PORTLAND — When they run onto the Portland Expo floor for the opening game of their 2012-13 home schedule at 7 p.m. Friday, the Maine Red Claws won’t be in their regular white-and-red uniforms. Instead, they’ll wear the colors of the Boston Celtics — white and green.
No, there isn’t a problem with the team’s identity. That identity, team officials say, has never been stronger.
When you think of the Red Claws, the team also wants you to think of the Celtics, the basketball franchise with 17 NBA championships.
This is Maine’s fourth season in the NBA D-League — pro basketball’s version of the minor leagues — and its first as the sole affiliate of the Celtics. In a new agreement, the Celtics run the basketball operations for the Portland team.
Both teams call it a win-win agreement. The Celtics get to run the team the way they want, using their own coaches and implementing their playing style. And the Red Claws get the Celtics’ expertise — as well as a player or two — while marketing themselves as a partner with the legendary team.
“This is a dream scenario for us,” said Red Claws President Bill Ryan Jr. “Right from the beginning, it was important to be affiliated with the Celtics. This enhanced affiliation definitely helps.”
In its first three seasons, Maine was an affiliate to multiple teams — the Celtics and Charlotte Bobcats in the first two years, with the Philadelphia 76ers making it a trio last season.
Now, it’s just Boston and Maine.
“Celtics — that’s the focus for the fans here,” Ryan said. “The closer we can identify ourselves with the Celtics, the better.”
Thus the Celtics uniforms for the home opener against the Los Angeles D-Defenders, the affiliate of the Los Angeles Lakers. And in a nod to Boston’s intense rivalry with the Lakers — which has often spurred thunderous chants of “Beat LA” at the Boston Garden — the first 1,000 fans at the Expo will receive “Beat LA” T-shirts.
As if that isn’t enough, tonight’s honorary captain for the Red Claws is former Celtics great Dave Cowens.
SEA DOGS: A SUCCESSFUL BLUEPRINT
The Red Claws have enjoyed popularity, selling out every home game in their first two years in the 3,025-seat Expo, then 15 of their 24 home games last season.
The new affiliation with Boston can’t hurt. The Red Claws can just ask their neighbors at Hadlock Field how that works out.
When the Portland Sea Dogs became an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in 2003, a successful minor league baseball franchise became even more popular, not only in attendance, but through media coverage around New England.
The Sea Dogs have showcased future stars for the Red Sox, including Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia. And current Red Sox players have come to Hadlock, working their way back from injuries. The most notable was David Ortiz.
And as the Red Claws will have Cowens at the Expo for their home opener, the Sea Dogs have welcomed former Red Sox greats to Hadlock Field, including Jim Rice, Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn.
But comparing baseball and basketball minor league operations can go only so far.
Baseball has built up a network of minor league teams over many decades. Each Major League Baseball team has several minor league affiliates. The Red Sox have seven — three rookie teams, two lower-level Class A teams, then Portland (Double-A) and Pawtucket, R.I. (Triple-A).
There are only 16 NBA D-League teams, servicing 30 NBA teams.
The Red Sox employ about 175 minor league players each year. The organization has control over them for as long as six years, so they cannot leave for other organizations, even if it means a promotion.
When Sea Dogs fans watched Ellsbury leg out a triple, they didn’t have to worry about the Yankees taking notice and signing him away.
An NBA team controls only the 15 players on its roster. A player on an NBA D-League contract can leave his team at any time if an NBA team wants him.
For example, Chris Wright starred for the Red Claws last year, but left when the NBA’s Golden State Warriors offered him a contract.
Wright played 24 games for Golden State. He eventually was let go and is back with Maine this year, but he could be gone again if another NBA team comes calling.
The only Red Claws players that the Celtics control are those from their roster who they send to the D-League. Boston rookies Fab Melo and Kris Joseph are now with the Red Claws.
THE LURE OF OVERSEAS
Another way basketball differs from baseball is international competition. There are professional basketball leagues all over the world. Annual salaries range from $50,000 at lower levels to six figures.
D-League salaries range from $13,000 to $25,500 (plus housing, insurance and $40-a-day meal money).
Guard Jamar Smith played for the Red Claws in 2010-11, then went to the Czech Republic last year. Smith was in the Celtics’ preseason camp this fall, but was cut from the team. He could have gone back to Maine, but opted for a professional league in Israel.
“You can’t play basketball forever,” Smith said. “I want to try to make as much money off the game” as possible.
Red Claws coach Mike Taylor, who has coached in England and Germany, said players have to make a choice: stay close to the NBA or make money.
“We’ll tell players (that Maine) is a fantastic place. You’ll enjoy playing there,” Taylor said. “You’re going to be constantly visible with the NBA teams, including the Celtics. So that call-up (to the NBA) could be any day.
“The issue is, you’re not going to make a lot of money doing it. So you have to respect and understand the fact these guys might go to Europe, because they can make different money,” he said.
Red Claws center Brian Cusworth has played in Estonia and Spain. He’s in the D-League for the first time.
“I always thought of myself as a potential player in the NBA,” he said, “so I thought this was the best road to give it a shot.”
Austin Ainge once coached the Red Claws. Now he is the Celtics’ player personnel director.
“Most of the guys who stay (in the D-League) feel like they are close (to the NBA),” Ainge said. “It’s a risk, but it’s an investment. Guys have a chance to make a lot of money if they make the NBA.”
The NBA minimum salary for rookies is $473,000. The average salary is $3.4 million.
WHAT THE CELTICS GET OUT OF IT
Eleven of the 16 D-League teams have sole NBA partners (five of them are actually owned by their NBA affiliates).
The other five D-League teams have three or four partners, operating much as the Red Claws did for their first three seasons.
Ainge said the goal is to have 30 D-League teams — one for each NBA team.
For the Celtics, there is a definite advantage to being the sole affiliate of the Red Claws, and being in charge of basketball decisions.
“I like it now that we have more control over it,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “It’s a good fit.”
While it doesn’t have control over the players on D-League contracts, the team is watching them carefully, noting which ones adjust to the Celtics’ style of play … just in case the Celtics want to call a player up.
“There’s communication every day,” Taylor said. “I send a Red Claws report to Austin. Plus, our video guy has created a system where the Celtics can watch our practice every day.”
And when the Celtics send young players to Portland to gain experience, those players see the same coaching style they got in Boston.
“Same offensive scheme and defensive scheme,” said Joseph, a second-round NBA draft pick in 2012. “Every day I’m out there developing my game.”
The Celtics also can use the Red Claws for rehab assignments. Guard Avery Bradley has nearly recovered from two shoulder surgeries in the off-season. He might play a game or two in Maine to fine-tune his game before playing for the Celtics.
“It’s possible,” he said. “I may need to go there to get comfortable and come back (to Boston) fresh.”
Bradley has been in Maine. As a rookie in 2010-11, he was sent to Portland and played nine games.
He is now the only former Red Claws player on the Celtics roster.
Action shots of Bradley — in Red Claws and Celtics uniforms — grace the cover of the 2012-13 Red Claws media guide.
Red Claws. Celtics.
The local basketball team in Portland wants to make sure you see the connection.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at: