By Jonathon Brodie/London Community News / Twitter: @jonathonbrodie
The London Lightning raised their National Basketball League of Canada (NBL-C) championship banner at their season opener against the Halifax Rainmen at Budweiser Gardens on Saturday (Nov. 3), but this was a new team celebrating last year’s reward.
For instance, only five players received championship rings at the opening ceremony with Lightning’s DeAnthony Bowden, Rodney Buford, Tim Ellis and Jamar Abrams getting the new bling. The other player, Eddie Smith, wasn’t even wearing London’s white-and-black jersey and donned the baby blue of Halifax instead when collecting his jewelry.
“It was really emotional,” Bowden said of the pre-game celebration. “It’s easy to get caught up in everything that went down last year because we won the championship, but when that banner went up in the air, last year’s championship was over.”
The most notable person to leave the previous season’s team is Gabe Freeman, who was the face of the franchise, but in London’s 107-89 win in the home opener the Lightning showed they have plenty of players to step in place of last year’s NBL-C MVP.
The weight won’t, and shouldn’t, be placed on the shoulders of Jermaine Blackburn — London’s newest addition since Freeman left after signing a contract to play basketball in the Philippines.
Although Freeman is no longer with the Lightning some of his traits still remain with his old team. Instead of just one player showing off the skills though, the basketball expertise was highlighted through a variety of players during Saturday’s matchup.
Freeman led the league in rebounds in the inaugural year; In the home opener London’s Elvin Mims set up shop underneath the rim to grab a game-high 12 boards, despite the Rainmen picking up 13 more rebounds overall over the Lightning.
Freeman would yell at the crowd to keep them energized and coming back the next game; London’s Jeremy Williams waved his hands in the air to get fans on their feet when a teammate pulled off a big play Saturday.
Freeman used to fly over opponents to score baskets; Morgan Lewis caught balls for dunks at will against Halifax.
“The fans do love it and we do like getting some highlights and some of those alley-oop type plays because we feed off the crowd and they’re always the sixth man,” Lewis said, finishing his first regular season game as Lightning with 16 points. “Every night we got a target on our backs because we’re the defending champions, so we’re going to get everybody’s best game. What they don’t know is that they got a target on their forehead because we’re trying to come out to prove we are the defending champs.”
Freeman helped define London’s introduction to semi-pro basketball last year, but some of the role players have stuck around and proved Saturday they’re ready to lead the way.
Buford still has his imaginary hand-guns when dropping big baskets, Ellis used his long Spiderman like arms to clean up missed shots and Bowden kicked enough balls out to lead the game with eight assists.
“We did good, but there’s room for improvement. There’s always room for improvement,” Bowden said, who had a game-high 19 points.
The Lightning has some new players that could set the latest definition of the team and there’s no doubt Adrian Moss impressed the 3,456 in attendance at Budweiser Gardens. His 5-foot-9 frame was the smallest player on the court in London’s first game, but when he would break his opponents ankles with a quick dribble the Rainmen player would end up lower than Moss and have to watch him pull up for an easy jump shot or witness him go by for an easy lay-up.
“Nothing has changed since I’ve been in high school. I’ve always been the smallest on the court,” Moss said. “To me it’s normal, I don’t feel any smaller than anyone out there. I just go play and rely on my hard work.”
On the opposite end of the scale, 6-foot-8 DeAndre Thomas was able to win the hometown crowd over. The big man from Chicago, IL had only three points going into the fourth quarter, but bullied his way in the key to finish the game with 13. When he scored his last basket — a free throw — the crowd was one of the loudest they had been all night, except for maybe when the championship banner had been raised.
“This game, being the first game of the season, you just got to go out there and play hard,” Thomas said. “I just got to listen to what coach says, play my game, not worry about the refs.”
The only players who didn’t see time in the game against Halifax were Josh Whyte, Tyler Murray and Dane Smith—the three mandatory Canadians on the team.
At the end of the game, and ultimately season, the Lightning won't be defined by just one player in the standings and will only be looked at for one thing.
“To win games’” Bowden said. “You can pick out anything that you want to pick out, but the only thing that matters at the end is how many games you win.”
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