Leading The Charge

The Windsor Express Make Their Return
To Pro Basketball and The Community 

Story by Cameron Chappus
Photography by Ian Shalapata/Windsor Express

2022 has seen the return of several local sports events in the Windsor region. After a long and egregious pandemic, riddled with lockdowns and event cancellations, many athletes returning to their respective fields. Dartis Willis, the owner of the renowned Windsor Express basketball team, feels that his team’s return has a bigger impact than most Windsorites realize. “So many people have had a contribution and take stock in the team. The community connection is real.” Though true of so many other local sports teams, Willis feels that the Windsor Express has had an especially profound local impact. 

Photo from the 2017-18 NBL Canada season between the St John’s Edge and Windsor Express at the WFCU Arena in Windsor, Ontario, on 20 January 2018. Ian Shalapata.

Like so many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic gave Willis and his organization greater respect for their pre-pandemic lives. “It was a time where we simply missed the things that we had, and we appreciate them now more than ever,” he says. “We really miss the community and we miss being on the court.” Having been away from the game for over a year, Willis notes that his outlook on basketball has changed since his departure. “We all have a different approach to the game itself, to the fans, the city and the community. That certain level of appreciation that you get when something is removed from you—we feel that gap, that emptiness.” Despite this, he notes that he and the team, as well as all the staff and community involved with the Express, feel as excited as ever. “Every player that we speak with, there’s a certain level of excitement,” says Willis. “Whenever you talk to our staff, they’re really excited about partnership opportunities, seeing fans come back to see games and connecting with local venues. You can see and hear the excitement about returning.”

As many Windsorites know, however, no public events are guaranteed to be unaffected by the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic. Even with this in mind, Willis still feels optimistic about the likelihood of a full 2022 season. “With the current environment, with the new COVID numbers, we still have that excitement,” he continues. “At the same time, we’re looking at what could potentially be a disappointment. If you look at our game-day operations team, they’re really engaged in all the different aspects of what happens and they’ve been that way since day one. So, we’re still very excited.” Besides the threat of a mid-season postponement, the Windsor Express faces several challenges in the months and years ahead. Willis notes that one of the team’s greatest tests is their lastingness in the local and national sports scene. “One of the main challenges for us is longevity. We’re walking into our tenth season and that is a milestone that a lot of pro-organizations have a hard time reaching.” Willis goes on, noting the organization’s resilience. “Despite the COVID challenges, we’re geared up to make it to our tenth anniversary and even see a third championship.” 

Photo from the Windsor Express on 22 January 2019. Ian Shalapata.

To Willis, and to so many others, Windsor Express is so much more than a local basketball team. While discussing the many challenges the team faces in the future, Willis presses that they have an ongoing obligation to the Windsor community. “For us, it’s also very important to continue to broaden the opportunities in Windsor. We really hope to reach all of the groups in our community, and that goal means a lot to us.” He continues. “We have a special time in front of us, and God willing, we meet those challenges head-on and help our partners and our community to make it through.” In the years that the Windsor Express has been a part of the local sports scene, its defining goal has been to bring a sense of unity to the city and to put Windsor on the map for Canada’s national sports. As a result, the team’s impact on its own players and staff has rippled through the community, to the point where they’ve seen generations of fans enter their sphere of influence and come out as industry leaders. “One of our biggest accomplishments has been how we really engaged community groups and organizations in pro sports,” Willis comments on the organization’s deeper, unseen impact. “We’ve engaged with so many people over the years, it’s incredible. The cycle of a twelve-year-old kid coming into the arena to see a game, and nine years later having that same kid oversee our sales department, is just a part of who we are. The interactions that people have had with us are full cycle. There really is a great connection to the city of Windsor.” 

Photo from the Windsor Express on 15 January 2014. Ian Shalapata.

Looking to the future, Willis sees the Windsor Express growing even more as a central part of Windsor’s identity. “In our tenth year as an organization, I’m more excited about all of the unique people that have made this happen,” Willis notes. “I may have led the charge, but I definitely didn’t hold this community up by myself.” Standing alongside local teams like the Spitfires, Lancers and St. Clair College’s Fratmen, the Windsor Express has helped lift the city to a position of significance in Ontario and even all of Canada. “The contributions we’ve made to the entire league is unbeliev-able,” he says. “We’ve had three of our coaches go on to coach for bigger teams. One of our players retired and went on to coach for national teams. Another Express player is now with the Toronto Raptors. One of our announcers became Ms. Canada. We’ve had a lot of people start with us and move on to greater things and we’re proud to be able to give everyone a start with Windsor Express.” 

Regarding the current 2022 season, Willis is counting on the same values that brought the Express this far. “We have several measures for our success,” he says. “You measure how well you’re connected to the community, you measure your team’s championship performances, and you measure how much of a difference you’ve made in everyone’s lives. Whatever the outcome in 2022, we’ve made it clear to the Canadian basketball community that Windsor is home to a pro team that makes a difference.”

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