The Honey Badgers group chat never slowed down. Even as the various players went their separate ways after winning the Canadian Elite Basketball League championship to play in other leagues, the texts and jokes and memes kept coming.
"That played one of the biggest roles in me coming back, just knowing the character that those guys have. They're championship-calibre guys," said guard Christian Vital, who was named the CEBL Final MVP after he led the Honey Badgers past the Scarborough Shooting Stars 90-88 to win the title on Aug. 14.
"We're here for the summer. This isn't a one-week, two-week thing. So knowing that, we all committed to the full summer of competing together and just being in each other's spaces. It was important knowing that it was always going to be this group of guys that I was going to do that with because I know it works."
Vital led the Honey Badgers with 17.4 points per game last season and re-signed with the team on May 10 as it prepares to defend its CEBL crown. The 26-year-old Vital is one of six players returning from last year's team and he said that knowing they "made it work" in 2022 drew him back to the team.
"We were able to stay with each other and no one jumped ship, no one abandoned the boat, everyone, if anything, locked in more," said Vital after practice on Tuesday. "We made sure that everyone was going to have a successful summer.
"That was big time. That was everything."
The Honey Badgers kick off the new CEBL season on Wednesday when they visit the Ottawa BlackJacks. They then host Scarborough on Friday at the CAA Centre, their new home in Brampton, Ont., after playing in Hamilton last year.
Forward Jeremiah Tilmon Jr., forward Zane Waterman, Canadian forward Prince Oduro, as well as Canadian guards Cody John and Kyle Johnson also re-signed with the team.
"It's exciting. A lot more talent came back this summer," said Tilmon, who re-signed with Brampton on April 13 after playing 12 games with the Raptors 905 of the NBA G League in the winter.
"We want to defend our title and run it back. That's what we're worried about: running it back."
Although the roster has remained largely untouched, there have been two major changes with the Honey Bears.
First, the team announced in November that it would permanently move from Hamilton's First Ontario Centre to Brampton's CAA Centre, The relocation was necessary as the Hamilton area will be closed to all events in 2024 and 2025 as it undergoes extensive renovations that have also forced the National Lacrosse League's Toronto Rock and Ontario Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs to move.
The other big change is that Antoine Broxsie was named the Honey Badgers' new head coach, replacing 2022 CEBL coach of the year Ryan Schmidt, who was unable to return for a fourth season due to his obligations to the London Lions of the British Basketball League.
Broxsie said that at first it seemed like big shoes to fill, but that the team's culture is so strong his concern soon faded.
"Of course, I put pressure on myself, but at the same time, just watching these kids play and allowing them to be themselves and work hard, everything seems to fall right in place," said Broxsie. "Like it almost comes as second nature just watching these guys play."
Tilmon said Broxsie immediately fit in.
"Even with our new coach, it's a good vibe already," said Tilmon. "The culture here is pretty much all love."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2023.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press