, played by George Clooney, tells Terry Benedict, played by Andy Garcia, “I know a guy who knows a guy.”

Danny Ocean would be perfect as a coach of a National Basketball League of Canada team.
With St. John’s City Council approving a deal to bring an NBL Canada expansion team to Mile One Centre, the “What will…?” speculation has begun. Matters like the franchise nickname and uniform colours — two things that ultimately won’t mean a whole lot to a team’s success — become immediate issues for discussion..
That's I understandable, I suppose, but the most important speculative question should begin with “Who will …?” as is “Who will be the head coach?”
Or better put, the grand poohbah.
For while this is a minor professional sports league, it is not like the AHL, where teams are backed by the huge hockey operations departments of parent clubs and coaching staffs feature three or four full-timers, plus some specialists who drop by every so often.
This is NBL Canada, where tight budgets mean that the home team’s trainer regularly does double duty by looking after the visiting side. The head coach is most often also the general manager, chief scout and unofficial team psychologist.
He has to be connected to the basketball world. He has to know guys who know guys.
People don’t pay money to watch coaches coach. I have only seen it once, in the days of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at Mile One, where there were more than a few folks who made the trip to the building just to look at Patrick Roy on the bench of the Quebec Remparts, who were taking on the St. John’s Fog Devils.
Still, the hiring of a head coach for the new hoops team (it may have already happened), may be the most important preparatory move this franchise makes in the short window between now and the mid-November start of the new NBL Canada season.
The ability to instruct, to develop offensive and defensive schemes, to run drills and manage floor time is essential of course, but just as important will be bringing in a coach who can identify and recruit players.
The league does hold a pre-season combine — this year’s will be Oct. 20-22 in Windsor, Ont. — where about 150 pre-screened player applicants work out and scrimmage in front of NBL Canada coaches and executives. A draft follows, but it is for just two rounds, meaning the majority of a team’s roster must be found elsewhere. NBL teams regularly take in regional showcases in the United States, but a lot of the recruiting is done by phone and computers, seeking out some sweet steals at the end of the grapevine.
Sports is a who-you-know business. None more than as practised this league.
And not only does the coach have to find the players, but has to convince them to play in a place they probably have never seen before, and for a salary that works out — on average — to around $2,000-2,500 a month, plus some expenses, and to ensure that they have a real motivation to do so.
Often that motivation can be for the players to eventually move on to higher-levels league overseas or to the NBA Development circuit, but this creates some roster turnout that require that coach/chief cook and dishwasher to once again utilize recruitment talents, ones that need to be applied all season. While NBL teams have 12-man rosters, most clubs used many more than that during the 2016-17 campaign. Twenty-one different players dressed for the Island Storm  of Charlottetown, P.E.I., for example.
Make no mistake about it, the NBL Canada is just an opening act at Mile One. The eventual headliner will be a hockey team. The hockey exclusivity clause in the deal between St. John’s Sports and Entertainment and the new team, owned by businessman and Cape Breton native Irwin Simon, might as well have been typed out in capital letters and bold-faced type.
Hockey has been the raison d’etre ever since last winter, when Glenn Stanford came up with the notion that a minor pro hoops team might act as a bridge between the departing AHL and a hoped-for opportunity to bring in a hockey club from another league, which was something that wasn’t going to happen until 2018-19 at the earliest.
Stanford was motivated to maintain employment for the staff he had with the AHL’s IceCaps and to eventually use them with a new hockey team.
It proved to be a popular idea, as it was co-opted by two other groups who were also interested in hockey, with Irwin’s effort — headed up by John Graham — ultimately prevailing.
But there is a belief — stated at least — that pro basketball could work here and that the presence of an NBL Canada franchise could eventually prove symbiotically beneficial to any hockey team that might shows up.
This could be an opening act with some big long-term wow, maybe not as big as that of the Beatles when they opened for Roy Orbison in 1963, but perhaps in line with the 1972 bill that saw Stevie Wonder precede the Rolling Stones.
The quality of the games played out on the court at Mile One will be a huge factor. The NBL promises exciting, high-tempo contests, and that will draw fans — especially younger ones — even more so if the team is a winner. Ticket pricing will also have its say, but don’t discount the need to make the right coaching hire, to get a guy who knows a guy, who knows a guy.

bmcc@thetelegram.com




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