Q&A: Jon Jennings, President and GM of The Maine D-League Team
Q: What attracted you to the NBA Development League?
Jennings: I actually got my start in the NBA as an intern with the Indiana Pacers. After my career with the Pacers, I went to work with the Celtics, where I became an assistant coach when I was only 27. When I was coaching and doing scouting for the Celtics, I always believed that the NBA truly needed a minor league system in the way that baseball has one. I remember when the NBA D-League was first created, I was very excited about the prospects. The changes over the course of the last several years, I think, have only made it more exciting. To have a true minor league system is really so important for the future of the NBA.
Q: What qualities of the city will make the NBA D-League successful in Portland?
Jennings: The one thing about Portland is that it embraces minor league sports. It loves the Portland Sea Dogs [baseball], it loves the Portland Pirates [hockey], and it will love our team. The other thing is that the state of Maine has a fanatical love of high school basketball. When I was first getting started in this entire process, I met with the governor of Maine, and he gave me a two-hour tutorial on how great high school basketball is in Maine.
Q: As a new owner, what are some of the challenges you anticipate for the league, and how are you planning on tackling them?
Jennings: I think obviously the economy is something we all have to face, but I do believe in tougher economic times people look for more affordable ways to spend their entertainment dollars, so I think the NBA D-League will actually benefit in many ways from the challenges we have. We’re investing a considerable amount of money into refurbishing our arena, buying a brand new basketball court, putting new seating in, buying a video scoreboard—all things that will certainly upgrade the arena and create a more exciting experience for our fans. But they’re not just going to embrace our team just because we open the doors. There’s a lot of work we’re going to have to do to prove to people we’re a legitimate team, that we care passionately about the community, and that we’re going to work our tails off to earn their trust.
Q: Being the owner of a professional sports team is a unique position. What previous experiences will you draw upon to help guide you?
Jennings: I’ve had amazing mentors in my life. Under Herb and Mel Simon, I was one of the first people they hired when the bought the Indiana Pacers in the early 1980s. What I always admired about the Simons was how they treated everyone with class, and that they really cared about their employees and their players. I was very lucky to have been around Don Gaston, Paul Dupee and Alan Cohen, men who owned the Celtics but would have a holiday party every year and would come and hang out with the kids of all the employees. But most importantly, the person that I think I’ve learned everything from, and the person I would consider my greatest mentor, was Red Auerbach. Red wasn’t technically an owner, but he ran everything. He was, and is, my hero and the person I really pattern how I want to run our team and the way I want our team to be perceived. I want to do it in a classy way.
Q: Will your previous involvement with the Boston Celtics impact the business?
Jennings: Absolutely, because sometimes there is a disconnect between what happens on the floor and the success of a team. I am a fanatical advocate of extreme customer service. I got some of that experience from the basketball side of things during recruiting trips because there was a selling component to it. I also went to work in Washington at the White House and the Justice Department, and I learned a lot of lessons there about management and bringing people together.
Q: How involved will you be in the basketball operations of the team?
Jennings: I intend to run basketball operations for our team with input from our affiliates and our coaching staff. And certainly, I’ll be working very closely with whomever we select as head coach to fill out our team. We really are looking to develop players on and off the court, but we’re also looking to develop people in our front office. You know, when you’re in the NBA and a player you selected in the draft plays in the NBA All-Star Game, you take some pride in that. I think that’s equally true in the NBA D-League, with not only players but your staff. I can’t think of anything that would make us more proud than to have staff members who excel and who get “called up”.
Q: With so many businesses leaning on social networking through the Internet, do you have any plans on using social networking to market your team?
Jennings: Actually, I’m a huge fan of and believer of Web 2.0. We have a Twitter strategy and Facebook and MySpace pages, but we don’t want to just end there. One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about with students at the University of Southern Maine is how to initiate conversations on message boards. There’s a way to talk on those threads to get people interested in what you’re trying to do with your team. I think the idea of a blog is interesting, but there are so many other things you can do outside of just posting on a blog or even a video blog. We’re going to do those kinds of things with a YouTube channel. We’re a brand new team, and there are a lot of people out there interested in how you build a brand new franchise. I think there are some video snippets we could do to give people a behind-the-scenes look.
Q: What is something visitors have to experience in Portland?
Jennings: The coastline of Maine is so incredibly beautiful. If I were to take you to Kennebunkport, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful place in the world, and I’ve traveled all over the world. So I think it’s the ocean and the coastline.
Finally, I’d say it’s the people. I’ve been so excited to work with the city of Portland. They are literally putting on our announcement. We’re doing it at the high school gym, and the principal wanted to have an all-school assembly, so we’re going to have over 1,000 people at our announcement on Wednesday. Quite frankly, it would never have happened if it weren’t for the city of Portland, so it’s really been an amazing partnership we’ve developed both with the city and the high school.