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Niagara River Lions' Coach Grâce Lokole

© Mike Keenan

Grâce Lokole, head coach for the Niagara River Lions of the National Basketball League of Canada (NBL) tells me that Kobe Bryant as a player, the Dallas Spurs as a team and Gregg Popovich, their coach - are his three all-time basketball favourites.

Popovich will be a hard act to follow. Taking over as coach of the Spurs in 1996, he is the longest tenured active coach in both the NBA and all US major sports leagues. He is considered one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, currently tied with Pat Riley with 19 consecutive winning seasons, just slightly behind Phil Jackson's 20.

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lokole enjoyed a circuitous route to his current post. He moved to Dallas, Texas at age four and at 15, Welland, Ontario, where he played for Notre Dame College School. He resides in Welland after attending the University of Guelph.

The National Basketball League of Canada is a Canadian professional men's basketball league founded in 2011. It consists of ten teams. Five are located in the Maritime provinces and five more in Ontario. The current champions are the Halifax Hurricanes, having defeated the London Lightning 4-3 in the 2016 NBL Finals. Grâce says there used to be a team in Québec which he expects will return and that eventually, teams from the western provinces will link up to expand the league.

In Ontario, Lokole's charges go up against teams from Kitchener, London, Orangeville and Windsor. At the conclusion of the regular season, the playoffs begin the first week of May and end in mid-June. Eight teams qualify for a best-of-five first round series, with the four victorious teams moving on to the best-of-seven division finals. The Atlantic Division champion then meets the Central Division champion in the best-of-seven NBL Finals.

The River Lions play their home games at the Meridian Centre (capacity 5,300) in downtown St. Catharines. Their nickname was inspired by the Niagara Region's coat of arms, which depicts such an animal. Their mascot, "Dunkin the River Lion," performs on court during every River Lions home game as well as the Niagara Lady Lions , the official Dance and Promo Team.

Grâce says that they carry 12 players aged 25-29, four of whom are Canadians - centre Mike Allison and guards Greg Carter, Clinton Springer-Williams and Tramar Sutherland.

He is pleased that last season's MVP and co-captain, 6-foot-9, 225-pounder Logan Stutz has returned from playing in Japan. The league's MVP led the loop in scoring (21.4 points per game), finishing second in rebounding (9.1 per game) and fifth in field goal percentage (55.8 per cent).

Last year, the Lions finished 3rd with a 16-24 record, and this year, they are off to a similar start, but according to Logan Stutz, "Amazing" Grace is a hard worker, and results should improve. Grâce admits that basketball will never outdo the sport of hockey here in Niagara, but he says that basketball enjoys tremendous growth in the region. He formerly coached at Niagara College, and he keeps in touch with coaches and players in the local high school basketball scene.


Grâce tells me that there is a Canadian draft at the end of the year, but that the team salary cap is $150,000 which is miniscule when compared to the NBA. Home court tickets range from $15-$200 at Meridian, and more detailed information on the team and players is readily available at the Lions website at www.riverlions.ca

Check out the Niagara River Lions, a fine sport complement to the Niagara Ice Dogs in the OHL also featured at Meridian.

Niagara River Lions - First Home Game

River Lions TV presents: Off The Court Ep.1

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