It’s not the draw it once was, but for fans like Doug Clukey, the value of the Red Claws Christmas Showcase is still unbeatable.

“I’m a high school sports fan and it’s the cheapest form of entertainment an old man can have,” said Clukey, a 77-year-old retired elementary school teacher from North Yarmouth.

Clukey paid $3 for his senior citizen/student ticket ($5 for adults), and watched three full games and parts of two others during Tuesday’s seven-game opening day at the Portland Expo.

And he said he’ll be back for Wednesday’s 11:30 a.m. opener between Gray-New Gloucester and Massabesic.

“I’m going to have to leave for a while because my wife has other plans. You have to make certain accommodations over 54 years,” Clukey joked. “But I’ll be back for the 2:30 game.”

The showcase has seven games both Wednesday and Thursday. Most are exhibition games. Wednesday’s 7 p.m. Falmouth vs. Cape Elizabeth boys’ game, and the Portland vs. Deering girls’/boys’ doubleheader starting at 7 p.m. Thursday are regular-season games.

There will be plenty of seats available. The crowd was in the 200-300 range for Tuesday’s games, a far cry from when the Expo’s holiday event used a tournament format.

“I was here for 14 years when it was a tournament, and you had brackets and it was exciting, and it’s sad to see it like it is now,” said South Portland Coach Kevin Millington.

The combination of teams playing a regular-season game during the holiday break and being limited to five exhibition contests by the Maine Principals’ Association ended the tournament format three years ago.

Portland boys’ coach Joe Russo, who runs the event, also longs for a tourney. But this format, with proceeds benefiting the Portland High basketball booster clubs, has merit.

“It still has value because of the venue and if you’re going to do a fundraiser, at least it’s a fundraiser of interest. It’s still basketball,” Russo said.

For the players and coaches there are many reasons for participating.

“It’s just to get an extra game,” said Zac Manoogian, Westbrook High’s senior guard. “Every kid on our team is a gym rat, you’d find them in a gym somewhere, so it’s just another game for us.”

The Biddeford boys’ team came with the specific purpose of preparing for a hoped-for Class A quarterfinal game at the Expo. That it played well and beat the Class AA South champion, South Portland, 58-51, made it even better.

The Expo’s open shooting backgrounds have been notoriously unkind to teams unfamiliar with the building.

“You have all that blank space and it kind of throws you for a while,” said Jerome Criado, who made five 3-pointers for Biddeford in the second half to finish with 15 points.

“We can’t come in here and practice,” Criado said. “So playing a team like South Portland here is good for us. Now we know what it’s like to play here. It’s a confidence builder. We know we can play against (one of) the best teams in the state.”

South Portland’s purpose was two-fold, Millington said.

First, Millington needed to get a good look at everyone on his roster to “find some scoring depth,” and to keep his seniors well rested because the Red Riots will play twice Thursday, then start a seven-game, 15-day stretch Saturday.

Portland girls’ coach Gerry Corcoran scoffed that his team’s 43-31 “exhibition” win against Greely didn’t matter.

“We’re so early in building this program, at 3-1 (in the regular season) it’s crucial for us to learn how to win and to be conditioned in how to win,” Corcoran said.

Greely, a top contender in Class A, played without junior all-state guard Anna DeWolfe (ankle injury). DeWolfe said she hopes to be out of her walking boot within a week and able to practice soon.

“We wanted to experiment with some things that we’ve been working on,” said Rangers Coach Todd Flaherty. “Portland was a great draw for us because they’re so athletic. It’s great to play against a team like that; there aren’t a lot of them around. I thought they exposed some of our weaknesses and now we can work on those.”

The Portland boys won the final game of the day, 58-38 over Hollis-Brookline of New Hampshire after trailing 24-20 at halftime.


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