Halifax Rainmen head coach Josep Claros was banned for life from coaching in the NBL while the franchise, coaching staff and players were fined a total of $90,000 for their actions on a day that was supposed to feature an exciting playoff finale. But instead it included a morning brawl, a desperate roadside plea from a league executive and a team no-showing Game 7.
When the dust settled, the Windsor Express successfully defended their title without even taking the court, and the league was saddled with the fallout from a black eye that may take a long time to heal.
"(The Rainmen) disregarded the owner's demand that the game had to proceed, they disrespected our fans, they disrespected a city with the Windsor team," said Vito Frijia, a member of the league's executive committee. "The coach and the players decided unilaterally they were going to protest by not playing, which is totally unprofessional, and detrimental to the league, detrimental to our growing the league."
The Rainmen decided not to play Thursday night at the WFCU Centre after an altercation during the morning shootarounds. The fight began after the Halifax players showed up earlier than their allotted time.
What allegedly started with an argument about basketballs escalated into a physical altercation and verbal threats, Frijia said.
Frijia, who's also the owner of the London Lightning franchise, was en route to Windsor to watch the game when he managed to talk the Rainmen owner into having the team bus pulled over while en route to the airport. He spent an hour on the side of the highway trying to convince the coaches to return to the venue and play the game.
"The game wasn't cancelled until about 40 minutes before game time," Frijia said. "I was still on the highway at 5:30 (for a 7 p.m. game) trying to get these guys to turn the bus around and go back."
"They didn't think about the future of the league, it was almost like the players were brainwashed," he added. "They weren't logical comments, the majority of them. 'We think there's going to be a brawl if we go there. We think they're going to undercut us. They're going to intentionally hurt us. We don't feel safe.' Some of the players weren't even on the bus, some of the players had already left."
Frijia called the coaches "the instigators."
Claros, a Spaniard, joined the Rainmen last summer after coaching Mexico's national team.
"I think he still thinks he's in Mexico," Frijia said.
The league's board of governors voted unanimously to fine the Rainmen organization $20,000. Claros was slapped with a $10,000 fine plus the ban, while assistant Pedro Monteiro was fined $5,000 and also banned for life.
Eleven players — Chris Cayole, Clifford Clinkscales, Pedro Foster, Jermaine Dailey, Kevin Young, Seiya Ando, Liam McMorrow, Joel Haywood, Nigel Spikes, Forrest Fisher, and Tyrone Watson — were each fined $5,000 pending an investigation.
Windsor won the series 4-3 by default. The Express issued refunds to fans who had tickets to the game and plans for a victory celebration have been set for Sunday afternoon.
The eight-team league made its debut in 2011. It has been without a commissioner since Paul Riley's departure was announced Feb. 6.
Deputy commissioner and general counsel Sam Hill's resignation was announced the day after. The league's Board of Directors has been handling day-to-day operations while the search for a new commissioner continues.
The league said it is investigating the altercation, and could issue further disciplinary action and fines for players and staff of either team.
"It's definitely a setback to the league," Frijia said of Thursday's events. "But we are going to continue, we just have to fight that much harder to get our fan base built up. The London market, we average just over 5,500 a game. It's a great product, it's great for the fans. We're moving ahead, we're not folding."
The Rainmen issued a news release hours before tipoff saying the game had been cancelled because of concerns about the safety of their players.
"Today is truly a black eye for our league, when the game is not safe for players to compete there is a problem," Halifax team owner Andre Levingston said in the statement. "We have to do a better job of governing our league and putting principles in place where there are strict consequences.
"I've played basketball all my life and have the utmost respect for the game, but what I witnessed today leaves me saddened, not just for me but for our fans, our partners and community who fought so hard to get us to this point."