The king of Maine basketball sat perched on his throne, a thinly padded blue folding chair at the edge of a gleaming wooden floor.
At times, Jon Jennings sprawled like my uncle used to do after feasting for two hours at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Other times, Jennings leaned so far forward his chair seemed to defy the laws of physics by remaining upright.
But regardless of his position or posture, Jennings never stopped paying attention.
Jennings, the president, general manager and part owner of the Maine Red Claws NBA Development League professional basketball franchise was surveying the team’s performance on opening night of its second season.
No, not surveying. Scrutinizing.
His head swiveled as the players raced back and forth between the baskets. His eyes darted, intently tracking the basketball, even on one crazy play when it turned into a pinball and bounced off several outstretched hands before caroming out of bounds.
“C’mon!” Jennings screamed. “You’ve got to grab that ball!”
And so it went. Jennings screaming, imploring, cajoling his players to run faster, play harder, be tougher.
Pleading with them to win.
Jon Jennings, more than anything, wants to win. That was as obvious as a slam dunk or an airball after sitting alongside him for just a few minutes during a Red Claws game.
No, I’m wrong. The thing Jennings wants most is to succeed. For basketball teams, success is measured in wins. For a minor league basketball franchise, success is measured in revenues in attendance in viability.
Last season, the Red Claws’ first, I questioned that viability. I’d lived in too many towns where minor league sports franchises came and went.
Sometimes it was because the league they were in failed. More often it was because the team failed to put enough bodies in the stands, because it failed to make itself relevant.
I questioned the Red Claws’ relevance last season, without ever attending a game.
It didn’t surprise me or change my opinion when fans flocked to games. A professional basketball team in Maine was something new, something different. New and different always draw attention, even if it’s just to satisfy curiosity.
It didn’t hurt that the Red Claws were affiliated with the beloved Boston Celtics, a bond strengthened by having Austin Ainge, son of Celtics President Danny Ainge, as head coach.
But so what, I thought. The Red Claws were Magnum Rolle and Mario West, not Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. They play in the aging Portland Expo, not the modern TD Garden.
Certainly the fans flocking to see the new kids in town would soon stop flocking. The bleacher seating, the caliber of play or the passing of a brief fad surely would make the Red Claws irrelevant by the start of their second season.
Or so I thought. What I hadn’t counted on was Jennings and his passion and his drive.
A 48-year-old transplant from Indiana, Jennings has plenty of basketball cred. He spent more than a decade with the Celtics as an assistant coach and scout. He might still be with them if he hadn’t wound up in Bill Clinton’s White House, first on a fellowship and then as a member of Clinton’s staff until the president’s second term ended.
“I helped the president turn the lights out when he left the White House,” Jennings joked.
But there was nothing funny about the next few years as Jennings campaigned for but lost a 2004 bid for a U.S. Congressional seat from Indiana. He was undecided about what to do next until he spoke with the president of the D-League in 2007 and decided to start a new franchise.
“I ran around New England trying to find the best place to start a team,” he said. “Once I saw the passion for basketball here in Maine, it was a no-brainer to start the team here. Maine has a passion for high school basketball like Indiana, where I grew up.”
Jennings found 14 area businessmen who possessed enough of that passion to form a partnership led by Bill Ryan Sr. and Bill Ryan Jr.
Jennings said the team is run as a small business intended to turn a profit for its owners.
That’s not a novel idea in most industries, but there’s a reason you don’t hear Donald Trump’s name tied to minor league sports franchises.
Yet the Red Claws seem to be an exception. Despite substantial start-up costs that included more than $400,000 in renovation at the Expo, they made money their first season.
“We forecast a loss,” said Jennings, “and ended up making a sizable profit.”
He won’t reveal dollars and cents but gladly shares the number that have made this skeptic a believer in the Red Claws’ viability: 3,045. That’s the number of tickets the team peddled for each and every home game last season.
In doing so, the Red Claws became the first team in the D-League’s 10-year history to sell out every home game. That includes all of the $70 Gold seats that line the sidelines, the $45 Courtside Suite seats on the baselines and the $30 seats in the bleachers near center court.
The vast majority of Red Claws tickets cost less, and Jennings boasts that a family of four can attend a game for $20.
“You can’t park at a game in Boston for that,” he said.
And you can’t buy Maine-made Red Claws ale or Hoopie Pies at Boston sporting events either, the way you can while the Lady Red Claws dancers, J.G. (aka Jason Gibbons) or the Rim Rockers slam-dunk quartet are performing during breaks in the action at the Expo.
It all adds up to an engaging and exceedingly entertaining evening at the Expo every time the Maine Red Claws tip off. Jennings has somehow turned a minor league sports franchise into an entertainment draw, a marketing magnet, a community trust and a successful business.
So much so that Jennings was named D-League executive of the year during a brief ceremony prior to the Red Claws’ 2010-11 opener. The award means less to Jennings than the success of the Red Claws and the fans he can create for the team.
Count me as one of them. Count me convinced the Red Claws are for real. And count me as a loyal subject of the king of Maine basketball, because I love a sovereign who rules with passion.
Scott Wasser is vice president and executive editor of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.