Next season, teams like the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons will enter into single affiliations with NBA D-League squads in nearby areas White Plains and Grand Rapids, respectively. As the fall of 2014 comes upon us, there are likely to be even more one-to-one pairings as well.
Having a single NBA team take over the basketball operations of a minor league squad is an increasingly popular trend, but of course, measuring the success of an NBADL franchise has much more to do with simply just that.
Maintaining a presence in the community, engaging fans, and creating an exciting in-arena experience for all are just some of the things that help a minor league achieve what can be considered "greatness." When searching for a prime example of such, fans not need to look much further than Portland, Maine; home of the Maine Red Claws.
Affiliated with the Boston Celtics, the Red Claws have been in town for quite a while, having just celebrated their fifth anniversary of sorts. They've set a gold standard for future NBADL organizations to meet. In fact, Maine has become a point of visitation for executives of incoming minor league franchises in recent years, and influences of the Red Claws' tendencies and in-arena style are prevalent in other D-League venues.
As the Celtics handle things on the court, the staff that handles things behind the scenes in Maine is impeccable, and a dedicated one at that.
Perhaps the tone is set by President and Principal Owner Bill Ryan Jr. A prevalent presence in the community, Ryan can found be front and center in the first row nearly each and every game, often accompanied by his daughter. Red Claws basketball is meant to be a family-fun experience, and the organization's very owner proves that. He's friendly and outgoing with fans and other members of the team staff, making Portland Exposition Arena an enjoyable place to be.
It's one thing to have a fun in-arena experience, but it's another to ensure the team's presence is further realized throughout the community when fans venture out around town. Without a doubt, the Red Claws do that just as good as any team in all of the D-League.
At the helm of such an effort is Dajuan Eubanks, the team's Executive Vice President. A former Harlem Globetrotter, Eubanks has been a mainstay in Portland, having been apart of the Red Claws since day one. An enthusiastic guy passionate about ensuring the local community supports the team, he specializes in corporate sponsorships. What's more, Eubanks was also a driving force behind the introduction of the "Red Claws Ale," the D-League's first team-affiliated beer, served at the local Gritty McDuff's. Also available is "The Red Claws Pie," (featuring fresh Maine lobster), served at Portland Pie.
Arguably at the center of everything, between the basketball and business operations sides, is Will McClaran, Director of Public & Community Relations. A homegrown guy, McClaran returned to familiar stomping grounds in Maine this past season to assume such a position, after previously serving in the PR offices of both the Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans.
Though the Celtics have final say over the team's roster, that doesn't stop someone like McClaran (and others in town, of course) from being passionate about the players who come through the ranks, whether they be a full-time Red Claw, or a Celtics' assignee. A pro's pro, McClaran knows how to put such prospects in the best light and makes it easy to root for each and every one of them. He also works with a number of great organizations supporting even better causing in an effort to maintain community outreach, including the "The Center for Grieving Children."
McClaran and the Red Claws also make quite the effort, not only to make the players available to the media, but also to their fans as well. Over the course of a season, the players welcome fans out to a bevy of local community events. It is there where fans actually get to know such players as people, and casual conversations surrounding the team, March Madness, or just life in general, can take place.
And for some fans, such young guns become a part of the family. Though the NBADL is a league where the player turnaround rate is quite high, that doesn't stop fans from getting to know the new players year in and year out. Some of the more passionate fans include Cindy and Steve Lerman, who boast that they've attended all but one of the Red Claws' home games over the last five years. Mrs. Lerman bakes home-made cookies for the players during special occasions, while Mr. Lerman is one who marvels at the progress the D-League has made over time. He, like many fans, hopes for a thirty team league at some point in the future.
And yet another example of a passionate and ever so knowledgeable fan is Art O'Neil. A season-ticket holder since day one as well, he too has enjoyed getting to know the team's players over the years. What's more, his continued presence has provided opposing coaches and others with a familiar and friendly face each time their teams return to play the Red Claws.
The team's fans all insist that the support around the team is massive, and that's easy to see. The Red Claws are the heart of Portland, Maine, and like most other sports teams, are an often conversational piece amongst the locals. The team provides them all with a commonality, as watching Red Claws basketball has become a way of life for so many residents.
This, of course, is all thanks to the work the likes of Ryan, Eubanks, McClaran, and others do to not only maintain a local presence, but also provide the fans with an enjoyable experience and ample access to make supporting the team a forgone conclusion.
As such, the Red Claws stand tall as quite the ideal role for incoming D-League teams. It'll be interesting to see which ones follow suit.