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London Lightning set to open National Basketball League of Canada season

Only a season into its existence, the London Lightning are transitioning into its second era in the National Basketball League of Canada — the Post-Gabe Freeman Era.

“Gabe was a good player, he was great for us,” said London coach Michael Ray Richardson. “But, our team was more than about Gabe Freeman. As a basketball coach, I didn’t put all of my marbles into him. I never do that.”

Freeman, the NBL’s first regular season and playoff MVP, is halfway across the world suiting up for the San Miguel Beermen in the Philippines. His replacement, Jermaine Blackburn, arrived in the Forest City this week, just in time for the Lightning’s season opener at Budweiser Gardens on Saturday.

“He’s a similar player to Gabe,” said Richardson, of Blackburn, a Boise State University alumnus. “I think he’s a better scorer, but Gabe is a better rebounder. All around, he’s just as good.”

Blackburn, 29, has played pro ball since 2005. The St. Louis, Mo., native is in the Continental Basketball League’s record books for recording 22 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds, and 10 steals in a single game. That’s a quadruple-double.

“He can play various positions, from one through five,” said Tim Ellis, one of four returning Lightning players, and a former teammate to Blackburn. “He’s 6-foot-7, so if he’s on the wing and there’s a smaller guard on him, that’s a miss-match. And he’s left-handed, too.”

Ellis, Blackburn, all-star Morgan Lewis, court general DeAnthony Bowden, and commanding centre DeAndre Thomas project to have starring roles this year.

They’ll be leaned on heavily starting Saturday, in a rematch of last year’s final.

“I’ve looked at their roster, but I’m not really concerned about them,” said Richardson, when asked to offer his thoughts on the visiting Halifax Rainmen. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be OK.”

Along with Freeman, Lightning fans have seen the last of Alex Zampier. The off-season pickup has left town to pursue an opportunity in the Argentina pro league.

Forward Jamar Abrams, the NBL’s reigning slam-dunk champ, is out of action for the next few weeks. He’s been put on London’s injured reserve list as he nurses an injured finger.

In-game production will be ‘crisper’: Lightning

Anyone who has been to a London Lightning home game knows the experience extends past simply watching hoops. Somersaulting mascots, high-energy dancers, rocking bands, and plenty of contests are parts of the package.

“Our goal for this year is to continue to build on that, but make the production is little crisper,” said Taylor Brown, London general manager.

The team’s inaugural campaign was successful. However, it didn’t come easy and Brown says it was a “whirlwind” for everyone involved.

It’s paid off, though, as the Lightning has doubled its season-ticket holders. “Unfortunately, with our contract with the facility, we can’t give out exact numbers,” he added.

For the 2012-13 season, the club has hired a new dance pack instructor, installed an electronic scorer’s table, and raised tsecond-row seats for better viewing.

As well, prior to tip-off at the home opener, there will be a championship banner-raising.

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