"You could feel the excitement," says Tracy Armitage, a local mom who went to a winning game in January with a group of children. She, like Jennings and Sedenka, mentioned the non-game entertainment, spearheaded by Red Claws mascot Crusher, and the gaggle of dancing cheerleaders (most are local, all are quite bombastic).
"People love the game experience," Jennings says. "They love the basketball, but they love the promotions, and the half-time entertainment — all of the festivities around going to a Red Claws game . . . We thought that people would want to come to our games — I don't think anyone thought we would sell out all our games."
A minor-league city
GETTING INTO THE ACTION Players and fans alive give their all at Red Claws games. View the team’s stats and schedule at nba.com/dleague/maine.
"Of the 4 major sports, minor league basketball is the least successful," Jacob Tarabar, who pens the sports blog CommonSenseCoordinator.blogspot.com, wrote in May 2009. "There are several reasons minor league basketball has failed in this country. First, many basketball fans consider the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] as the official minor league of the NBA. More than any other sport, players drafted by an NBA team can step in immediately and become a contributor, or even . . . a superstar. Because many of the NBA All-Stars never stepped foot in tiny gyms in Albany, NY or Gary, IN, many basketball fans feel that the talent in the minors is not up to par with the NCAA and the NBA."
Tarabar was referring mostly to the non-NBA minor leagues, and in fact his analysis suggested that continued D-League growth could change that reality. However, his assessment makes sense in the context of the D-League, too. The Red Claws and 16 other D-League teams still have to figure out their position in the sports landscape. And despite a very strong start, the team still has to fulfill that promise of having local staying power over the long haul. Sedenka wonders if the Red Claws will be able to maintain their momentum from an initial season with that new-team excitement into a standing franchise with deep community support. He asks: "What's next year going to bring? Are they still going to have that level of fascination?"
In Portland, Sea Dog sluggers and Pirate pucksters have set that precedent, observers say. (It's also a great benefit that this team doesn't play during the summer, as the Mountain Cats and the Wave did. Few people want to sit in a basketball arena during the hottest months of the year.)
"The area is a fantastic market for minor-league sports," Jennings says. The other sports teams have "done a very good job of building minor-league operations in this city . . . they deserve a lot of credit for laying the groundwork" with local spectators and sports fans.
But when asked how he thinks his team achieved such rookie-season success, 6'4" guard Tony Bobbitt quickly gives a different response.
"We have the best fans in the league," Bobbitt said after a recent practice, one where energy ran high, sweat poured down faces, and joking abounded. "It's the people here that's wonderful. And the clam chowder down at J's."
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at email@example.com.