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Journey to the D-League, Part 2: The Red Claws

03.24.10 at 11:00 am ET
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(Editor’s note: Paul Flannery recently spent some time with the NBA Development League’s Main Red Claws, who are affiliated with the Celtics. He documented his observations about the organization, the players and the fans, who regularly fill to capacity the team’s home arena. Here’s Part 2 of his four-part series.)

The acquisition of Kurt Looby gave the Red Claws a paint-clogging 7-footer. (Rich Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

The acquisition of Kurt Looby gave the Red Claws a paint-clogging 7-footer. (Rich Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

PORTLAND – From the moment I arrive on an unseasonably warm and sunny day, it’s clear that Friday night’s game against the Iowa Energy is a big one; both for the team and for the Red Claws franchise.

It’s ’70s Night, and that means everyone from team president Jon Jennings to team mascot Crusher will be in their polyester finest. Crusher, in fact, will be decked out in a white suit, “Saturday Night Fever” style.

The team has sprung for a halftime act — the Amazing Christopher, a staple on the NBA circuit — who performs a one-man tribute to the Village People that is both hilarious and horrifying. Another sellout crowd at the Expo is expected, which is the norm for this expansion franchise.

Not to be lost in the celebration of the Me Decade is the importance of the game, and even in a league known more for individuals than teams, a big game is a big game. The Energy have the best record in the league and are in first place in the Eastern Conference (the Red Claws were in second at the time).

Jennings, whose background includes a stint as a Celtics assistant coach during the Larry Bird era and a successful career in politics that took him from a key position in the Clinton White House to a run for congress in his native Indiana, believes that he is in the unique position of being able to sell the game to a fan base that he says is “very sophisticated about the game of basketball.”

If there has been a criticism of the Red Claws from the locals, it’s the unsettled roster. Twenty-six players have played for them this season and only two, Billy Thomas and Darnell Lazare, have been with them from the start of the season. There have been five D-League assignments from the affiliates in Boston and Charlotte and one NBA call-up: Mario West.

Behind Jennings’ desk in the team’s downtown Portland office is a large whiteboard with the names of all the players in the league organized by team, and a separate list of available talent. He makes the personnel calls independent of the team’s affiliates, although he does solicit the opinion of Danny Ainge and his Charlotte counterpart, Rod Higgins.

For Jennings, the roster turnover is due in part to having five NBA players assigned to the club, as well as trying to build an expansion team. “I bristle a little bit when I hear about all these changes,” he said.

Former Celtics assistant coach and politician Jon Jennings (left) runs the Red Claws. (Doug Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

Former Celtics assistant coach and politician Jon Jennings (left) runs the Red Claws. (Rich Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

Jennings has 10 roster spots to fill, which can be expanded to 12 if NBA players are assigned. Anything beyond that means someone has to go, which happened earlier this season when they had three NBA assignments. With a short roster, every player needs to be able to contribute, and competition for spots is fierce.

The Red Claws have rights to players who are in Europe, which led them to bring Maurice Ager back from Spain. There’s also a general players pool, which led to the arrival of former NBA big man Paul Davis.

Jennings made a handful of trades at the deadline that landed Kurt Looby, a 7-footer from Antigua, T.J. Cummings and Morris Almond, who happened to be the leading scorer in the D-League at the time. “I don’t think anybody’s going to turn those guys down,” Jennings said.

All of the moves have put the expansion team right in the middle of the playoff chase, which is its own reward, but Jennings is savvy enough to know that he’s also selling the minor league experience. That means lots of kids, in-game promotions and affordable tickets and concessions. “What we do, is 24 nights out of the year we put together a full-scale production,” he said.

There’s the mascot, an upright lobster, who is a big hit with the under-10 set, and a dance team whose outfits look remarkably similarly to the Celtics dancers. The stamp of Celtics green is not a coincidence, nor is the very present green outline around the Red Claws innovative logo.

The affiliation with the Celtics certainly doesn’t hurt, and the team plays it up subtly, but as Jennings points out, the team sold a vast majority of its tickets before the affiliation agreement officially was in place.

“It’s hard to gauge because most of our success happened before the announcement,” Jennings said. “But the thought was always that we were going to be [affiliated with the Celtics]. There’s no doubt that it helps.”

The Expo is a small gym, but fans come out and make the atmosphere memorable. (Rich Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

The Expo is a small gym, but fans come out and make the atmosphere memorable. (Rich Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

The intersection of basketball and fan experiences comes together in the 3,000-seat Expo. Smaller and more intimate than the other venue in town, the Cumberland County Civic Center, the Expo is a charming relic with all the requisite popcorn smells and unobstructed sightlines to go with its ambience.

Jennings grew up in Indiana, and as a faithful Hoosier he was raised on barn-like gyms like this. On his first visit to the Expo, with KC Jones no less, he and the old coach had a similar reaction: This is just like a mini-version of the old Boston Garden. “That’s when I knew that was the place we were going to play in,” Jennings said.

This was necessarily a popular decision. The Expo needed work and lots of it. There also was the obviously more spacious Civic Center and its nearly 7,000 seats. The Civic Center houses the Pirates, the minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Sabres, and most assumed it also would be home for the Red Claws.

Jennings had other ideas.

Maine has an outstanding high school basketball tradition — a tradition that was impressed upon him during a 2-1/2-hour presentation by Gov. John Baldacci that helped sway him to Portland. To Jennings, the Expo felt like the spiritual home of that experience.

The small seating capacity also created an issue of supply and demand, and that creates its own organic marketing buzz. (Of the handful of Mainers I spoke with during my time there, all of them said they wanted to get to a game, but most of them said they couldn’t get a ticket. This seems to have had the desired effect.)

Tickets include courtside “luxury boxes” along the baseline, to the on-court “Hollywood seats,” like the ones Jack Nicholson uses at Lakers games. Only instead of Kobe, fans can cheer for Looby. The least expensive tickets go for $10, but as Jennings likes to point out, the view from the cheap seats is similar to the one Red Auerbach had from the famous loge section at the Garden.

When the team was announced last February, Jennings assumed the more affordable tickets would sell first, especially in an uncertain economy. Instead, the opposite happened. The baseline seats sold out in a few weeks and the Hollywood seats sold out in days. “I’d be lying to you if I said to you that I thought this was exactly what I thought would happen,” Jennings said. “We thought we were in a good market.”

For the players, playing in front of a sellout crowd is a rare treat.

The Red Claws' ties to the Celtics are evident everywhere, including the color scheme of the dancers' outfits. (Rich Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

The Red Claws make evident their ties to the Celtics with things such as the color scheme of the dancers' outfits. (Rich Obrey/Maine Red Claws)

“It’s been a fever pitch, man,” said veteran swingman Billy Thomas. “From the beginning, the fans have been amped about it. There’s been a buzz around the city. It’s been that way every home game. They really have a passion for the Red Claws and what we’ve been able to accomplish. It’s a nice fit for our league to have a 3,000-seat building.”

Working with the city of Portland, which owns the building, the Red Claws footed the bill for some much-needed upgrades to the Expo — at a considerable expense, according to Jennings.

The list of improvements includes a new playing floor, baskets, lights and an audio system. The team upgraded the concession stands, seats and ramps, re-did the electrical wiring and installed a new scoreboard, among many other adjustments, both large and small. Their efforts have not been lost on the city, or on the players themselves.

“By far this has been the best D-League situation I’ve ever been in, as far as the fans, the organization, the coaches,” Ager said. “It’s exciting to go to the games and know we’ve got a sold-out house.”

Be it ever so humble, the Expo has become home.

“It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, and quite frankly, we don’t care,” Jennings said. “What we care about is that it is by far the best home environment in the D-League. We have a raucous crowd.”

It doesn’t stop when the game ends. Gritty McDuff’s, Portland’s oldest brewery, makes Red Claws Ale, available in stores and on tap at McDuff’s, a funky tavern off Commercial Street. There’s also a takeoff on Maine’s famous whoopee pie called, obviously, the Hoopie Pie.

It’s a way to reach fans who might otherwise not care a whit about the D-League or the temporary arrival of Bill Walker from the Celtics (before he was traded to the Knicks). Along those lines, the Red Claws also have made social networking a priority. Within minutes of me following the Red Claws on Twitter, they were following me back. A small thing perhaps, but also an indication of the attention to detail that Jennings feels is so important.

“We’re maniacal about that,” he said with sly smile.

According to Jennings, the Red Claws lead the D-League in overall revenue and are second in sponsorships to the Utah Flash. They also lead the league in merchandise sales.

At the heart of the operation is a strong and stable ownership group, including principal owner Bill Ryan — the former chairman of TD Bank — and his son, Bill Ryan, Jr. (“Bill Ryan is one of the nicest people I’ve been around,” Austin Ainge said. “He has an effect on everyone around him.”)

All of this is not lost on the Celtics.

“What’s good about it is there seems to be stability in the franchise,” Danny Ainge said. “There are so many of the D-League franchises that haven’t made it. We feel like there’s stability in Maine. They have great ownership.”

With this group, there’s also a charitable side and an investment back to the city.

“I can guarantee you the last thing they needed in their life was a basketball team,” Jennings said. “Once they bought in, they said, ‘Look, I want this team to not embarrass me and also make a difference in the community that we live in,’ and that has been a mission that I’ve had. At the end of the day, hopefully, those are the things that we’re remembered for.”

The big news in Portland that week is the possible move of the Pirates, the American Hockey League team, to Albany. (The team ultimately agreed to a new two-year lease with the Civic Center.)

This was all very interesting to Jennings, but in the end it means little. In their first year, the Red Claws have a found a home and, like the Expo, it is proving to be a good fit.

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