High school rivalry fuels Portland hardwood debate

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Deering wants time on a new parquet floor, but PHS parents object

PORTLAND — Residents are accustomed to the rivalry between Portland and Deering high schools on the basketball court.

But now they’re competing over the hardwood itself.

A request has been made by Deering High School for court time at the Portland Expo, which will host a minor league professional basketball team next season.

Although currently without an NBA affiliate, the new team is widely expected to partner with the Boston Celtics and plans to invest upwards of $250,000 into the Expo, which will get a new parquet floor, reminiscent of the one at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.

When the NBA Developmental League announcement was made, team co-owner Jon Jennings said the team was looking forward to forging a partnership with Portland High School, which uses the Expo for home games and practices.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Whynot-Vickers said Deering recently asked to use the Expo for practices, because demand for gym time at the school exceeds scheduling opportunities.

Word of Deering’s request spread at Portland High School’s recent basketball banquet, and a handful of parents sent letters to school administrators and School Committee members, asking them to refuse Deering’s request. 

“I would be concerned that my son and his classmates would be forced to practice even later hours,” Todd Zukowski wrote in an e-mail to School Committee members. “I would not want this to affect his performance in the classroom as it surely would have an impact.” 

That scenario may already exist at Deering. Principal Ken Kunin said gym demand prevents cheerleaders and some freshman teams from practicing as often as they should. Meanwhile, some teams are forced to practice until 10:30 p.m.

“We can’t have students practicing until 10:30 at night and expect them to be ready for school the next day,” Kunin said. 

Kunin downplayed the school’s desire to use the Expo and team up with the new D-League team, simply stressing that more practice space needs to be found. But one parent found the timing of the request suspicious. 

“I wonder … why (the request) arises at the same time as the announcement of a new Maine (professional) team,”  Mavourneen Goodman wrote in an e-mail to the School Committee. “To vote into policy that two rival teams should share a practice court is not a reasonable action.”

PHS Principal Michael Johnson said his school is committed to help solve Deering’s gym problem, but suggested the Expo may not be the best option. The presence of the D-League team is already expected to reduce the amount of court time for PHS students, he said. 

“There are all kinds of courts in this community,” he said. “Our job is to think outside the box.”

D-League officials have offered to allow Portland High School to play some double-headers with the minor league basketball team. Johnson said he could possibly schedule a game against Deering to give both schools some action on the new parquet floors. 

However, Johnson was more excited about seeing the professional players mentor local students and work with he community, rather than booking double-headers with the team. 

“At first glance, it looks like a logistical nightmare,” Johnson said. 

During any potential double-headers, the high school game would have to start at 5 p.m., which would make it difficult for some working parents to attend. Then, the building would have to be cleared, cleaned and refilled by 8 p.m. for the professional game, which has different ticket prices and assigned seating.

Parking would also be an issue, Johnson said.

“Conceivably, it could work,” he said. “But all that needs to be worked out.” 

Meanwhile, any gym time sought above Portland’s current allocation would likely cost the School Department more money, since the schools pay the city nearly $100,000 a year for use of the facility. 

Whynot-Vickers said the principals and athletic directors from both schools have been meeting to resolve the issue. She said more gym time would likely be sought at other schools or community spaces throughout the district. 

“We really are committed to giving Deering some more time, because they are squeezed,” Whynot-Vickers said. “We may look at the Expo as one solution, but we may also look at 18 others.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.