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City’s third minor league franchise begins play in November; Expo to be renovated
By Michael Hoffer
PORTLAND — Amid a carnival atmosphere last Wednesday at Portland High School, the city of Portland received a new minor league sports team.
Gov. John Baldacci and local dignitaries were joined by the Portland High student body, Boston Celtics legend K.C. Jones, Celtics’ president Rich Gotham and NBA Developmental League president Dan Reed as Portland was named the home for a D-League basketball team.
The team will begin play in November at a refurbished Portland Exposition Building. Early indicators point to an affiliation with the Celtics.
“On behalf of Commissioner (David) Stern and the whole NBA, we’re thrilled to be here,” Reed said. “We’re very optimistic this team will be very successful.”
The team will be owned by Bill Ryan Sr., chairman of the board of TD Banknorth, Bill Ryan Jr., owner of Oxford Plains Speedway, and Jon Jennings, who has a long affiliation with the Celtics as an assistant coach and scout, among others.
Ryan Jr. is also the team Chairman. Jennings will be the president and general manager and oversee day-to-day operations.
Maine hosted two United States Basketball League teams in the 1990s and neither lasted. This time the commitment appears stronger and the connection with the NBA indicates initial success.
“This is NBA-sanctioned,” said Ryan Jr. “That’s the difference between this and the USBL. It’s the second-best basketball league in the world. I’m extremely excited to have the team finally announced. A lot of hard work came to fruition today. Now the hard work begins, selling tickets and sponsorships. We want to get players into the community.”
“We’re the first pro league in history affiliated with the NBA,” Reed added. “I speak with Commissioner Stern on a regular basis. People are astonished when they watch a D-League game how good it is.”
The D-League was formed in 2001 and currently consists of 16 teams, but has just one in the northeast (Erie, Penn.). Reed said that another team will likely be added to the northeast to ease the Maine team’s travel costs and to create a natural rivalry.
NBA teams can supply their D-League squads with two players. The remaining roster spots will go to players who try out or are drafted as free agents. Former Maine schoolboy heroes Nik Caner-Medley or Ralph Mims will be highly coveted, but time will tell if they have interest.
No affiliation yet
Virtually everyone expects the new team to be an affiliate of the Celtics. At the announcement ceremony, current Celtics Ray Allen, Gabe Pruitt and Bill Walker talked about the D-League and thrilled the kids in attendance by giving best wishes to Portland High.
Despite the obvious connection, an official announcement will have to wait a few more months.
“We determine affiliations every summer after the season ends,” said Reed. “We consider the preference of the NBA and D-League teams, geography and continuity. The announcement will come this summer.”
“There are no more die-hard Celtics fans than those from the state of Maine,” Gotham added. “The Celtics are big believers in the D-League. It’s important for us to have a place for our young players to grow and develop as players and people. In the not too distant future, hopefully we’ll be affiliated. We expect the D-League to prosper here.”
The Celtics are currently affiliated with the Utah Flash.
New look Expo
Perhaps the most notable changes for local hoops fans will come at the ancient Portland Expo, which will have a vastly different look by the time the season begins in November. Reed estimated that somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000 will be spent to upgrade the facility.
“The first order of business is an NBA-sized new floor,” said Ryan Jr. “We have to put in new baskets. There will be a brand new sign out front, too.”
“I’m so excited about a partnership with Portland High School,” Jennings said. “We’ll be putting down a new parquet floor. At one end will be a Portland Bulldog. The lane will be painted blue, just for (PHS). The folks at the Expo were so committed to the high school and this team. We’re adding bleacher sections and on-court seating. There will be a video scoreboard on the far end. We want it to be a hostile environment for the foes and a family-friendly environment for the fans.”
Jennings also mentioned that the team will likely play exhibition games in other parts of the state.
Name to come
Fans will have a chance to choose the team’s nickname. It will represent the whole state, not just Portland. A list of six options will be posted soon at www.nbamaine.com and fans will have a chance to vote.
Based on Wednesday’s reaction, there will be a lot of excitement in the team’s first season.
“This is a huge deal,” said Baldacci. “Basketball is so big in our state.”
“NBA-caliber basketball coming to Maine is very important,” added Ryan Sr. “It’s a thrill to do this.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]