March 12, 2010

City may net team in NBA minors

ELBERT AULL

— By

Staff Writer

Basketball fans will know by early next year whether Portland will be home to an NBA Development League team.

NBA officials said they will announce expansion plans for their 8-year-old minor league by March. Though league officials won't reveal whether Portland has an inside track, one of the investors trying to bring a team to Maine says he is optimistic that the city will be home to a squad for the 2009-10 season.

''I'd say that we're getting very close. It's coming down to the final stages of everything,'' Jon Jennings said.

Jennings, a former Boston Celtics assistant coach, is part of an investment team trying to bring minor league basketball to Portland after more than a decade's absence.

His success or failure is tied to whether the NBA-affiliated minor league known as the D-League decides to make a foray into the Northeast next season.

The 16-team league stretches from Los Angeles to Erie, Pa.

D-League President Dan Reed has said he wants to expand into the Northeast, but has not indicated when that might happen.

League officials have made it clear they won't add Portland unless it's among a cluster of expansion franchises in the region, an effort to spark rivalries and keep down travel costs, which are covered by the individual teams.

The league has considered Harlem in New York City and Toronto as possible franchise sites, as well as Manchester, N.H., and Halifax, Nova Scotia. NBA Commissioner David Stern is pushing for a franchise in Harlem, as are officials from the New York Knicks -- who want to run a farm team in their backyard. The Toronto Raptors have similar plans for a team in southern Ontario.

Manchester and Halifax are already home to teams in the Premier Basketball League, and only one of them, the Halifax Rainmen, is interested in switching leagues. Halifax applied for an expansion franchise and met with D-League officials earlier this year.

Nancy Sheppard, a spokeswoman for the Rainmen, said the team is still interested, but D-League officials said Halifax's location is a hurdle. ''We're on the back burner until we get more teams in the Northeast,'' Sheppard said.

Ian McCarthy, general manager of the Manchester Millrats, said they aren't interested in making a move until at least the 2010-11 season.

''We're going to evaluate our experience at the end of the year and see what the D-League has to offer,'' McCarthy said.

League officials declined to comment on whether they are eyeing additional Northeastern cities for expansion. Spokeswoman Joanna Shapiro wouldn't say whether Portland has a leg up in the process.

The D-League plays a November to April schedule. The league stands apart from other North American and European minor leagues because its teams serve as NBA affiliates, shuffling talent back and forth.

Jennings, who said he wants Portland to serve as a Boston Celtics affiliate, is part of an investment team that includes TD Banknorth Chairman Bill Ryan Sr. and son Bill Ryan Jr., owner of Oxford Plains Speedway. The group emerged as prospective franchise owners in January and signed a lease agreement with the city for the Portland Expo building in April.

If it gets a D-League team, the group has agreed to pay for about $250,000 in repairs to the 3,209-seat Expo building -- upgrades that include a new court and additional bleachers.

Jennings had been interested in launching a franchise for the current season, but had to wait while the league sought companion teams for expansion.

Jennings said the group has funding and believes minor league basketball can be successful in Maine.

Recent history, however, is not on the group's side.

A pair of teams, the Portland Mountain Cats and Portland Wave, folded after one-year stints in the U.S. Basketball League during the late 1990s. And since the D-League was founded, four franchises have folded, four others have moved and three have suspended play over lease or box office issues.

Jennings said he believes things will be different in Portland this time around. He points to a recent Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal ranking of the best minor league sports markets that placed Portland 21st out of 230, just ahead of Richmond, Va., and behind Austin-Round Rock, Texas.

Jennings said the Portland Sea Dogs, a Boston Red Sox affiliate, and Portland Pirates, a Buffalo Sabres affiliate, have built strong followings in the city and will serve as models for ticket pricing and branding.

The Marblehead, Mass., resident also said he's encouraged by the support for high school basketball in Maine.

''We're firmly committed to this,'' Jennings said, ''regardless of the economic conditions.''

Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

eaull@pressherald.com

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