The Maine Red Claws played their first game tonight, a preseason game against the Springfield Armor in the Augusta Civic Center. For those From Away, Augusta is the state capital, about an hour north of Portland (the normal home of the Red Claws) up I-95. In front of a large, boisterous crowd that included Maine Governor John Baldacci and Celtics GM Danny Ainge, NBDL basketball was played in New England for the first time. Although the Red Claws fell to the Springfield Armor, it was an excellent chance for the state to begin to fall in love with the team. Maine's basketball fanaticism was very much on display.
The Red Claws looked rough, as is to be expected of any newly-established team. It's important to note that while the Springfield Armor are new to the region, they are a relocated team, unlike the expansion Red Claws. So the Armor have played together, whereas the Red Claws are a recently thrown-together group. Still, they played well, and Austin Ainge acquitted himself in his first performance as Head Coach.
The Claws were behind at halftime and looked lackluster for much of the first half, but whatever Austin said to them at halftime worked. They came out in the third looking strong, and it was an exciting, back-and-forth game for most of the second half. Unfortunately a few key missed shots for the Claws knocked them out with about a minute left, and they lost by eight points.
This team played unevenly, but with a lot of energy, including from recently-assigned Celtic Bill Walker. Walker looked good; in 25 minutes he scored 13 points, had 3 boards and no assists, tying with Tony Bobbit in both categories. Bobbit did better with 5 boards and an assist, though. The Claws' statistical leader was Darnell Lazare, with 19 points, 8 boards, and no assists in about 34 minutes. FULL BOX.
I've no doubt that with Austin at the helm they will improve tremendously over the course of the season. It was a great idea to do a preseason elsewhere in the state and build up excitement for the team outside their home base of Portland. Principle owner Bill Ryan, Jr., President Jon Jennings, and the entire Red Claws ownership group and staff have run an impressive, professional organization from the get-go. They've clearly learned from other teams how to do things right. Long before the home opener at the Portland Expo next Friday vs. Springfield (again) they've fully embedded themselves into the community.
They've sponsored a number of charity events, and the team's dancers have shown up at various events. They've held very effective open houses, letting folks visit the revamped Portland Expo facility, seeing how it will look on gameday. Their staff is friendly, helpful, and accessible - something I especially appreciate as a season-ticket holder. It's good to know, as a customer, that I'll be dealing with true professionals.
I recently received my season-ticket holder packet, and realized that I don't get a bundle of tickets - I get a card as a pass instead that functions as a ticket for every game. I don't know if every NBDL team does this or not, but I have not seen it done before, and I'm already thrilled by it. It makes my life immensely easier. I really hope that if it works, the Celtics consider doing the same for their season ticket holders in the future. This is one area where the Celtics could learn from the Red Claws.
All this explains why, in the middle of a recession, the Red Claws managed to sell a huge number of season tickets. Regardless of their record this year (and I think they will be competitive), they are a welcome addition to Maine. Indeed, not only Mainers but all Celtics fans should be thrilled with this new arrangement, as in the long term, it will work out very well for all involved.