No one twisted Al Stewart’s arm to return to the Island Storm this season. No one, perhaps, but himself.
“The reason is that we made it to the finals last year. The next step is to win it all,” said Stewart, 30, on the eve of the Storm’s season-opening game tonight against the Saint John Mill Rats.
“I still love the game, I’m still healthy. (I feel that) my play has gotten better every year since college.”
Start time for the National Basketball League of Canada game is 7 p.m. at Eastlink Centre in Charlottetown.
Stewart is in his third year with the Storm and seventh professional basketball season. Stops for the Chicago. Ill., native have included the Mill Rats, Europe and more than one United States-based team.
Last season, the five-foot-10 point guard averaged 29.9 minutes, 9.2 points and 6.5 assists per game, along with a 50 per cent field goal shooting mark and a 77.2 per cent free-throw mark, and helped the Storm finish first in the Atlantic Division (26-14) and reach the league championship series against the London Lightning.
The Storm, then based in Summerside, lost the best-of-five series 3-1.
Stewart left the team late in the season last year because of his commitment as a teacher in the Chicago school system.
This season, Stewart secured a leave from Sherman Elementary School, where he teaches pre-kindergarten, and isn’t leaving the Storm until the season is over.
“This is great group of guys. A high basketball IQ. I think we’re the team to beat this year,” said Stewart, who studied sociology at Drake University in Iowa. “Last year, we had a weapon in every position. I see the same things this year.”
That's all well and nice, but there are games to play. And Saint John (20-20 last year) won’t roll over. The Mills Rats won three of eight meetings last season with the Storm.
“We have to defend, defend, defend. They have people that can shoot that ball. We have to speed things up a little, get out and run,” said Stewart, who was an Atlantic Division all-star last year and won his second straight NBL defensive player of the year award.
Two new teams, the Ottawa Skyhawks and the Brampton A’s, are online upping the league to nine teams in two divisions, the Atlantic and Central. Last year's squad in Oshawa moved and is now the Mississauga Power while the Montreal Jazz is taking a year’s leave of absence.
This year, the top eight teams make the playoffs.
Because of the unbalanced Central Division, the fourth- and fifth-place teams in the Central play a one-game play-in to determine the last playoff spot.
The Storm hosts the Moncton Miracles on Sunday. Game time is 2 p.m. at Eastlink Centre.
The Island squad is 8-6 all-time against the Mill Rats and the Miracles.
Online at www.nblcanada.ca.
A few Island Storm facts for the 2013-14 NBL of Canada season:
– The Storm's opening day roster has four 30-year-old players for the first time in its history. They include Antoine Tisby (30 years, 210 days), Amani Daanish (30 years, 111 days), Greg Plummer (30 years, 94 days) and Al Stewart (30 years, 58 days).
– Two of the three Canadians, Ashton Graham (24 years, 210 days) and Dwayne Smith (24 years, 228 days), are the youngest players on the team.
– The roster's average age is 27 years, 222 days. Last year it was 27 years, 77 days). In 2011-12, it was 25 years, 268 days.
– The tallest player is six-foot- 11 Nick Evans.
– The shortest is five-foot-10 Al Stewart.
– The average height of the opening day roster is six feet, five inches.
– The Storm is 2-0 in home openers, including a 118-99 win over the Saint John Mill Rats last season.
– Former Storm player Mike Williams holds the franchise's single game rebound record of 22 set in 2011.