March 31, 2014

Sunday Matinee

I don't like New England very much. I am sure it's because I grew up there as a fresh off the boat immigrant to this country from the United Kingdom and had a series of overly aggressive history teachers who loved to tell all us students about how glorious the Revolutionary War was and how ignorant and disillusioned the British were and maybe in some cases still are. What can I say? It left a bad taste in my mouth. So when I think of quaint New England towns and villages; lobsters and clams; picture postcard perfect lighthouses like the one above just outside of Portland, Maine; and Boston sports teams, I am less than pleased with how that all makes me feel. This is not the first time I have written words like this in this blog. It might not be the last.

Despite my rant in the first paragraph of this post, a week and a half ago I decided to take a trip up to New England on my second trip to explore the NBDL, the NBA's minor league farm system of sorts. Self flagellation, maybe? My first night of the trip in Springfield, Massachusetts was fantastic, with courtside seats, a great local bar and old friends. The morning after, I packed my backpack (traveling light) and my friend Mike into my rented Dodge Avenger and headed north into what was perhaps the most New England-y of all places: Maine. I knew I'd get plenty of everything I railed against a paragraph ago, including lots of Boston sports teams. But in heading there, I finally found what I was hoping to find all along on my two D-League trips so far. And ironically the Boston sports team thing may have helped.

My vision of life in the D-League before I set out last February to find out what it might be like for the players below the NBA level was one of desperation. I imagined paper thin rosters playing in cramped outdated facilities in small towns with inventive / cheesy promotions to get fans in the door. I knew salaries in the D-League varied between the sub-teens to the mid twenties of thousands per season so I knew nobody was getting rich playing at this level. I knew a ten day contract on a call up to an NBA team could easily eclipse a player's pay for entire season in the NBDL and was therefore extremely valuable. And so what I thought I'd find would make me understand why someone would be so desperate to make it to the big leagues. I think I found most of this in Maine. But I also found something wonderful at the same time.

Best logo in the D-League hands down.
Maine's D-League franchise, the Maine Red Claws, is located in Portland, the largest city in Maine and home to about 65,000 in the city itself with a metropolitan area of a little more than 200,000. The Portland area was permanently settled in the year 1633 as a village named Casco with fishing and trading as its primary industries. Throughout its almost 400 year history, the center of settlement in the area shifted from Casco to Falmouth to, starting in 1793, what is Portland today. The area was raided and burned by native American tribes, the French and the British before the United States gained independence and things calmed down and stabilized a little. But the industry in the area remained consistent and fishing and trading (shipping) continues today in a major way in Portland.

In the 1970s, Portland experienced a population migration to the suburbs just like many other cities in America did at that time. And like many of those same formerly abandoned cities, eventually Portland's residents started to appreciate what the city had to offer and gradually people moved back downtown. Today, Portland enjoys a thriving tourist industry in addition to fishing and shipping. Apparently the city has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States, just recently surpassing San Francisco. This statistic speaks as much to Portland's tourist industry as it does to its small size and its growing foodie scene.

Professional basketball took a while to get to Portland. The Red Claws were awarded to the city as an expansion franchise in 2009 and started playing ball in the fall of that year for the 2009-2010 NBDL season. The team has without a doubt the best name and logo in the D-League if not in all of professional basketball in this country. In 2012, the team entered into a hybrid affiliation with the Boston Celtics, meaning the team is locally operated but has turned over control of basketball operations to the parent franchise. I don't know if this affected the fan base at all, but I have to imagine that any association with the Celtics is good for business north of Boston.

The Portland Expo. Note the large inflatable lobster (Crusher) out front.
The Red Claws play in the Portland Expo Center, which is the second oldest operational sports complex in the United States. The building was opened on June 7, 1915 and hosted an agricultural show as its first event. The building looks like an old municipal gymnasium, a far cry from the three arenas I found last year in Texas or even the re-skinned MassMutual Center in Springfield a couple of nights before. This is a building with a ton of character and history. I suspected as our cab driver dropped us off in front that this might be a bit different experience.

Sure enough, I was right. The place is small, seating only 3,100 or so spectators, and the stands feature bleachers, not chairs, probably because they need to be collapsed to make the place truly a multi-purpose arena. It had been a while since I've sat in bleacher seating and I don't miss it at all. I'll never complain about Verizon Center's seats again.

The locker rooms for the players are in the basement. The teams emerge from the same portal at the beginning of the game behind the stands at the north end of the arena. Oh and in addition to hosting the Red Claws, the Expo serves as the home court for the Portland High School basketball team. Now this is cool. The only thing that could really make this place any cooler on first blush would be if it were located somewhere in central Indiana.

The atmosphere gets even better once you settle into the place and see the "Crustacean Nation" sign and the two end zone sections named "The Trap." The concession stands serve lobster rolls and lobster tails on sticks and the team even has its own beer called Red Claw Ale, served under the ever vigilant eye of orange shirted alcohol compliance officers. You can consume your Red Claw Ale (or Bud Light if you prefer but why would you?) as long as your wristband is in plain sight when those same officers make their rounds on the sidelines. The colors were presented by the local Kora Shriners, complete with bling encrusted fezzes, and immediately after the national anthem was complete, the sound system played the Maine Red Claws song (When I say "Red", you say "Claws") to get the fans pumped up.

And the fans are pretty passionate. Not truly surprising knowing how into their sports teams Boston fans are. If there's nothing else you can say nice about New England sports fans (and there may not be), they are nothing if not crazy about their teams. The game must have been pretty close to a sellout if not a full house and it showed and sounded like it. We even saw one dude with a Red Claws tattoo on his arm, right below his Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox and Portland Sea Dogs tattoos. I'm not kidding. It was awesome. This was the atmosphere I was looking for: big time passion but definitely small time stage; endearing and throwback but at the same time something you would not look back at for a shot in the NBA.

The Red Claws fielded a team of eight that Sunday afternoon. That was their entire roster since they just had a couple of guys called up to the NBA either on a ten day contract or a full ride for the rest of the year. Six of the eight were rookies who couldn't make it in the NBA and didn't or wouldn't head to Europe for more stability but less access to the best league on the planet.

They played the same Springfield Armor that we had seen defeat the Canton Charge two nights before on our first night of the trip and they came out like gangbusters. Despite their small numbers, they jumped all over the Armor, leading 30-12 after the first quarter. From there they hung on, losing the second, third and fourth quarters but only by a total of 13 points and ended up winning the game 100-95. It was the fifth home victory I'd seen in five D-League games but this may have been the best because of how the game and the atmosphere felt. If I lived in Portland (I won't ever), I'd make sure I got some courtside seats and show up for every game.

The Kora Shriners marching the colors off the court after the playing of the national anthem.
I'm not sure how long I'm going to continue to make D-League trips. I have a whole list of other things in this world that I want to see, both basketball and non-basketball related, and there may not be time for a bunch more NBDL trips, especially if the league expands to a true minor league system where each NBA franchise has its own D-League team. But if I never take in another game again at this level, I'm happy my last one was in Portland. The place, the building and the fans made it the best of the five to date.

One final note: on the north end wall of the arena, right next to the very small and non-HD jumbotron (if you can call it that), the team has a couple of NBA Call-Ups banners, a tribute to all the Red Claws who made it out, at least for a short time. The banners are a little haphazardly placed (I'd move the Celtics banner and place the two Call-Ups banners together) but I think its a great gesture to those players who have been part of the Crustacean Nation. There are two former Wizards on the banner: Shelvin Mack, our 2011 second round draft pick who we released at the beginning of last season before bringing him back and then sending him away again, and Morris Almond, who made it to the NBA with the Wizards for the final six games of the 2011-2012 season. I watched Shelvin play in two games in the D-League for the Red Claws last February in Texas. And I'll never forget Mo Almond because the Wizards never lost with him on the team. Perfect 6-0. Maybe there was something there...

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