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Scott Howard-Cooper

Jennings' leap of faith has D-League's Red Claws on the rise

Posted Nov 24 2011 6:32PM

He grew up surrounded by Indiana high school ball, which was a lifestyle and more than just a game. He was a student-manager at IU, and later a scout and assistant coach and in the Celtics' front office, talking business and round ball with mentor Red Auerbach.

Maine wasn't exactly the next logical basketball step.

It wasn't the next logical any step, actually. Jon Jennings, from the finest of hoops pedigrees, from the center of politics in his other life, chose the northeastern tip of the United States, some place off in the distance to the world he had lived before, and created something anyway.

Jennings pushed to bring the NBA D-League to Portland, and as president and general manager, he runs the basketball and business operation of a franchise that opened 2011-12 with 48 consecutive sellouts, and has been working for final approval of the $105 million project to build a new arena and hotel that could begin construction early next year.

Basketball in Indiana and Boston Garden, politics in Washington and on the campaign trail... and Maine?

Of course.

"I was meant to be here," Jennings said as the D-League season began despite the NBA lockout. "Everything that happened in Boston, that was a life lesson. Going to Washington, that was learning to work with people to accomplish something. That was a life lesson. And now, to build a brand new team -- how many people get that opportunity? I got to be involved in picking the team name, in picking the colors. How great is that? It all kind of makes sense to me. My world has been a mix of basketball and, quite frankly, politics, because of what it took to get started here."

What it took was everything. Jennings scouted several other New England locations in the summer of 2007 as possible homes for a start-up franchise -- Hartford, Providence, Manchester, Worcester -- before picking Portland despite only one previous trip to the most-populous city in the state, for a Celtics exhibition game. He put together the ownership group and got a minority interest himself in the group that has grown to 15 people. He put the roster together and hired Austin Ainge, son of Danny, as the first coach. When Ainge left after last season to join the Boston front office, Jennings hired former Virginia and DePaul coach Dave Leitao and added Donyell Marshall, who played 15 seasons with eight NBA clubs, as an assistant.

The Red Claws have their own branded ale and their own branded ice cream. They just led the league in merchandise sales. Three players have been called up to the NBA in two years. One of Maine's 2010-11 additions, DeShawn Sims, became D-League Rookie of the Year. Now, indications are that a new arena will soon be on the way. (No rush, though. The current home, the Portland Expo, is only 97 years old.)

"It's actually been much more than I expected," Jennings said of the gains, in business and basketball, the first two seasons.

It helped to be about 110 miles up the coast from Boston and have the Celtics prominently on his resume, and then to have New England's team as a Red Claws affiliate, now along with the 76ers and Bobcats. The identity can make a difference in a state with a strong tradition of high school basketball but little history of players or organizations reaching all the way to the pros.

For his part, Jennings always thought of making it back to an NBA personnel department. For a while, after exiting the Celtics in 1997 as part of the change to the Rick Pitino regime, he took a hard career turn and became a White House Fellow in the Office of Cabinet Affairs. That led to becoming director of policy coordination in the Clinton White House and senior assistant to the cabinet secretary, then acting assistant attorney general and principal deputy attorney general for the Office of Legislative Affairs. In 2001, he taught courses on the presidency at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. In 2004, he won the Democratic primary for Indiana's 8th congressional district, but lost to incumbent John Hostettler in the general election.

His uniquely mixed background of politics and basketball pays off in a job that requires a lot of each, a constant eye on talent evaluation joined with the business responsibilities of a growing operation that may soon include a role in a nine-figure development anchored by an arena and hotel. Next step, indeed.

Of course.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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