Pro basketball may land in Maine

Posted Jan. 06, 2009, at 9:16 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Basketball fans will know by early next year whether Maine’s largest city will be home to an NBA Development League team.

With NBA officials set to announce expansion plans for their minor league by March, one of the investors seeking to bring a team to Portland says he’s optimistic about the prospect of having a squad in place for the 2009-2010 season.

Jon Jennings, a former Boston Celtics assistant coach, hoped to launch a team this season but was forced to wait while the league sought to line up other expansion franchises in the Northeast.

“I’d say that we’re getting very close. It’s coming down to the final stages of everything,” Jennings told the Portland Press Herald. He hopes the team will be an affiliate of the Celtics.

The City Council agreed earlier this year to lease the Portland Expo to the team, whose investors include former TD Banknorth President Bill Ryan and his son, Bill Ryan Jr., owner of Oxford Plains Speedway.

The 8-year-old D-League, which plays a November to April schedule, currently has 16 teams from Los Angeles to Erie, Pa. It serves as a feeder league to the NBA, much as AAA leagues do for major league baseball.

League officials have indicated that a Portland franchise would be approved only if it’s among a cluster of Northeast franchises that would reduce travel costs and perhaps spark rivalries.

The league has considered New York’s Harlem and Toronto as potential team sites, along with Manchester, N.H., and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Manchester and Halifax already are home to teams in the Premier Basketball League.

While Jennings said investors believe minor league basketball can be successful in Maine, recent history is not on their side. Two teams, the Portland Mountain Cats and Portland Wave, folded during the late 1990s after one-year stints in the U.S. Basketball League.

Jennings, however, points to Portland’s success as a minor league sports market, with the Portland Sea Dogs, a Boston Red Sox affiliate, and the Portland Pirates, a Buffalo Sabres affiliate, having built strong followings.

“We’re firmly committed to this,” he said, “regardless of the economic conditions.”

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