How a Brawl and Sleazy Owner Killed the Halifax Rainmen
As the National Basketball League of Canada begins its new season on Dec. 26, we take a look back at the Canadian equivalent of the Malice at the Palace.
Photo by Trevor MacMillan
The Halifax Rainmen arrived for their morning shootaround prior to Game 7 of the 2015 National Basketball League of Canada final against the Windsor Express to find a personal trainer and three women working out with confused looks on their faces. The lights were turned off, and there were no balls to shoot.
The players began changing and stretching while Halifax owner Andre Levingston made phone calls to try to figure out where the balls were. One of the arena workers eventually turned on the lights. Soon after, however, Express coach Bill Jones arrived with a few players and personnel, walked across the court, turned the lights off again and began arguing with Levingston about shootaround times
Only days earlier, before Game 6, Rainmen players were unable to access the gym and were forced to stretch on the grass outside of their hotel, so this was nothing new.
On the other side of the court, the few Windsor players who had arrived received balls and began shooting. After a missed attempt, a rebound bounced directly to Liam McMorrow, Halifax's 7"2" center. He took it to the Rainmen's side of the court and dunked it. When he came back down, Jones was waiting and tried to grab the ball back without success.
"Next thing I know he tackled me, and he's trying to bring me to the ground. And I'm thinking, is this guy serious? This is their head coach? And he's an older dude. I didn't want to hurt him so I sort of flipped him over and held him down to stop it. Then I let him go and he squared up, like ready to fight. Everything happened really fast. By the end it was a fucking melee, people holding people back. I got hit with a chair in the head," McMorrow told VICE Sports.
"How did it go from me grabbing a ball, to me getting tackled and wrestling with their coach, to getting hit with a steel chair. I mean, is this the WWF or the NBL?"
By the next day, the league determined that Halifax had forfeited Game 7, declaring Windsor the champions. Rainmen players and coaches then heard via Twitter that they were fined, supposedly suspended from FIBA, and potentially banned from the NBL for life.
The Rainmen were founded in 2006 by Levingston, an American businessman who ignored repeated requests to be interviewed. The team began in the American Basketball Association, where a franchise can be started for between $5,000-10,000. This leads to many teams joining each year, but the majority end up folding before completing a season. The Rainmen had league-best attendance numbers in their lone year in the ABA, but withdrew prior to the playoffs when the opposing team didn't want to travel to Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia.
The Rainmen then joined the Premier Basketball League, where the team gained a reputation for poor treatment of players and high roster turnover. But they didn't stay in that league for long, either, leaving, along with several other teams, due to issues with officiating. Three of those teams, including Levingston's Rainmen, decided to found their own league—the National Basketball League of Canada.
The Rainmen lost the league's first final under the guidance of coach Josep "Pep" Claros, who would later return for the fateful 2014-2015 season. Possibly the most noteworthy Rainmen moment before Claros' return was when former coach Craig Hodges attempted to take two games off mid-season to join Dennis Rodman and a group of former NBA players on a trip to North Korea. Hodges was the only player sent back in transit because of "paperwork issues."
Following years of instability, the 2014-2015 season could have been the Rainmen's proudest moment. They brought back Claros and made it to the NBL final for the second time in four years.
"It was the best team I ever played on. We all just gelled," Chris Cayole, a 6"8" small forward from Vermont, told VICE Sports. "But we dealt with a lot of stuff off the court that professional players shouldn't have to."
Cayole had been in the NBL since the beginning, getting selected in the league's initial draft by the Storm, a team based in Prince Edward Island, before eventually winding up in Halifax.
"Going into it I was kind of weary," said Cayole. "Since I've been in the league there's always been stories about the Halifax Rainmen.
"It didn't seem like many people had a lot of respect for the owner. I heard a lot of stories about him being cheap and trying to save money, or as we say, doing players dirty."
When he arrived in Halifax, Cayole found himself living with a host family and sleeping in a child-sized bed. He was eventually moved into the apartment of Levingston's son, who worked as the team's director of basketball operations. But instead of putting him in the spare room, which was filled with Levingston's son's shoes, Cayole was forced to sleep on a couch, using his jacket as a pillow. He was able to finally move into one of the team's official apartments after two months of living under those conditions.
The Rainmen's problems were not strictly limited to housing, though.
"We never practiced in the same gym consecutively. No one knew what time practice was or where until the day of," said Cayole.
Turmoil continued inside of the organization, with Levingston firing his son midway through the season for undisclosed reasons. Disorder would also spread to the rest of the league. Commissioner Paul Riley was fired with three weeks left to play in the season, leaving no oversight to the league beyond the owners of each team.
Still, after a disorganized season, Halifax won ten straight games to capture its division before winning its first playoff series handily. But in the second round, the players noticed a dramatic increase in the physicality of play which continued escalating into the final.
"The biggest problem is there are no repercussions from the league. When a player gets a technical they're fined a laughable amount of money, less than $50. And then if they were ejected, there was no league policy to say that they would miss any more games. So you could have a guy punch a guy in the face in Game 1, get kicked out, and be playing in Game 2," one referee, who asked not to be named due to his continued involvement with the league, told VICE Sports.
"But the finals was beyond physical, you can see the tapes of the things that were let go by the refs. It was an unsafe playing environment."
During the finals, the Rainmen made highlight tapes of uncalled and flagrant fouls by the Express. Videos were posted on YouTube, given to Levingston, and sent to FIBA. Without a commissioner, however, there was no one to enforce penalties and suspensions.
"It's the playoffs, of course you got to bump up the physicality. I even got tossed from one of the games against PEI in the second round," said McMorrow. "But with Windsor, it seemed those guys were really out to get us.
"I left the court (during the fourth quarter of Game 1) on a stretcher and went to the hospital with the paramedics. I had a concussion and had to miss the next game. And this is my livelihood. I have a daughter. I have to take care of her and her mom, I have to take care of my mom. I got a lot of people I take care of."
Less than two weeks after being hospitalized with a concussion, McMorrow was hit in the head with a chair in the shootaround prior to Game 7. Video of the melee showed Anthony Bennett of the Express holding a chair. Bennett declined to be interviewed, citing the advice of his agent. The Express' Jones, who many claimed instigated the brawl, ignored repeated requests, as well.
When the team returned to the hotel, the players, coaches, and owner agreed it was not safe to play the game that evening. Levingston quickly changed his tune, though. He tried to convince the team to have the game that night because of the money the league would lose. He offered each player the $1,000 championship bonus regardless of the outcome. When he felt the coach was behind them not playing, he offered to bring in a new coach, or even coach himself.
"Even if the fight didn't happen, it would have been a really physical game. But when you have a coach attacking a player, a guy getting hit with a chair, and we're just supposed to play like nothing happened? Something even worse probably would have happened in that game," said Cayole.
The team left Halifax for Toronto, where along the way the owner of another squad, Vito Frijia, tried to convince them to play, offering extra money and security.
In recordings of this meeting obtained by VICE Sports, the players said they were not opposed to playing the game at a later date, but they did not feel safe playing that night until the matter had been investigated, and punishments had been levied. Until this time, they knew that Levingston wanted them to play, but the team still believed he agreed with their collective decision.
As the players were heading to the airport, some received messages from a landlord stating that their belongings were being packed and moved out. They discovered that Levingston had bought them all plane tickets out of Halifax to their home cities, or the location of their next contract, for early the next morning.
They soon saw tweets that declared the Express champions, accompanied by photos of the team with the trophy. The league released a statement that Claros was fined $10,000, while his assistant and all 11 players were fined $5,000. Both coaches also received a lifetime ban.
A number of players responded by skipping their arranged flights in the morning and organizing a press conference in the food court of a local shopping mall so they could explain their side of the story.
Levingston organized his own press conference afterward, and placed blame on coaches and players, while distancing himself from the decision not to play the game. One of the team's most popular players, Joey Haywood, who attended the press conference, publicly asked Levingston, "What side are you on?"
There was no Halifax player more recognizable than Haywood, and maybe no one who was more heartbroken by what happened.
"It really hurt. I feel like I was kind of like a pioneer in the league, part of the movement," Haywood told VICE Sports. "And to get thrown under the bus like this, telling me I owe this money to the NBL, I'm banned for a year, I can't play anywhere for FIBA—it's crazy. You're really going do this to me, man? After all the hard work and sacrifices I've made to try to help this league out?"
Originally from Vancouver, Haywood played ball at Halifax's St. Mary's University, before going pro and signing with the Rainmen. He received the league's Canadian Player of the Year award in both 2012 and 2013.
"It's just sad because I love Halifax, I love the city, I love playing there, but it just gave me a bad taste about playing for the Halifax Rainmen," he said.
As the players and coaches waited for a notification of their fine, they learned that their final paycheques were withheld.
"None of the players, nor myself, received an email, a message, a call, nothing, to let us know that we were fined. We just read it on Twitter," said Claros.
When he contacted FIBA to check on the status of their fines and suspensions, Claros discovered they were not valid outside of the NBL due to the league not complying with FIBA rules.
He received a termination letter on May 5, even though his contract had been renewed for an additional month. Recognizing that something was wrong, Claros began contacting the labour board of Canada in an effort to get the players and coaches their final paycheques since it seemed illegal the payments would be held for a fine that was not recognized.
"I waited one month in Halifax for the decision, and when we won, because the labor board decision was very clear, then (Levingston) declared bankruptcy the next day," Claros said. "He washed his hands."
Levingston declared bankruptcy July 6, apparently ending his franchise's tenure in Halifax, or so it seemed.
The players were told they could apply for the government's Wage Earner Protection Program, which pays up to $3,807 to employees whose employers have declared bankruptcy before paying their final wages. Since the players' paycheques were below that amount for the final 15 days they were withheld, they should receive full compensation, although as of publication several had not.
"I'm losing a lot of money because, for me, it's 45 days (that he worked, not 15) and I had to pay for the house. (Levingston) cut the power, water, internet, with my two kids and my wife there. And that is something I'll never forgive."
Claros, the first international coach in NCAA history, said he'd never seen anything like this before.
"The league is an owner's league. They work together for what is best for their interests. In this case, they thought making Windsor the champion was best for their interest," he said. "Well, OK, but if that's the way they want to run the league, then they can never call themselves a professional league because they are not professional."
In the aftermath of the finals debacle, the league hired former Indiana Mr. Basketball David Magley, who had a brief stint in the NBA, to become the new commissioner of the NBL.
"It was rudderless," Magley told VICE Sports. "You could tell that there was someone that needed to be there, whether it was for discipline purposes, or direction purposes, or whatever it was."
Magley explained that the ban the coaches received would stand, and that the players could apply for reinstatement. Their fines would have to be paid, but how much and by whom was negotiable.
After Levingston declared bankruptcy, rumours of a new franchise coming to Halifax began nearly immediately. At a press conference in late August, Don Mills—CEO of Corporate Research Associates Inc.—explained how a group of 25 shareholders would be bringing a new team to Halifax for the 2015-2016 season.
Mills approached Levingston a few years ago with the idea to set up an advisory group for the franchise that would allow better access to the Halifax business community. According to Mills—and unknown to many—the advisory group paid the team's flights, hotels, and expenses out of pocket during last season's finals.
"It was very clear early this year that the team would not survive the year financially because of the debts that had accumulated over the previous years. So our full goal was to get the team through the playoffs and allow them a chance to compete for the championship," Mills told VICE Sports.
When Levingston declared bankruptcy, the advisory group took it upon themselves to bring a team back to Halifax. Mills announced at a press conference that the 25-person ownership group did not include Levingston, but that he would be hired as the GM of basketball operations—an announcement that angered many Rainmen fans who believed Levingston was to blame for much of the team's failures.
"There would not be a new team in Halifax without Andre. We decided that the only way we would go forward to raise the money was if Andre was part of the solution," said Mills. "He's a man of high integrity in our view, and he's the right guy for us in terms of managing the talent side of the equation."
In a conversation with Mills five days after the press conference, however, he admitted that a 26th shareholder had been added: Andre Levingston. This news had not been reported previously in the media even though Mark Lever, president and CEO of Halifax's largest newspaper, the Chronicle Herald, is also a shareholder in the new team.
Mills refused to share the percentages of each owner's shares, which begged the question: How can Levingston legally be a shareholder only two months after declaring bankruptcy? Mills said there was no issue, according to the legal advice he received.
To further complicate the matter, in order for a franchise to join the NBL, its required to pay a $250,000 fee. The original Rainmen fee was paid by Levingston. Mills stressed in the conversation that this franchise was entirely separate from the Rainmen; there would be a new name and jersey, and it would not adopt any of the history of the previous franchise. The upcoming season would be registered as the first in team history.
Mills would not provide details when asked if the team paid the $250,000 fee, or bought Levingston's previous rights to a franchise. "We negotiated a fee that was acceptable to both sides. That is all I'll say about that," he said.
On Oct. 20, Mills and Levingston announced the name of the new franchise—the Hurricanes. Their logo and colors resemble very much that of the Rainmen, and they seemed to be unable to veer away from their obsession with Halifax's poor weather.
As this team prepares for its new season beginning Dec. 26, all but one former Rainmen player rebuffed Levingston's attempts to re-sign. With a new lineup and oddly similar logo, whether the Hurricanes will be able to rally the city behind them after such a strange and terrible saga remains to be seen.