The Maine Red Claws expansion NBA Development League (D-League) team has been more than two years in the making. The team will take the court for the first time in late November and will play its home games at the renovated Portland Exposition Building. The Red Claws announced some big news recently, making official their affiliations with the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Bobcats. Season ticket sales are booming, with the Red Claws leading the league.

Jon Jennings, the Red Claws president and general manager (not to mention a scout and video coordinator for the 1986 world champion Boston Celtics team and later an assistant coach for the Celtics) sat down for an interview with Current Publishing on July 1, two days after the affiliations were announced. The interview will run in two parts over the next two weeks. In the first part, Jennings speaks about why he chose Portland, some players that could don the Red Claws uniform during the upcoming season, how the Celtics will benefit from having their affiliate just a two-hour drive away (Boston’s former affiliate was in Utah), and plenty more.

Q: What makes Portland a good spot for a D-League team?

A: I’ve always believed that Portland was one of the most ideal cities in the country. There’s data that shows that. The SportsBusiness Daily did a fairly lengthy study a couple years ago that showed Portland was the 23rd best minor league market in the country. As they broke it down into categories, it showed that Portland was the second best market for fan attendance.

That was a good indicator, but the rabid love of high school basketball here in the state of Maine was really the determining factor in why we brought the team here. I’m originally from Indiana and I know all about high school basketball and the impact it can have on a community. I was thrilled with the idea of having our team in a state that loves basketball as much as this one does.

Q: Did the process of bringing a team to Portland take longer than you expected at first?

A: There was a hope that we could have played last season. We’ve been at this two years now. We could have played last season, but there would have been a rush to put everything together. I think for us it all worked out the way it was supposed to.

Q: The affiliation with the Boston Celtics was what everyone was hoping for and expecting. How did the Charlotte Bobcats affiliation come about?

A: I have some previous relationships with the Bobcats organization. I had coached Michael Jordan in the 1991 All-Star Game. I’ve been friendly with him since. I’ve been a longtime fan of Larry Brown, who’s the coach there. We’ve been friendly over the years.

I also did an analysis of the Bobcats and their future draft picks because that’s a determiner of how many people they could send to the Development League. It was also a team outside the Atlantic Division, the Celtics being in the Atlantic Division. But most importantly, I really have admired how Charlotte, in the aftermath of the Hornets leaving, has made the Bobcats its team. I have great admiration for the organization.

Q: What players from the Bobcats and Celtics could be playing in Portland this upcoming season?

A: There are several players that are eligible. That’s kind of the key word – eligible. It doesn’t mean they’re going to come here. Those players are the first- and second-year players, just so everybody understands how our league works. For instance, from Charlotte, there’s Alexis Ajinca. He’s a 7-footer who played in the Development League last year. D.J. Augustin from Texas is available. Sean Singletary, a tweener guard from Virginia, is eligible. Cartier Martin, who played in the Development League for Iowa last year before Charlotte signed him about halfway into the season, would be eligible, as well as Derrick Brown, their most recent draft pick out of Xavier.

Then from the Celtics, it’s basically J.R. Giddens, Bill Walker and the new kid, Lester Hudson, who are eligible.

Q: How will the Celtics benefit from having their affiliate in Portland rather than across the country in Utah?

A:I think Danny (Ainge) said it best the other day. What he said – and certainly what I would want if I were in his position as the (Celtics) general manager and president of basketball operations – is that he wants to be able to send his guys to Portland to practice and play, still having them close enough so that they could come back to Boston for home games, and still feel a part of the team.

One of the things when you’re a young player is you come into the NBA and you feel pretty good about yourself. Then training camp starts and you realize how good these guys are. You start worrying whether you’re going to stick in the league, if you’re good enough. All of a sudden, you’re sent to a place far away and maybe it’s going through your head, “No one’s watching me.” Well, here in Portland, there are going to be scouts, Danny’s going to be here. Plus, players are a two-hour drive to Boston to hang out with their teammates and go to games. I think from that standpoint, it’s a decided advantage for Boston.

Q: Is there a timeline for hiring a Red Claws coach?

A:I’ve been interviewing guys off and on for the past few months. I certainly didn’t expect it to go on and on, but I expect we’ll have a coach in place in the next few weeks. I’m going to Orlando next week to see the Orlando Summer League. I’m going to talk to some of the people down there. I’ve interviewed 20 to 25 candidates. There’s been enormous, and I mean enormous, interest in our job. I think people really see this as a stable position, and a position that, with our affiliates now, that’s highly desired.

What has constantly been a mission of mine is to find a coach who has new ideas. What I mean by that is, 20-plus years ago I was hired by the Indiana Pacers and I was one of the first people to bring video into the NBA. Now, video is an accepted form of teaching and scouting and so forth. It certainly wasn’t then. Statistical analysis is an area that baseball has used over the past several years. That’s an area basketball is just starting to focus on. I believe it’s relevant. I don’t imagine that if you were talking to Theo Epstein he’d say that statistical analysis is the only thing he uses to judge a player, but it’s a key component of the many factors he uses. That should be true of our league.

Q: How do you plan to fill out the free agent portion of the roster?

A: There will be a great deal of research. If I’m anything, I’m obsessed with being prepared. It’s the nature of who I am. We’re going to know every player who is in our draft as well as humanly possible. What we’ll do is make an assessment on a couple factors. One is character. If a guy is good in the community and is dedicated to the game of basketball, and is willing to do what is necessary to be not only good on the court, but off the court, that’s something we’ll take into account. Ability is obviously a tremendous determiner.

It’s all about making sure we’re as prepared as possible, not only for the D-League draft in November, but we also have an expansion draft in September and two allocation picks, which really are territorial picks. Then we’re going to have some open tryout camps for individuals who may or may not have ever had their shot. They’ll be in September or October. We’re looking to do one in Charlotte, one in Portland, possibly one in Boston.

Q: Could we see a hometown kid making the team?

A: They’ll have a shot. The key thing to understand is that this is professional basketball. This is the best basketball outside the NBA. These guys are all on the verge of making the NBA. This isn’t just ordinary ability. You have to be pretty darn good to make our team. If there’s a guy out there that’s local and he’s good and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make the NBA, absolutely, we’d be open to that.

Q: How are the Expo renovations coming along?

A: Fantastic. We’re five months and four days away from the beginning of the season, and that’s certainly something that keeps me up at night, but when I think about what’s going to eventually come out of all these meetings, the season ticket sales and all the sponsorships and everything else, it’s those games.

The other night I was looking at an old picture of the Boston Garden and what I realized is that the Expo basically is the lower bowl of the Boston Garden, where Red Auerbach used to sit. Those seats were literally right on the floor. When you think about the caliber of play that’s going to be in the Portland Exposition Building this fall, guys that are either in the NBA, or potentially will be in the NBA, playing in that intimacy of the Expo, I don’t know how you couldn’t be excited if you’re a fan. I think that it’s going to be the most exciting building in the entire state this year.

Q: Has the down economy had an adverse effect on season tickets sales?

A: No, it certainly hasn’t. We announced this franchise in what we were being told was a potential depression, so we weren’t sure what was going to happen. The best-case scenario happened. I just heard that we have a waiting list already for some of the premium seats.

We’re getting to the point where we have to start thinking about limiting the number of season tickets we sell. We’re getting pretty close to, in kind of an unheard of way, selling out of season tickets. That’s how popular this is. I was talking to some of our owners and said, “If your friends want to get in, they better call soon.”

Q: What else should we know about the team?

A: One of the biggest components of why we brought the team up here is to make an impact in the community. This isn’t just about basketball. This is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children and a lot of other people. Part of it is raising money for non-profits. Part of it is getting our players out to see kids. Part of it is our coaching staff going out and teaching and doing clinics for other coaches.

We’ve already raised close to $20,000 for non-profits and we haven’t even thrown the ball up once. We probably take as much pride in that as we do in the 920-plus season tickets we’ve already sold, because that’s making a tangible difference in the lives of people who live here in Maine.

Be sure to check in next week, as Jennings discusses Bobby Knight’s softer side, his first meeting with Red Auerbach, what Red would have to say about the Red Claws dance team (let’s just say he wouldn’t have approved), a guy named Spider, Shaq in Cleveland and much more.

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