Slam Dunk Season

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 3, 2010

"I needed to know that there was fan interest in the game," Jennings says. Baldacci delivered; Jennings said he received a "fantastic tutorial on basketball in the state of Maine that convinced me to bring this team here." Baldacci told him, as many others did over the next few months, that Maine was a state that loved its basketball — particularly of the high-school variety — and therefore would revel in watching the pros.

The next year or so was filled with logistical considerations. Perhaps trying to avoid the CCCC ghosts of failure, the ownership team (led by chairman Ryan Jr., who also owns and operates the Oxford Plains Speedway) pumped $300,000 into the Portland Expo and secured a $42,000-per-season rent deal that extends through the 2013-14 season. (That's about $2000 per home game, plus practice time.) They installed a new parquet court over the existing Expo floor, something the Portland High School basketball players (who also host games at the Expo) benefit from as well.

Next, Jennings was "inundated" with people who wanted to be the team's first coach. Ultimately, Jennings chose Austin Ainge, a former Boston Celtics scout who also happens to be the son of current Celtics president Danny Ainge (who wore green and white himself in the 1980s). Jennings, who's known Ainge "since he was a baby," was impressed by the young (he's 28!) athlete's grasp of technology and statistical analysis. While the blogosphere remained cagey about appointing a newbie to the head-coach position, Ainge came in confident and has only gotten more so.

"It's been a great learning experience," he said after a recent practice. "I feel like a much better coach than I was at the beginning of the season."

Along the way, the owners announced incidental — but crucial for brand-recognition — building blocks such as the contest for the team's name (with more than 850 people submitting paper ballots, "Red Claws" narrowly beat out the alternative, "Beacons"); its logo (a Facebook group has been created with the name "Let's redesign that horrendous Portland Red Claws logo"); its dancers (one of them is set to appear on Deal or No Deal!); its merchandising collaborations with Gritty McDuff's (Red Claws Ale) and Amy Bouchard's Wicked Whoopie Pies ("Hoopie" Pies); and, most importantly, its NBA affiliates: the Boston Celtics and the Charlotte Bobcats.

Apart from those logo laments, the response to the Red Claws brand off the court has certainly helped the team's local standing. The fledgling team leads the league in merchandise sales and is close to the top for corporate sponsorship deals. They're also a league leader in terms of attendance. And they will almost certainly compete in the D-League's postseason playoffs, something that only two expansion teams have done since the 2002-03 season. (With the D-League looking at more expansion, Jennings has said he wants to be a model for "how you build a brand-new franchise.") Plus, "the Boston Celtics tie-in is something that people really like," Sedenka says.

Calling for backup
When he was an assistant coach during the 1980s, Jennings often "wished we had a NBA development league," he says, one that gave athletes more playing time on the court to learn and grow. Now one exists.

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