Andre the giant
Photo: Steve Jess
Andre Levingston has a quick, decisive answer for everything Halifax Magazine asks him. Until we ask how he spends his free time. “Well…” he furrows his brow. “I guess I work out a lot…It’s hard for me to just go somewhere and just shut it down because there’s always something to do. Either it’s in season, or it’s out of season and I’m getting ready for the season and I’ve got to scout and do all that. It’s 24/7.”
Levingston is owner of the Halifax Rainmen and president and CEO of the National Basketball of League of Canada, the minor-pro league that the team competes in. He launched the team eight seasons and three leagues ago, and rarely takes a break from the job of building professional hoops in Halifax.
“There wasn’t an off season,” he says. “We had a lot of changes this summer…We lost three or four players to overseas, which says great things about our organization—that we develop the kids. And we brought back our championship coach.” He’s referring to Pep Claros, who led the Rainmen to the league finals in 2012. He left the Rainmen to coach in international ball, before rejoining the team in the off-season to replace coach Craig Hodges, who resigned for personal reasons.
Claros takes over a team that started last season with a dismal losing streak, before getting hot in the last few weeks and coming within one win of the finals. “We ended the season with the right momentum,” Levingston says. “We ended on the right note. With Coach Pep, we’ll pick up right where we left off. There’s a lot more excitement and enthusiasm in the market. And we hope that will reflect in bums in seats this year.”
Levingston has to worry about those bums, no matter how well his team does on the court. The Rainmen average about 3,000 fans per game and that feels low in Scotiabank Centre, which has a capacity of about 9,400 for basketball. “We’re behind pace,” Levingston says. “In eight years, I thought we’d be averaging 8,000 to 9,000 people a game and maybe if we’d done some things better back then that could be a reality. But we made some boneheaded mistakes along the way and we paid for it.”
He cites frequent coaching and player changes. That made it hard for the team to build a following, as players didn’t stick around long enough to build a fan base. “I’d do a lot of things differently,” he laughs. “I would have hired Pep to a 10-year contract first. We made a lot of changes with players.”
Some of those changes were the natural ebb and flow of players moving through a development league, but others reflect the standards Levingston has for his team. “And then you get players in here who won’t act how we want players to act,” he explains. “Our fans don’t know this, they just see that this player is on that team now. They don’t know the history behind the scenes. They just know he is gone, so the organization looks bad.”
For Levingston, it’s important to have Rainmen players do community service, be role models for young fans and stay out of trouble. “We want to bring professionals here, guys who respect themselves and others,” he says. “This is our home, they represent themselves and the organzation, they represent our partners….I don’t think it’s right that a company comes into a community, does business and doesn’t give back to that community.”
That’s not a marketing line—it’s a core principle for Levingston and the Rainmen. “We do a ton of outreach and our players love it,” Levingston says. “When we’re recruiting them, we’re asking them ‘Are you involved in service? Will that be a problem for you? Because it’s mandatory in Halifax.’”
Point-guard Cliff Clinkscales from Queens, New York is one of those players. He joined the team last season and quickly became a leader, averaging 11 points and 10 assists per game. “Cliff came in last year and singlehandedly turned our season around,” Levingston says. “He’s a leader. He came here extremely hungry and refused to lose. I’m excited we re-signed him for this season.”
Clinkscales credits Levingston and the culture he’s built around the team as his reason for returning to Halifax. “Andre is hands-on,” he says. “He understands us. I’m all about winning and so is he. He wants kids and families to support the team, so we have to reach out to the community and remember them. I like that.”
Levingston also has a valuable team off the court. In the Rainmen’s earliest days, he made important connections in the business community, becoming friends with Jim Mills, Don Mills and Lee Bragg, all of whom continue to advise him. “They’ve been unbelievable,” Levingston says. “They’re opening doors, giving good advice. On the bigger side, they realize what it means to the business community to have the Rainmen.”
Don Mills, president and CEO of Corporate Research Associates, has been a season-ticket holder since the Rainmen’s first season. “Andre really wants to make a contribution to the community,” he says. “That’s what appeals to me. I’m not a big basketball fan, or I wasn’t. I’m a big Rainmen fan. I’ve gotten very close to Andre. He has good values. He really loves this city and he’s invested his own money here. He’s voting with his money.”
Mills praises Levingston’s community focus. “He understands he has to make an impact,” Mills says. “He uses his players as role models. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that people don’t see. Anyone involved in minor basketball in this province has seen the Rainmen.”
It goes back to Levingston’s childhood in urban Detroit. “I think it comes from my parents,” he says. “When you grow up in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, the only chance a kid from that community has to get out is to have some values. I had parents who gave back. Most of my childhood friends didn’t have dads in the house. My dad, James Levingston, was dad to everybody. When I got older and had my son, same situation.”
Now 45, Levingston started his career playing NCAA Division II basketball at Chico State in California. He couldn’t make the jump to the NBA, so he earned a degree in child psychology and became a teacher. “I stumbled into teaching, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done because I had the opportunity to affect the lives of children,” he says “And now basketball is an extension of that classroom. Instead of affecting 30 kids, I get to affect an entire community. Being a teacher, and being around kids my whole life, just makes it more exciting, what we’re doing now.”
And suddenly, he was taking the same role his father had a generation earlier. “I was dad to a school full of boys who were at my house all the time,” he recalls. “And that’s why I’m so excited about this club. We can use it as a platform to do great things in the community. The basketball is the least of it—that’s just what we do, it’s not who we are. To be able to give back and inspire people, and do all those things—the cherry on the top is that you get to play basketball.”
He went from teaching to business, moving to Ontario, where he tried to bring an American Basketball Association team to Mississauga. That didn’t work out, so he looked east, where Halifax seemed an ideal fit.
Levingston recalls the adjustment to life in Halifax. “When you come here from America, it’s a whole different kind of lifestyle,” he says. “We’re accustomed to let’s-go, let’s-go, get-it-done, that whole mentality. Then you come here and it’s like ‘We’ll get to it.’”
Summers were a particular revelation. “How do they get stuff done?” he laughs. “They don’t answer the phone, they’re not in on Friday. The whole month of August you can’t reach anybody… People are on the patios at noon on Friday, they’re having a drink. I’ve never seen that before. And people kind of schooled me: make sure you adjust about what you need to do in August.”
Many of the Rainmen come from urban America, and Levingston sees them go through the same adjustment. “They’re blown away with the quality of life,” he says. “We get players who came here and never left, they’re married and have kids and they don’t want to go back to the U.S. It’s a big adjustment, but they get here and they fall in love.”
Today, Levingston is surprised when asked if he considers Halifax to be his home. “Absolutely,” he says. “Halifax holds a special place in my heart. It’s helped me change who I am as a person. It’s taught me how to live, and to realize what’s important…You realize it’s OK to go on vacation, to spend time with your family—things you don’t do in America because you’re too busy trying to get ahead.”
Don Mills feels that the way Levingston has embraced Halifax has helped with attendance and sponsorship. “People like him and people respect him,” he says. “There’s a lot of goodwill there and that speaks to his character. He’s a nice guy, with good intentions.”
This summer, Levingston made some changes to the Rainmen organization to help let him focus more on building a winning team, and less on the day-to-day business. The team hired experienced Ontario businesswoman Charmaine MacIssac as CEO, while her husband Wilf became director of sponsorship and sales. “Having someone like Charmaine who can focus on the business, so I don’t have to be full-time on it—that’s priceless,” Levingston says.
The front-office moves will also let him focus more on his duties as league president; his biggest challenge has been building a reputable league for his Rainmen. The Rainmen began play in 2007 in the American Basketball Association, a semi-pro league that suffered from corporate infighting, unstable teams and frequent cancellation of games. Although the Rainmen boasted league-leading attendance numbers, Levingston was frustrated with the uncertainty and moved the team to the Premier Basketball League for the 2009 season.
Attendance slowly climbed but that league also suffered from credibility issues, coming to a head in the 2011 playoffs, which the Rochester Razorsharks won, amid much questionable officiating. Just hours after the season ended, the Halifax Rainmen, Quebec Kebs and Saint John Mill Rats left the league to join with four expansion teams and play in the new National Basketball League of Canada, with Levingston as league president.
Like most new sports leagues, the NBL has faced an uphill battle for fan and media attention. “We’re still building credibility,” Levingston says. “We’re still a young league; this will be our fourth year, which is amazing. Most new leagues don’t last that long. But we’re not out of the woods. We’re still building our brand… It’s going to take a while for the corporate partners to buy in to supporting basketball as they’ve supported hockey for so long. But every year it gets a little bit better.”
Don Mills has seen the league develop. “He’s built a good crop of owners and given the league time to build,” he says. “Teams are getting traction. Sponsorship and season-ticket sales, which are the most important things, are growing.”
Concurrently, Levingston believes Canadian-grown basketball talent improves yearly, with the league recently raising its Canadian-content requirements for each team from three to four players. “We’re looking at guys in the local college system,” Levingston says. “Fans want to see players they know and recognize…We want to do our part in developing kids in Canada. I think that’s extremely important.”
And now, Levingston says the Rainmen are poised to be everything he always felt they could be. “Now we have the right team together, folks who can be here for a long time,” he says. “Not just players, but staff. So I’m excited about where we are right now for the first time in a long time. It’s going to be an interesting season.”
CORRECTION: Due to a research error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified two people as minority owners of the Halifax Rainmen. In fact, Jadranka Crnogorac and Paul Riley have no ownership stake in the team. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.