Back in the fall of 2008, WJAB sports guy Chris Sedenka hosted Red Claws bigwigs Jon Jennings and Bill Ryan Jr. on his afternoon radio show. They were solidifying their plan to bring an NBA development league (i.e. D-League, or minor league) basketball team to Portland, Maine, a scheme that — in other circumstances, under others' supervision — had been previously unsuccessful. The audio file of their conversation is no longer available, but Sedenka recalls grilling them about what would make this incarnation work.
MOVING FAST Will Blalock, pictured here wearing Red Claws jersey #11, was traded late last week to the Reno Bighorns. Six-foot-one-inch guard Russell Robinson took his place. Roster switch-ups run rampant in the NBA D-League; this makes team unity difficult but exposes players to many different game situations.
"Like everyone else, I probably had some skepticism," says Sedenka, who now serves as the Red Claws' play-by-play announcer in addition to his radio gig. "This has failed in the past," he told them, stating what they certainly already knew. "How is it going to be different?"
It's true that Portland's experience with minor-league hoops didn't offer much in the way of optimism. During the 1990s, both the Mountain Cats and the Wave played at the Cumberland County Civic Center and achieved moderate levels of popular success, but both franchises collapsed quickly under financial strain.
Early signs suggest that tarnished history may be truly in the past. If the Red Claws' inaugural season is any indication, things are different this time around. In addition to their solid record (the team is 18-9 and second in the Eastern Conference), the Red Claws have sold out all of their home games; their marketing campaigns are a success; Portlanders are buzzing about both the basketball and the brand. Despite the fact that Portland already divvies its allegiances among two existing minor-league sports teams (the Sea Dogs and the Pirates) — or perhaps because of that fact, which has revealed how much Portlanders love their minor-league sports — the Red Claws seem poised for victory both on and off the court. Here's how it happened.
The fairytale begins
The Red Claws story begins in the summer of 2007, when former Boston Celtics assistant coach and scout Jon Jennings (who also served a stint in Bill Clinton's White House as a liaison to the President's Initiative on Race) started sniffing around for potential D-League franchise locations: The D-League is the official minor-league organization of the National Basketball Association, launched in 2001 as an alternative to still-extant, but faltering, minor-league basketball organizations such as the Premiere Basketball League and the Continental Basketball Association. Before this season, there were no D-League teams in the Northeast (now there are two, in Portland and in Springfield, Massachusetts).
Jennings had "a few weeks to run around New England" looking for the perfect fit — including passionate fans, a place to play, and good marketing potential. He visited Providence, Hartford, Springfield, Lowell, Manchester, and Portland, and it was in Maine, during a sit-down conversation with governor John Baldacci and state economic-development guru Thaxter Trafton, that he became sold on bringing basketball to the Forest City.