For many years, the London Knights were the only team that immediately came to mind when you brought up the subject of sports in the -Forest City.
That was until local sports fans got struck by the London Lightning.
In 2011, the National Basketball League of Canada (NBLC) kicked off its inaugural season and it wasn’t long until the London squad was lighting up scoreboards and catching the attention of roundball fans around the league.
Nowhere was that more prevalent than at home in the Forest City, where the team not only became the talk of the town, but steadily set and then continually smashed league attendance records playing on its home court at Budweiser Gardens.
The two-time league champs are now on the eve of their fifth NBLC season and the excitement still hasn’t subsided.
A lot of that can be attributed right back to team owner Vito Frijia and his management, who did things right from the get-go, said John Winston, general manager of Tourism London. Not only did they invest appropriately in developing the team and choosing a first-class venue, he said, they “treat their fans to a first-class experience that most would not have expected and searched out a talent base that was very entertaining and a winner.”
Another key ingredient to getting the fans on board was the level of community engagement the Lightning fostered and encouraged from the outset. Whether that has been the club’s involvement with the United Way, backing programs like Mission Services’ Scan Away Hunger or helping to promote local high school basketball, their outreach has been outstanding, said Winston.
The fact the Lightning have been such a success both on and off the court has also played a role in attracting some top-notch talent to the club as well.
In the early years, players such as Gabe Freeman, DeAnthony Bowden, Rodney “The Sheriff” Buford and coach Micheal Ray Richardson helped establish the team’s reputation for success.
More recently, it has been names like Tim Ellis, Marvin Phillips and 2014 NBLC Canadian Player of the Year Garrett Williamson that brought fans to their feet.
Back for his second stint with London after playing last season in Europe, the 27-year-old Williamson echoed many of Winston’s words, agreeing that community involvement and accessibility to the players is a key factor behind the high levels of fan support and attendance.
“No one does it like London,” he said.
From a player standpoint, Williamson noted the fans here are great and the players enjoy being out there on the court in front of a packed house of cheering fans.
“It’s one of the best feelings there is,” Williamson said. “You’re out there on the floor, you’ve got people screaming for you and cheering you on, it gives you that extra boost of energy.
“While you might not always know exactly what they’re saying, there’s no mistaking the atmosphere fans can create and that really does sometimes feel like having a sixth player on the floor with you.”