Gabe Freeman is back.
There were smiles all around Tuesday as the London Lightning made it official: The National Basketball League of Canada’s most valuable player from two seasons ago is back on the roster.
The city — and Canada’s appeal as a whole — appear to have played a big role in the Phoenix-born forward’s decision.
Team owner Vito Frijia said as much as Freeman, who played in the Philippines last year, was welcomed back.
“Most of the players can’t believe the atmosphere that exists here in Canada,” Frijia said.
Speaking later, Frijia expanded on how his predominantly black team feels about playing in London, versus south of the border. Other than the Lightning’s three mandated Canadian players, the remainder of the 12-man roster is American.
“The players really are astonished how they are treated as human beings, how they are accepted, how colour is not a barrier to who they are,” Frijia told Metro. “From some of players, especially some of the players from the southern part of the States, it’s totally a different way of life for them here. They feel accepted, they feel like a human being should feel, like we are all equal.”
Frijia said the way the players are embraced is a huge in help in recruiting.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Some of the fans invited (the players) home to suppers.”
Freeman confirmed that the organization, the fans and the people of London were all reasons he rejoined the Lightning.
“The fans, No. 1, first and foremost. This is family. It’s easy for us to come from the States, come here and feel embraced by the people,” Freeman said. “This year, I wanted to come back. This is where I belong. I won here the first year. I was successful here. I want to come back here and be successful again.”
Lightning general manager Taylor Brown said there is no such thing as making the two-time defending league champions too strong.
“You never build a team to be too good. That’s my philosophy,” Brown said. “(It’s) not fair to fans, not fair to the city.”
Brown said the league has improved since Freeman left the team after the first season.
But, he said, “Gabe is an energy guy and you can’t teach that.”
“And he goes out and works harder than anybody else,” Brown added. “That’s how he succeeds.”
At a glance
— Gabe Freeman, 27, is a 6-foot-6, 210-pound forward who attended high school in Tempe, Ariz. He then played two years at Mesa Community College. After going undrafted, he has also played professional basketball in the United States, Mexico, Australia and the Philippines.
— During his MVP season in London two years ago, Freeman averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds per game. He was a crowd favourite with a winning personality on and off the floor.