Lightning dazzle to NBL title

Surrounded by players, coach Micheal Ray Richardson hoists the trophy after the London Lightning...

Surrounded by players, coach Micheal Ray Richardson hoists the trophy after the London Lightning defeated the Halifax Rainmen 116-92 Sunday for the NBL championship at the John Labatt Centre in London. (Derek Ruttan/QMI Agency)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:33 AM ET

LONDON, ONT. - The London Lightning have done what many thought was impossible.

They’ve made London, Ont., a two-sport town.

The Lightning won the inaugural National Basketball League of Canada championship Sunday in front of a party-minded 5,106 fans at the John Labatt Centre. The Lightning defeated the Halifax Rainmen 116-92 to take the best-of-five series 3-2.

The win did more than earn the Lightning the first NBL championship. It did more than complete a dream season for the first-year team.

It kicked open the door to what until up until Sunday had been an exclusive hockey town. The Ontario Hockey League’s Knights have owned London. But the Lightning have stepped in and proven that there is room for a second sport to be successful.

The Lightning did more than provide an entertaining product on the court. They became part of the community. Coach Micheal Ray Richardson and his players were accessible and active. For a first-year team, the Lightning put a remarkable product on the court and made attending games an affordable and worthwhile endeavour.

The hiring of Richardson by owner Vito Frijia and general manager Taylor Brown was the key for everything to fall into place.

Richardson brought a core of players who had won championships with him. He brought his colourful brand of coaching and salesmanship.

By the end of the game Sunday as it became obvious his club was going to win their championship, he was wearing a cowboy hat and dancing along the sidelines.

The salesmanship and the success on the floor worked. The Lightning became a daily part of the sports conversation in the community. It has whetted the appetite of the sports fan, with many already looking forward to a second year.

If there was one word most fans used after the final game it was “class.” The players went into the stands to thank as many fans as they could.

As the season progressed, crowds increased, culminating in the 5,000-plus for the final game that turned the JLC into a cauldron of noise and celebration.

“Electric,” Lightning forward Eddie Smith said. “Electric atmosphere . . . It was the best atmosphere of any of the championships I’ve played in.”

Smith has been part of four professional championships, as has guard DeAnthony Bowden, who saved his best performance for the final game.

“We feel great. We came out here and saw all those fans. It was incredible,” Bowden said. “I expected us to have a good crowd but not like this. London has been great to us. They played their role, they were into it. They did what they should do.”

Richardson was clear about what he thought of the atmosphere.

“It was NBA,” he said.

This is Richardson’s fourth minor league basketball championship in six years of coaching. He has a two-year contract. His relationship with both Frijia and Brown is strong.

“The only way I won’t be back is if I get an offer from an NBA team,” Richardson said. “But I expect to be back. London is my second home. I’m going to take a week off and relax and then I’m going to start building for next year.

“This is not a one-shot deal. You win one, you want to win another.”

Richardson expects four or five of his core players to return again next year.

The Lightning’s success has been reflected in revenues. Frijia expected to lose money this year, especially since there were significant startup costs. While blowing a 2-0 lead in the series was not good for the nerves, it did wonders for the box office.

The Lightning will at worst break even this year, a remarkable achievement for a minor league basketball team.

It didn’t come without hard work, but the rewards were worth it especially for basketball loving Frijia, who was red-eyed as he wore his London Lightning championship hat and T-shirt.

He and Richardson took a team that had no history when this season started and began a legacy in the best possible way . . . as championship.

Their fairy tale season opened the door to what many hope is a storybook history in a city that now is known for two sports.

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