More than a game to Andre

TUE, JAN 22, 2008 • By Chad Lucas, The Chronicle Herald

Andre Levingston never sits down. From tip-off to the final buzzer at a Halifax Rainmen game he stands a few metres from the team’s bench, scanning the Metro Centre with a look that falls somewhere between concerned investor and proud father.

Sometimes the Rainmen major­ity owner will step forward to whisper an encouraging word in the ear of Derico Wigginton-Dow­ney, at 18 the youngest player on the team. Or he’ll offer post-game advice to Jermaine Anderson, the point guard who’s less an employ­ee than a surrogate son. He’s nev­er far from the action, no hands­off owner sitting in a luxury box.

This team is bigger to him than business, or basketball.

FOR plenty of kids, basketball is more than a game: it’s a light. It can give a boy hope, supply him with an edge to rise above his circumstances. Andre Levingston was one of those boys, growing up in a bleak Detroit neighbourhood where there wasn’t always enough food to go around or money to turn on the heat in the winter.

One of his first heroes was a man named Ronnie Vaughn, a local playground hoops legend who schooled a young Levingston on and off the court.

“I remember like it was yester­day that he told me athletes don’t drink or smoke," says Levingston. “I’m 42 years old and I still don’t drink, still don’t smoke, still work out every day. It’s easy to be strayed in Detroit. Basketball gave me an outlet to be on the right path."

It was basketball that took him to Chico State, an NCAA Division II university in California. His dreams of making the NBA didn’t come to pass but he earned a de­gree in child psychology.

He returned to Detroit and taught fourth grade at Paul Robe­son Academy, an inner-city school geared toward black children who were falling through the cracks. It began as an all-boys school, and most of the staff were male.

“We were losing too many black boys to the streets, to violence, to jail," Levingston says. “There were a lot of single parents, wom­en ran homes, and when (kids) came to school it was all women.

We wanted them to see positive men. It was an amazing school, one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of."

Levingston’s students often followed him home, where the single father of two usually had a houseful of neighbourhood kids to keep his sons Tyrone and Stephon (now 24 and 23) company. In fact, Stephon is a former student of his whom Levingston adopted when he was in Grade 6.

“He went from, ‘Can I spend the night at Mr. Levingston’s house?’ to, ‘Can I live with Mr. Leving­ston?’ I ended up raising him," Levingston says.

After six years of teaching, Le­vingston left to move into the world of business. He had worked with a communications company on the side while teaching, and when Ontario de-regulated its phone industry Levingston moved to Toronto in 1999 to test the wa­ters there.

He went on to start a restaurant, a limousine company and a high­end car detailing outfit with NBA player Morris Peterson, then of the Raptors.

He stayed close to the communi­ty as well, helping with breakfast programs and clothing drives in Regent Park, a low-income neigh­bourhood where more than half the population is under 18.

“Everywhere I go, no matter what business I’m involved in, I try to make an impact on kids," Levingston says. “We can’t open up businesses in communities and not give back."

The American entrepreneur had a big impact on Jermaine An­derson, who was friends and team­mates with Levingston’s son Ty­rone at Eastern Commerce, Toron­to’s renowned high-school basket­ball powerhouse. Just as Ronnie Vaughn had done with him, Le­vingston took the talented Cana­dian teen under his wing.

“He’s been a father figure to me," says Anderson, now 24. “I don’t know my father, and he has been there in all the tough deci­sions I’ve had to make."

In every big step of Anderson’s life and career over the past dec­ade — choosing a university, mak­ing the Canadian men’s national team, playing overseas— he has turned to Levingston for guidance. Before he signed any contracts to play in Europe, Levingston would go over them with his lawyers.

“He’s helped me with invest­ment decisions, building my cred­it, a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with basketball," Anderson says. “He’s a good dude.">/p>

THOUGH he made his name in business, basketball was never far from Levingston’s heart. He was part of a group trying to bring an American Basketball Associ­ation franchise to Mississauga, Ont., but the team never got off the ground.

When Levingston’s interest didn’t fade, a pair of business partners, Jadranka Crnogorac and Paul Riley, convinced Leving­ston to look east. Crnogorac is a Dartmouth native who played at Saint Mary’s, while Riley, Leving­ston’s lawyer at the time, played university hoops at Dalhousie.

“They both said, ‘You need to visit Halifax,’" Levingston says.

He’d never even heard of Halifax at the time. But after meeting with Mayor Peter Kelly and getting a feel for the city, he was convinced.

Halifax isn’t the easiest place to launch something new, especially for someone “from away." Levingston says he personally felt welcomed to the city, forming friendships with businessmen Rob Steele and Mickey MacDonald.

But his Rainmen were met with skepticism. There were doubts about the ABA, a shaky league where teams routinely fold; doubts about whether basketball could compete with the hockey Mooseheads; doubts about the team’s management, led by this mys­terious owner from Detroit via Toron­to.

“We did make some mistakes in the beginning," Levingston admits. “If we would have come at it a different way, I think we’d have a different result right now. However, I think the mo­mentum is definitely changing. We’ve got businesspeople involved to want to see this work here."

Levingston won’t put a dollar figure on what he’s invested in the Rainmen, saying only that “it’s the cost of doing business." But it’s clear he has big ambitions with this franchise — no other team in the ABA plays in a ven­ue as large as the Metro Centre or goes as all-out with extras like pre­game introductions and an in-game DJ.

He also provides his team with housing so they don’t have to work second jobs, as many ABA players do.

The treatment the Rainmen receive isn’t lost on their opponents.

“It shows when teams leave and I get a phone call the next day asking, ‘Can I play for you?’" Levingston says. “That means we’re doing something right."

And from Day 1 Levingston has taken the same approach in Halifax as he has taken everywhere else, making his presence felt in the community.

His players visit schools, attend mi­nor basketball games, pack groceries for the Salvation Army.

The efforts may have won some fans, but it’s not a marketing ploy. It’s who Levingston is, and who he wants his players to be.

“This is bigger than basketball. It’s about giving back," he says. “I tell the players, ‘You’re only going to play this for so long, and then what kind of man are you going to be after that?’ “Basketball’s going to come to an end one day, but you can be a good man for the rest of your life."