Indiana native guides new club

Posted Nov. 20, 2009, at 10:46 p.m.

Jon Jennings had already achieved much in terms of life and career achievements by the time he turned 45.

The Indiana native had already held jobs such as acting assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice, principal deputy attorney general for the Office of Legislative Affairs, senior assistant to the cabinet secretary and director of policy coordination at the White House, and a faculty member at Stonehill College.

If that wasn’t enough, before he got into politics and law, Jennings was an assistant coach and scouting coordinator for the Boston Celtics.

Any one of those positions would have been impressive enough to most, but for Jennings, there was still something missing.

“I enjoyed what I’d been doing, but it wasn’t really what my passion in life was,” said Jennings, 47.

That passion, which isn’t surprising for a native Hoosier and Indiana University graduate, was basketball.

Now, at the age of 47, Jennings has embarked on his second career by involving his first love as the founder, president, and general manager of the Maine Red Claws.

“I worked for Red Auerbach, who was like a grandfather to me, and even after I got into law and everything, he was always on me about getting back into basketball,” Jennings explained. “After Red died, it became more apparent that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

Jennings, who began his basketball career as a student assistant at IU under head coach Bob Knight before becoming a scout and coordinator for the Indiana Pacers, decided to look into starting an NBA Developmental League franchise.

“July 11, 2007 was the start of it all. I talked to the director of the league and got permission to run around New England for awhile and see where I wanted to put a team,” he said. “Portland was the last stop out of seven or eight cities, but after hearing about the popularity of high school basketball in the state of Maine and the tradition of it all, I knew this was the place to be.”

The Red Claws tip off their first season next Friday at 7 p.m. on the road in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“For me as a basketball guy, I was telling [head coach] Austin Ainge the other day that for 2½ years I’ve been dealing with selling tickets, sponsorships, putting together a dance team, and all the other behind the scenes stuff other than actual basketball,” Jennings said. “Now I’m at the point where I’m looking forward to the bounce of a ball. That’s when it’ll finally seem like a reality to me.”

The 16-team NBA D-League is the official minor league of the NBA.

“This is the best basketball outside the NBA. We’re the minor league of the NBA and Triple-A of basketball,” Jennings said. “It’s more a small business approach and our product is basketball.”

The Red Claws are the official minor league affiliate of the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Bobcats.

“The seminal moment for a lot of people was the affiliation announcement with the Celtics and Bobcats,” Jennings said. “At first, we had to overcome a lack of people knowing what we are. They’d hear Red Claws and think we were the Red Cross. Once the logo came out, it made a lot more sense, and once we became the Celtics’ affiliate, we had instant recognition.”

The 15-player team built through an expansion and regular draft, public tryouts and free agent signings will play 50 games in all, 24 at home at the newly refurbished Portland Expo. The Expo boasts a seating capacity of 3,100 and a brand new parquet floor made of northern hard maple.

“It’s one of the oldest arenas in the country and we think it’s a great venue for basketball with all the history surrounding the building itself,” Jennings said. “It reminds me so much of the old Boston Garden.”

Fan interest and response has been solid. The team’s Dec. 4 home opener is sold out and the team has already sold more than 1,400 season tickets.

“We lead the league in new season ticket sales and merchandising sales,” Jennings said. “Public reaction has been great.”

The team has already started investing in its home market by raising $40,000 for local non-profit organizations, according to Jennings.

“We wanted to be called Maine rather than just Portland because we feel we’re representing the entire state,” he said. ”And what we do in the community is as important to us as what we do on the court.”

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