February 26, 2010

Red Claws score 100 on first test with fans

— PORTLAND — The rally cry of deee-fense died in the loudspeaker as fans shot puzzled looks at each other. Someone was trying to prime the excitement pump, but fans sat mute.

What was up with that? Timing, no doubt. The basketball game between the Springfield Armor and Maine Red Claws had only just begun.

The doors to the Portland Expo opened around 6:15 Friday night, permitting early-arriving fans to stand in front of the turnstiles in the lobby. Within 30 minutes, the line stretched down the sidewalk to Hadlock Field. Ninety minutes after the first fans pushed through to their seats, the human river was still flowing.

It was Opening Night for the Red Claws. Never mind that the team's very first game was played last week in South Dakota. Professional basketball in the form of the NBA Development League was opening here, in this venerable arena where long-ago boxing shows and college basketball doubleheaders still echo.

On Friday night, there was more cheering. So much noise, you couldn't hear the person next to you at times. With people in all the seats, the building got hot and hotter.

Celtics green might have been more visible on the backs of fans than the bright lobster red of the new Maine team, but that was to be expected. Despite all the hype and hoopla, the Red Claws are still brand new.

''I think this is great,'' said Jim Libby, a one-time Republican candidate for governor, standing in line with his 4-year-old daughter, Grace.

Maine's flagship university has won two national championships in hockey, but the state has a deeper love for the sport that's played in every school gym in every small town and city from the deep woods to the southern coast.

''Maine is so much like Indiana,'' said Amy Jennings, wife of Jon, the team official who believed it would be a good idea to bring pro basketball back to Portland. Two previous franchises, the Mountain Cats and the Wave of the United States Basketball League, never stirred Mainers' passion for the game. Both folded their tents.

Amy and Jon Jennings are Hoosiers, natives of Indiana, where being competitive doesn't mean you have to be deceitful or push people around.

''I've been so nervous all week,'' said Amy Jennings, who walked into the Expo with their 6-year-old daughter, Abigail, dressed in a Red Claws' bright red top. ''Jon told me I wasn't to cry tonight. I told him I would if I wanted. They would be happy tears.''

Minor league sports is a business. Doesn't mean it can't be a labor of love, too.

Jon Jennings, the team's general manager and president, pushed a large mop across the gleaming parquet floor two hours before the game. He saw dust, he thought. He wielded the mop expertly, as Spider Edwards, his friend, once did in the old Boston Garden during halftime.

Twenty years ago, that was the entertainment.

''Do I think this has legs? Yes,'' said Rick Simonds, the former Saint Joseph's College men's basketball coach and coach of the short-lived Wave. Now, he does color commentary for Red Claws' radio.

''There's a plan. From top to bottom, Jon (Jennings) has the right people in the right positions,'' he said. ''And he has those three magic letters.''

Meaning, the NBA stands behind every team in its development league.

With three minutes left in the game and the Red Claws up by 20 points over Springfield, some in the big crowd left. The departures didn't seem to dull the noise or the enthusiasm.

Matt Clement, the big kid from Lawrence High and Maine Maritime, was in the crowd with his girlfriend. He was cut by the team after its preseason game in Augusta.

''I have mixed emotions (watching the game),'' said Clement. ''I'm envious of the guys playing out there, but this organization treated me wonderfully. It was first class all the way.''

Kevin Nelson of Portland came to the game with his wife, Marsha. ''The last time I was here I was an 11-year-old kid from Monson,'' he said. ''Our high school was playing for the Class S championship.''

That was decades ago. Nelson later became part of the Foxcroft Academy team that won the state championship one cold night in Augusta in 1975. He later starred at the University of Maine.

''I love basketball,'' he said. ''I think we're going to see it played well.''

The Red Claws went over 100 points in the last minute. The final was 102-79. It was Opening Night and it was a win.

The fans gave their team a standing ovation.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6415 or at:

ssolloway@mainetoday.com

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