PORTLAND - Leon Butler was a purple-and-gold beacon from the cap on his head to the shirt on his back. A solitary point of light for Los Angeles Lakers fandom.
Boy, did he look out of place on the night the Maine Red Claws returned to the Portland Expo for their home opener.
Big night, big crowd of more than 3,000 celebrating the new-look Red Claws and their new single affiliation with the Boston Celtics. First time in Portland for the Los Angeles D--Fenders whose NBA parent is the Lakers.
Which is why Butler didn't blink when he looked through his wardrobe for the garish purple T-shirt with the simple message: No one beats L.A. It kind of clashed with all the green-and-white Beat L.A. shirts in the Expo bleachers.
"The guy next to me told me Lakers fans had to watch the game from the sidewalk," said Butler, motioning to an empty seat on his left. "He was kidding."
You sure, Leon? Lakers and Celtics fans aren't known for breaking bread together. Then I noticed his wife sitting on his right. Nichole Butler wore a Celtics shirt. She grew up in Augusta. He grew up in L.A., and I don't mean Lewiston-Auburn. They've lived in Belgrade for the past five years.
"I don't get hassled in Maine. Sometimes when I go to the Garden (in Boston). It's more serious there." Leon grinned.
Opening night at the Portland Expo. It still hasn't gotten old. Fans were in line, filling the Expo lobby waiting for their tickets to be scanned -- and waiting for the free T-shirts -- two hours before tip-off. An hour later, the line stretched outside and up the sidewalk.
Some were first-timers. Many more were returnees. "I want to see them win," said Lisa Hudson of Windham, who's not a rookie. "But (the Red Claws) play good basketball and that's what I want to see most."
She gets its. Nearly everyone does. It's the NBA Development League. Winning is secondary. But not forgotten. The Red Claws have failed to reach the playoffs in their three years of existence and their fans have noticed and forgiven.
On opening night there's plenty of patience. The Red Claws brought a 2-0 road record back to Portland and a roster of talent.
Fab Melo, the Celtics rookie, found new fans in the crowd. Champ Oguchi got reacquainted with old fans. Teammates will be adopted by other fans.
"We always pick out our favorites," said Rick Meade, at a game for a fourth year with Robin Reinhold. They're both from South Portland. "We're basketball fans," said Reinhold. Meaning, they want to see players honor the game.
"They work their butts off," said Jeff Douglas of Gorham, who played for Dick Whitmore at Colby College some 30 years ago. "Everyone is trying to get ahead. You appreciate that."
He and his wife, Kathy, who played at Keene State, have been on board since the first season. Yes, they enjoy basketball as entertainment.
But it's the shot-making, the defense and the effort that yanked them and many others out of their seats Friday night in the fourth quarter when Micah Downs and Chris Wright took over in a one-point game. Wright, with his leaps. Downs with an intensity that can flash white-hot.
That's what separates basketball from pro hockey and pro baseball in this town. In the hot-house environment that is the Expo, you can see players sweat, hear them swear.
You can reach out and have Downs slap your hand as he runs by. Suddenly and fleetingly, the line between player and spectator is blurred.
A steal by Downs, who passed the ball behind his back and up for a lay-in set off the crowd. Wright had a put-back dunk and the noise got louder. Too loud. The adrenalin pumped too much. In the last minute, Los Angeles snatched the victory away, 97-94.
"The crowd was great," said Mike Taylor, the new coach.
In Section 20, Leon Butler beamed but didn't crow. "That was a great game. Great game. Now I hope the Red Claws win out. That's a really good team. That Micah Downs can play."
He'll be back. Next time he can leave the No-one-beats L.A. shirt at home.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: