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Calgary Surge brought basketball culture to the city. They’re back this year to win it all

It was an idea they had in the works for later down the road — much, much later. Calgary Surge to play at the Saddledome in the franchise’s fifth year.

But as its inaugural season progressed, the Canadian Elite Basketball League team and its players knew it was something they could pull off sooner.

“I love Calgary, I love the fans,” said returning guard Sean (Rugzy) Miller-Moore.

“Just bringing basketball back here, I can tell it’s very important to the local Calgary people.”

Now only in its second year in the city, the team will trade its home court arena for one night this season: its Tuesday home opener.

That day, the ice at Calgary’s biggest and most recognized sporting venue will be swapped out for a glossy hard court as the Surge tips off its second campaign against the Edmonton Stingers at the Saddledome.

Calgary Surge's Sean 'Rugzy' Miller-Moore, right, shoots over a falling Scarborough Shooting Stars' Myck Kabongo, front left, during the first half of the CEBL basketball championship final, in Langley, B.C.
Calgary Surge’s Sean (Rugzy) Miller-Moore, right, shoots over a falling Scarborough player, Myck Kabongo, during the first half of the CEBL basketball championship final on Aug. 13, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

“It’s just been this rallying cry for our staff and for our fans,” said Calgary Surge president and vice-chairman Jason Ribeiro.

“It’s going to amplify that connection between basketball and arts and culture. I think it’s going to pay homage to a lot of the great basketball history that existed way before the Surge ever arrived.”

Hometown team, hometown fans

In a city synonymous with its hockey team, there’s been a Shaq-sized void since 1992 — when the World Basketball League folded, sinking what was then Calgary’s only professional basketball club. There’s been an itch for the sport since the departure of the 88’s — an itch that didn’t go unnoticed. 

Last year, four out of the 10 home court games at the nearly 3,200-seat arena were sold out, with other games running close to capacity. The team is expecting close to 10,000 fans to pack the ‘Dome on Tuesday.

“I believe I was one of the first ones to have season tickets,” said Surge fan Travis Libby. “I would go to Mount Royal basketball games or U of C basketball games. But this is the next level of competitiveness.” 

Travis Libby, left, has been a been a season ticket holder for the Surge for both of the team's seasons.
Travis Libby, left, has been a been a season ticket holder for the Surge for both of the team’s seasons so far in Calgary. (Submitted by Travis Libby)

Libby has lived in Canadian cities all his life, but he’s never had a hometown ball club to cheer for. 

The arrival of the Surge changed that for him and for thousands of others who prefer the sound of a swish over the boom of hockey checks along the boards.

“It’s always hockey towns, hockey towns, hockey towns. So it was just nice to be somewhere that has professional-level basketball,” Libby said.

“The atmosphere courtside is unbelievable, the fans are right into it … everyone’s standing on their feet, getting up, getting into the game, cheering.”

Basketball culture through community

Since bringing the team to Calgary, Ribeiro and his business partner, Usman Tahir Jutt, have had off-court impact as a priority.

When the 88’s left Calgary, they left an outsized impact both in Calgary’s sports scene and around the broader community, Ribeiro said.

In bringing the Surge to Calgary, he said they wanted to make sure everyone could be a part of the team in some way.

“We’re growing as a community, we’re growing as a city. The demographics are changing and this is one of the most accessible sports,” Ribeiro said.

“We always knew the community would be our focus and that we would punch above our weight there.”

A man hands a basketball jersey to a woman.
Jason Ribeiro, the vice-chairman and president of the Calgary Surge, presents a Surge jersey to Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek at a celebration of the team’s first anniversary on Thursday at the WinSport Event Centre. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

The team’s been increasingly involved in Calgary since arriving. It hosted games for school children. It’s played at courts in all four quadrants of Calgary. It created programs to bring more than 900 families to league games over the course of the season.

Through music and dance, the team specifically focused on under-represented and diverse Calgary performers, creating spaces both at the plaza outside its home court and on the court itself for performances before games and at half-time.

New faces, same winning mentality

The ‘Dome game marks the start of a campaign in which the team has a lot to live up to both on and off the court. 

After the franchise officially moved to Calgary from Guelph during the off-season in 2022, it  nearly won it all last year, falling a few buckets short to the Scarborough Shooting Stars in the Aug. 13 final.

A number of off-season moves, including signing and drafting hometown players and local collegiate talent, puts them in a position to compete at that level again.

Behind the bench, they’ll have a familiar face from the other side of the championship game leading the team.

Tyrell Vernon, the former assistant coach for the current CEBL champs, has taken over head coaching duties for the Surge. He was signed just weeks before the season was set to start.

“It’s kind of surreal to be in this environment. It’s not something that I thought would have happened,” Vernon said.

From a sporting perspective, he said the team has got the mentality and the talent needed to one-up their near-championship winning effort last year.

“I’m just excited for this group … you can’t necessarily predict exactly what’s going to happen at the end of the season, but as long as we can get together, have good days, we’ll put ourselves in that position.”

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