Bunny Basketball: How The Ottawa BlackJacks Plan to Make Pro Basketball Last in Ottawa
“This isn’t about the Ottawa BlackJacks in 2020, this is about the Ottawa BlackJacks for many decades to come. Building a franchise that is sustainable,” said Michael Cvitkovic.
Cvitkovic is the interim president for the Ottawa BlackJacks, the new basketball franchise embarking on its inaugural season this summer. It will be Cvitkovic’s focus to weave the BlackJacks into the Ottawa sports landscape in a meaningful way that lasts. He has a strategy to accomplish it: a strong on-court product, an emphasis on entertainment outside of the game, and a connection with the Ottawa community and its basketball roots.
The Ottawa-Gatineau region has an interesting relationship with basketball. The sport’s founder, Dr. James Naismith, was born in the nearby town of Almonte. The University of Ottawa and Carleton University boast two of the strongest basketball programs in the country. Carleton in particular has redefined success in the sport with their dominance throughout the first two decades of the 21st century.
Despite that, there has only been a fleeting professional basketball presence and seldom a buzz surrounding the sport outside of the annual Capital Hoops Classic and the U Sports Final 8 Championship tournaments. The Ottawa SkyHawks were the most recent example of a failed pro basketball experiment in the National Capital Region. The team lasted only two years playing at Canadian Tire Centre before folding due its struggles to consistently fill seats.
Now the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) is taking the next swing at establishing a pro team in Ottawa.
The CEBL officially launched in 2017 and played its inaugural season a year ago. It is a distinctly Canadian product. There are Canadians in league and team management, a rule guiding each team’s roster to consist of at least 70% Canadian players, and an official partnership between the league and Canada Basketball. They recently signed a three-year deal with the CBC as well to broadcast CEBL games. The birth of the Ottawa BlackJacks represents the league’s seventh franchise and its first foray into expansion. The organization already has a set vision for what it wants its identity to be.
“The BlackJacks want to be trailblazers. It’s more than a basketball league; it’s a culture combining art, fashion, music & entertainment. We will highlight local talents and underdog artists who deserve to be under the spotlight. We want to engage with our fans and build a relationship with each of them,” said Marika Guérin, Manager of Communications and Events.
The BlackJacks certainly have a lot going for them heading into season one. They are league-owned which means a clear vision for success and organizational decision-making inline with the CEBL’s. They have the benefit of TD Place’s facilities and offerings because of a relationship built with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), which includes the highest-capacity home arena in the league. Most importantly though, they have Dave Smart. That Dave Smart. Ottawa’s bishop of basketball will serve as the BlackJacks’ general manager.
Smart spent nearly 20 successful seasons up Colonel By Drive building the most dominant university athletics program Canada has ever seen. He won 13 titles with the Carleton Ravens and stepped down as head coach after last March’s championship run to take on an advisory role with the team. He finished his Carleton coaching career with an overall winning percentage of .925.
Following the decision to hand the keys to the franchise to Smart was the hiring of the franchise’s first head coach. The choice was Osvaldo Jeanty, a 36-year-old former player who was born in Haiti but grew up in Ottawa East.
It was Smart’s decision alone to hire Jeanty. It is a relationship that the new coach describes as “a perfect marriage”.
Jeanty played for Smart at Carleton and won a national championship in each of his five seasons as a university athlete before joining Smart’s staff as an assistant coach.
“It’s been great. I’ve always loved our community and Ottawa has given so much to me. I think the team will be a great product, great entertainment. Hopefully we will be able to get local kids. I’m just honoured and fortunate that I was able to start something here in Ottawa,” said Jeanty.
With leadership in place, the next step for the BlackJacks will be to establish the rest of the coaching staff and to sign players. When asked what his philosophy will be for leading the team and what principles in players he values when making roster decisions, Jeanty had a firm answer.
“My coaching philosophy is about guys working their butt off and working hard to gain the love of the fans. You know I played overseas for quite a while and for me it was always about working hard and fans respect that,” said Jeanty.
The Ottawa franchise will have their pick of top Canadian basketball talent from outside the NBA. That means Canadians currently playing in European pro leagues such as EuroLeague, the Basketball Bundesliga (Germany), and Liga ACB (Spain) whose seasons end in the spring. Jeanty says when he played in Europe he would have loved to have the chance to come home to Canada and play throughout the summer between seasons.
Jeanty’s basketball philosophy worked for him when he played overseas in German and Romanian pro basketball leagues. It built the foundation for a Carleton dynasty that is still going strong. Him and Smart will now try to establish that foundation at the professional level with the BlackJacks.
Cvitkovic recognizes that with Smart and Jeanty onboard, expectations will be high for early on-court performance among observers that are used to seeing their high level of success in Ottawa.
“This is a basketball-intense community. There is a tremendous amount of basketball that is being played at the grass roots level in addition to the university and college level. It is a basketball town. They will expect success especially with Dave Smart’s name on it and Osvaldo Jeanty’s name on it,” said Cvitkovic.
Beyond winning early on, Cvitkovic will try to achieve two other factors he has identified as key to securing fan engagement: entertainment and community involvement.
“The entertainment is just as important as the basketball,” said Cvitkovic.
That mentality that has been a cornerstone of the CEBL since the beginning. What that means exactly is still up in the air but Cvitkovic and Guérin have put a lot of thought into the overall experience of attending an Ottawa BlackJacks game. It starts with an affordable ticket to help attract students and families, a live DJ playing music throughout the game, halftime entertainment, and an overall experience that will be short to suit the modern attention span – about two hours from tipoff to the final buzzer.
“We are building a list that can’t be revealed yet, but I can tell you one thing: it will be very exciting,” said Guérin. “We want to make sure you don’t want to leave your seat during halftime. From the underdog local artist, to the up and coming singer, to the best magician in town, we are looking for the most unique and entertaining talent.”
The primary goal will be to become CEBL champions, but Cvitkovic says they also want to be champions in the community. He points to the success of fellow Ottawa franchises like the Redblacks and the 67’s in forming a bond with Ottawans.
Cvitkovic is a basketball lifer who has experience in management positions with the Toronto Raptors, Ontario Basketball, and most recently as a senior consultant to help launch the CEBL. He has a keen sense of the impact sports can have on a community and the role a local sports franchise can play.
Cvitkovic spent six years working for the Raptors in the days of superstar talents Vince Carter and Chris Bosh but it was the community focus of the team that left an impact on him of how to be a successful sports franchise in Canada. BlackJacks players will be accessible to fans and committed to being leaders in the Ottawa community.
“My first calls as the president of the Ottawa BlackJacks wasn’t to sponsors, it wasn’t to even Dave Smart. My first call was to the local basketball clubs because I understand the extreme commitment to growing the sport of basketball in the Ottawa and Gatineau region.”
The team has a developed a series of Key Performance Indicators on the basketball, business, and community sides to measure the success of their first season. That includes selling just less than 3,000 tickets per home game. TD Place Arena seats roughly 9,500 at full capacity. The Ottawa BlackJacks will begin their inaugural season on May 7th in Niagara and host the first-ever home again a week later on May 14th at TD Place against the Hamilton Honey Badgers.
The team’s namesake is what the franchise describes as “the most elusive jackrabbit on the planet.” What has been previously elusive is sustainable professional basketball in Ottawa. The BlackJacks will need to capture the attention and passion of a sports-hungry market to hop their way to success this summer.
By Liam Fox