– SOUTH PORTLAND – Jon Jennings was a fresh face with an old idea when he started knocking on doors some four years ago. He was pitching professional basketball for Portland and for every person who told him he could do it, others said he couldn’t.

Daniel Burke and Charlie Eshbach lined up behind Jennings in their own quiet way. They had brought the Sea Dogs to Portland when some said minor league baseball wouldn’t work in Maine. It had been tried in Old Orchard Beach and the Maine Guides failed. The past didn’t deter the corporate man or the baseball man.

Or Jennings. His skeptics pointed to the two unsuccessful USBL franchises in Portland: the Mountain Cats and the Wave. They told Jennings not to waste their time by taking them down the same road.

Jennings shook his head at the memories. He learned of Dan Burke’s passing Wednesday morning, the news coinciding with a so-called five-hour summit of Maine Red Claws corporate partners at the Marriott hotel. It wasn’t lost on Jennings that the Sea Dogs’ success helped the Red Claws break into a small, new market.

“They are the gold standard. I was the young buck who knew I could learn a lot from them. Charlie helped me immeasurably.”

The Sea Dogs, Red Claws and Portland Pirates hockey team frequently see themselves more as kin than as rivals. Jennings worked more closely with Eshbach than with Burke but Wednesday there was a sense of loss. Burke was the only owner the Sea Dogs have known.

It seems hard to believe now, but after the Maine Mariners moved to Providence following the 1991-92 AHL season, Portland was without any team for a year until the owner Tom Ebright moved the Skipjacks from Baltimore and renamed his team the Pirates. In April of 1994, the Sea Dogs played their first Eastern League game at Hadlock Field.

The Red Claws open their third season in the NBA Development League next month. Home games at the Portland Expo have been a string of sellouts. The Thompson’s Point project, which includes a new arena for the Red Claws, is moving ahead, although slowly.

Jennings can’t rest and Wednesday’s get-together was evidence of that. He asked NBA Development League Commissioner Dan Reed to speak to current and potential corporate sponsors. Reed didn’t think twice. “Jon and his group are one of the showcase franchises in this league and even in the NBA,” he said during a break. “Jon understands the model. Maine is in the top three of every category we measure.”

Categories like season ticket sales and merchandising. That the Red Claws haven’t yet reached the playoffs is not a concern to Reed even as the competitive side of Jennings bristles. He wants a winner. He also believes that he’s selling more than the game itself.

“It depends who’s walking into the building. The kids want one thing (Where’s Crusher?), the hard-core fan wants his basketball played well and the social fan wants to be entertained.”

Guests from the NBA front office made presentations on marketing and social media. Representatives from the team’s major corporate sponsors formed a panel to discuss where the bang from their dollar was coming from.

New coach Dave Leitao told a story of his playing days at Northeastern and going to Orono to play Maine in the Pit. The night before, he and some teammates were in a movie theater when Maine’s Rufus Harris was recognized. Everyone but the Huskies stood to give Harris a standing ovation.

“I was taken aback,” said Leitao. “I have a little sense of the passion for basketball in this state. Passion is important. We want to walk with, talk with and play with it. We want to make sure (players) understand what passion is all about.”

Leitao stepped back and grinned. Men and women nodded and applauded. Call it a summit, in fact it was more pep rally for people plugged into their community and a team they could call their own.

Dan Burke would have understood.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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