PORTLAND – With the Maine Red Claws rolling into the playoffs Thursday for the first time in the team’s four-year history, season ticket holders like Marie Bourque-Namer can be forgiven for thinking that their steadfast support is finally being rewarded.
But Bourque-Namer, who has bought three seats for the basketball team’s home games at the Portland Expo since the inaugural season of 2009-10, says she’s happier for her team than she is for herself.
“I wanted it for the coaches and for the teams,” she said, including past players and the current squad.
Bourque-Namer will be one of the faithful fans watching their Red Claws face the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Thursday in the first game of a best-of-three series opening the NBA Development League playoffs.
Although the Red Claws aren’t the biggest draw in southern Maine sports, fans say they love the intimacy of games at the Expo, which seats just 3,045, and the exuberance and openness of the players as they compete in the D-League with hopes of being picked up by NBA teams.
Although the Red Claws have an affiliation with the Boston Celtics, most of the players are free agents who can be acquired by any NBA team.
That’s part of the attraction, said Brian Butler of Portland. “It’s knowing we got to see them before the world gets to see them,” he said.
The drive to reach basketball’s major league makes the players go all out, all the time, said Will Arsenault, who bought season tickets for the first time for the 2012-13 season.
“They bring a level of excitement to the game that is pretty intense,” Arsenault said, and the difference between high school and local college basketball and a professional league is significant.
“They play an entirely different game,” he said. “Those of us who appreciate the game can really enjoy it.”
Art O’Neil of South Portland said he’s a Red Claws fan, but the atmosphere and intimacy of the games have also allowed him to strike up friendships with opposing players and coaches.
O’Neil’s season-ticket seat is next to the visitor’s bench. He said he often congratulates opposing players for good shots or stiff defense, and gets sportsmanlike handshakes in return.
“They’re actually pretty friendly to people in the front row,” he said. “They interact a bit.”
O’Neil said his spot gives him a chance to see how opponents respond to the Red Claws’ defensive or offensive schemes, making him appreciate the sophistication of the game and players’ ability to adapt.
“People think, ‘Oh, it’s minor league,’ but a lot of these guys have been in the NBA,” said O’Neil, an engineer with General Dynamics in Saco.
O’Neil said his spot also gives him a front-row view of the opposing teams’ coaches.
“Some of the coaches are kind of entertaining,” he said. “You’ll see them yell and scream, and the next minute they’re joking.”
Bourque-Namer said she appreciates little things that the “minor leagues” offer, such as the Red Claws making her granddaughter an honorary cheerleader for a game, or her grandson getting a chance to stand near Celtics coach Doc Rivers during an event this season.
“Where else could you do that?” she said.
Few fans are as devoted as Lorraine Day. She became the second person to buy season tickets after hearing about the team and meeting Red Claws officials who parked in the Elm Street garage, where Day works in the booth.
She is now the longest-tenured season-ticket holder, and she has her own personal connection to the team. Day can usually be found knitting — socks for players, sweaters for coaches’ kids, blankets for players’ babies.
When the whistle blows at the Expo, Day said, the whole world disappears except for her, the game and her knitting.
“I’m knitting. I’m watching. I will yell at them, but I don’t even know what I’m knitting when I’m watching the game,” she said. “I’m not one of those fans that run up to the players and get to know them. I sit in the background and knit.”
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: