Ottawa Blackjacks betting big on local talent

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Ottawa Blackjacks head coach Osvaldo Jeanty and general manager Dave Smart. (Photo: Ottawa Blackjacks)

By Charlie Pinkerton

In an attempt to course-correct the short history of professional basketball in the nation’s capital, the Ottawa Blackjacks are wagering their success on the riches of hoops talent bred in the nation’s capital.

The start to the new franchise’s locally-focused plan was winning the faith of the most significant basketball figure in the city’s history. However, with Dave Smart coming off an unprecedented run of success at the university level, he wasn’t just going to leap at any next opportunity – the ball had to be in his court.

Describing it simply, the long-time Carleton Ravens coach said he was drawn by the made-in-Canada mandate mandate of the Canada Elite Basketball League’s (CEBL), which the Blackjacks were accepted into as the seventh team and first expansion franchise in the fall.

“I want to support Canadian basketball if I’m doing it in Canada,” Smart told the Ottawa Sportspage in a late-March interview.

Smart was in the midst of his first year of stepping back from coaching Carleton men’s team when he signed on to become the general manager (GM) of the Blackjacks. He was coming off a stretch of winning 13 national championships in his last 16 years of coaching the Ravens.

(Carleton won another title during that span, with Smart’s nephew Rob Smart as head coach while Dave was on a sabbatical leave.)

Smart told the Ravens partway through their 2019 U Sports championship-run that he would be stepping away in the off-season. The announcement was made nine days after they hoisted the W.P. McGee Trophy in Halifax. He’s still involved with Carleton, overseeing its basketball program as a whole as its director of operations, and was regularly seen – albeit in a much quieter presence than he was known for in his coaching years – on the Ravens bench at home games this season.

The CEBL’s inaugural season was played last summer and Smart says he liked what he saw. He was drawn into discussions with Blackjacks interim president Mike Cvitkovic after being propositioned by others in the league to become involved. While Smart wouldn’t disclose many of the specifics of what Cvitkovic’s vision was that drew him in, he said that as well as the promotion of Canadian athletes, he also liked the president’s long-term plan for the team.

He likened it to Carleton’s approach: prioritizing sustainability and resisting going for a “big bang” right off the bat.

“I think he’s got a vision that is a step-by-step,” Smart said.

The pitch that won Smart over presents a much different game plan than what the Ottawa SkyHawks of the National Basketball League of Canada (NBL) unsuccessfully employed before the Blackjacks, in the SkyHawks attempt to implant a pro hoops franchise in the city.

The SkyHawks flamed out after one forgettable season in the NBL in 2013-14. There’s little lasting memory of the club, which had lowlights during its short tenure that included having to rollback an insensitive team name before their first game, as well as having to retreat from the Canadian Tire Centre because of a lack of fan interest in the mostly-American born team.

By design the CEBL ensures teams have more Canadian representation, with a requirement that 70 per cent of each team’s players are born in this country. The NBL launched only requiring three players from each team be Canadian.

Smart’s appointment as the driver of personnel decisions of the Blackjacks set the team in the direction of becoming a microcosm of the recent rich history of Ottawa basketball.

The next step in that journey was finding a right fit at head coach – someone the new GM felt confident he could work and win with. That person was found in Smart-disciple Osvaldo Jeanty, who was a part of more than half of his former coach’s record-number of university titles.

Jeanty grew up in Ottawa after moving from Haiti to Canada’s capital with his family when he was six years old. He originally picked up basketball playing in local parks just before his teen years, before going on to bring Samuel-Genest, a small French-language school located between Vanier and Gloucester, a city championship in his final year as a high-schooler.

Jeanty and Smart first got to know each other when the eventual coaching pupil was around 15 years old and a member of the Ottawa Guardsmen, the local club that served as Carleton’s breeding ground for many years. Jeanty would become an early game-changer in the Ravens dynasty.

Joining Carleton as a point guard in the 2002-03 season, Jeanty teamed up with benchminder Smart, and the coach’s nephews, brothers Rob and Mike, and their cousin Ben Doornekamp, on the court to help the Ravens win their first-ever national championship. Jeanty would win five consecutive national titles with the Ravens, collecting an overflowing bin’s-worth of individual accolades along the way.

Jeanty spent two summers with the Canadian national team and after graduating from Carleton following the 2006-07 season went on to play in six professional seasons for teams in countries including Germany, Morocco and Canada.

Upon retiring from professional play, Jeanty returned to Ottawa, where he picked up coaching the Guardsmen in 2013, before becoming head coach at CÉGEP de l’Outaouais. He coached at the CÉGEP from 2014 to 2016, recording only two losses in total during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 regular seasons.

Jeanty re-entered Carleton’s orbit in an official fashion in 2016, joining Smart’s coaching staff as an assistant the season Smart returned from his sabbatical. With Jeanty on board, the Ravens won the 2017 and 2019 U Sports championships.

Like Smart, the former point guard left Carleton’s coaching staff after last year. As well as being a financial planner full-time, Jeanty also has two young children. The decision to step away from basketball was made so he could help his wife raise their family. It was in December when Smart raised the prospect of coaching the Blackjacks to Jeanty. The discussions became more serious in January, at which point Jeanty said he reached out to his manager at RBC to be able to see if he could make it work, as well as clearing things with “the boss at home.”

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Osvaldo Jeanty. (Photo: Ottawa Blackjacks)

“And that’s how it started,” said Jeanty, who the Blackjacks announced on Jan. 24 as the team’s coach for their debut season. His appointment was made publicly just over a week away from when the league’s free agency period was set to begin.

The Blackjacks were dependent on free agency to fill their roster, having missed out on the league’s start-up draft the year before. The sway the GM-coach tandem would have in landing who they wanted was one point Smart specifically identified at the announcement of Jeanty’s hiring.

“For me, finding someone who has a similar relationship and connection with the players in our organization was very important to me,” Smart said. “Osvaldo’s really close to all the guys who have played in the Eastern Ontario area and the Montreal area, and it really helps in terms of that.”

While Smart did push back against the insinuation that the team’s composition would be purposely Ottawa player-centric (telling the Sportspage, “(We) just want the best team (we) can get.”), the Blackjacks haven’t strayed far from that mould in building their roster so far.

In their chase for players, Jeanty and Smart bounced suggestions off each other and pursued those who they had mutual interest in. The team roster has been kept partially under wraps as the Blackjacks have rolled out announcements of signings since February. At the time this article was published, six of the seven players who have been announced to have been signed or picked by the team through in the CEBL’s U Sports draft are former Ravens. The lone exception is the pickup of Ottawa-raised Eric Kibi, who’s played professionally around the world – as well as here in Ottawa with a short stint with the SkyHawks – over eight years.

Jeanty said in late March that about 80 per cent of the team’s players have local links.

“It’s one of the main reasons why, you know, Dave and I decided to be involved in this, because we wanted to have home-grown talent,” Jeanty said.

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Former Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gees forward Jean-Emmanuel Pierre Charles (right) was the first player signed by the Ottawa Blackjacks. Blackjacks coach Osvaldo Jeanty is also pictured. (Photo: Ottawa Blackjacks)

Twenty-six-year-old ex-Raven and Gee-Gee Jean-Emmanuel Pierre-Charles was the first player the Blackjacks signed. He built a relationship with Smart and Jeanty starting when he was a teenager and playing with the Guardsmen. Pierre-Charles played three seasons with the Ravens (winning three national championships) before transferring to the University of Ottawa, which he described to media at the time as being a decision based on finding a play style that his skills were better suited for. Since graduating as a Gee-Gee in 2018, Pierre-Charles has played professionally in Spain and Mexico.

Having a roster of Ottawa-born and -connected players also allows for a built-in sense of continuity, which typically would be an obstacle for any expansion team.

“Everytime I go on a new team, you know, I don’t know anybody, nobody knows anybody. So now it’s like there’s a lot of familiar faces. Os kind of gave me a rundown of who he’s thinking of signing and who he’s interested in and I’ve played ball with most of them,” Pierre-Charles said. “So you already know that the chemistry or the culture or whatever Os and Dave wants to put in the team – you know it won’t be far-fetched, because everybody’s familiar with the style of play.”

Pierre-Charles also mentioned that the default sense of chemistry in the roster will be especially positive in a league with a short season, like the CEBL has.

Stacking the Blackjacks roster with guys with Ottawa ties is advantageous for both the viability of the team and their own personal success, GM, coach and player all said in some form.

“Their best bet is to build their brand in an area where they have the most connections and want the most connections moving forward,” Smart said.

“The community can relate to the Canadian talent – to the Ottawa talent – so I think it makes a big difference with the community… Canadians are very proud people and they want to see their people have success,” Jeanty said.

“I think it’s important to connect with your city because you can’t just be a team with a bunch of people that people don’t recognize, especially if you can connect to the city in other ways that other teams maybe can’t,” Pierre-Charles added.

The Blackjacks are scheduled to play their first-ever game in just a few weeks, on May 7. While social gatherings in Ontario (where more than half the league’s teams are based) are restricted to the same amount of people as a basketball starting lineup at the moment, the CEBL has not announced plans to cancel or delay games.

The CEBL is scheduled strategically during the summer to allow its players who play professionally in other leagues to have an option to play pro ball domestically during what’s traditional basketball’s off-season. Pierre-Charles, for example, plans to pick-up his pro career abroad following the CEBL season.

Players’ non-CEBL commitments would likely have to be taken into consideration in any decision to cancel or postpone the season – adding an unpredictable hurdle to trying to get the Blackjacks franchise off the ground.

In speaking with both Jeanty and Smart, both were clear that the success of the team will be measured by what it accomplishes in the long-term, not just in its first season. To move towards that goal in year number one, that means instituting a set of franchise values to facilitate the team’s success into the future.

“We are more focused on building a culture, which is that competitive, get-better-every-day mindset of winning basketball games,” Jeanty said.

As is with pro sports, success will inevitably be measured both by the interest in the on-court product as well as what appears on the scoreboard. The Blackjacks have put both of those outcomes on the shoulders of some of the best the city has to offer. As for the two men largely responsible for the franchise’s outcome, they know they’re awaiting judgement, but think a verdict will have to wait a few years.

“Do we hope to be (as dominant as Carleton)? I don’t know how feasible it is – I’ll be able to tell you in three or four years how feasible that is,” Smart said.

“The Ottawa community is a great community and having the support from the community will really tell how much that we have,” Jeanty said. “We expect to bring a good product out there, and people that they can relate to and we’re looking forward to having their support.”

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