Team Name: Portland Wave
League: United States Basketball League (USBL)
History of the Portland Wave
With the short-lived Portland Mountain Cats lasting just a single season in the USBL after financial struggles caused the league to assume ownership of the team, the state of Maine was again without a professional basketball team. By the fall of 1996, the USBL front office and the city of Portland were working together to bring back the Mountain Cats. The offseason for the spring basketball league was filled with rumors of the team leaving, promising investors, failed deals, and extended deadlines to find new ownership. Finally, on March 11, 1997, the Portland Press Herald announced that basketball was coming back to Portland with a new USBL team and representing a “fresh start” for the league and the city.
The savior of Maine’s professional basketball presence was Bill Beyer, a successful businessman. This new owner brought with him many changes to the team, most notably changing the team nickname from the Mountain Cats to the Wave. Representing the Portland Wave would be a seagull mascot named Waverly. Finally, the team departed its home at Portland’s Civic Center and settled into a new nest at the University of Southern Maine Sullivan Gym.
Changes to the updated Portland team were more than superficial, however. Beyer recruited Rick Simonds, a former assistant coach of the Mountain Cats, to become his new head coach. Simonds was joined by a former star from his time coaching at St John’s College, John Wassenbergh. Additionally, Jim Graffam left his coaching job at the University of Maine-Fort Kent to become assistant coach. With fresh faces and a new look, the Portland Wave opened their season
Perhaps the most notable moment for the Wave arrived in May, as Portland challenged another seagull-themed UBSL team, the Atlantic City Seagulls. In a game attended on the opposite sidelines by Brent Scott, the 1996 USBL MVP, and Kevin Mackey, the former Head Coach of the Portland Mountain Cats, two of Portland’s defunct USBL team’s most prominent figures, the Portland Wave handed the 6-0 Seagulls their first loss of the season. Atlantic City became the eventual USBL Champions and a powerhouse of the league for years to come, but the 1997 Atlantic City Seagulls will be noted in the history books for a different reason.
In order to boost popularity, the USBL apparently had a “celebrity rule” which allowed teams to reserve one roster spot for popular figures and which did not count against the 12-man roster limit. While some teams utilized this rule to recruit athletes such as NFL players and boxers, the Atlantic City Seagulls looked past the world of professional sports and into the world of music to add an extra body on the bench. Wearing jersey number 12 to promote his ‘12 Play’ R&B musical album, the team’s biggest star was 30 year old Robert Kelly.
Better known as R. Kelly, the famous singer was fresh off recording the aptly named 1996 song “I Believe I Can Fly” for the Space Jam soundtrack. He had grown up on the South Side of Chicago with a passion for both music and basketball, and could now use his career to combine both childhood interests. R. Kelly performed the national anthem at home games for Atlantic City, but he also became the first music artist to play professional basketball. Coach Mackey, who had managed Portland’s USBL team just a season before, played Kelly as a guard in limited minutes, who even managed to score a few points. By June, however, R. Kelly returned to to his musical career after appearing in only 13 games for the Seagulls. It does not appear that he played in any games against the Portland Wave.
Despite the important victory for Portland, 1997 proved to be an overall frustrating year for the team. Marked by many losses as a result of blowing early game leads, the Wave finished the with a 12-14 losing record. The mediocre season was capped off by a first round home playoff loss to the Philadelphia Power, played at Deering High School (although the playoff appearance is not currently recognized by the USBL page of the Association for Professional Basketball Research). Star forward Jay Webb, a former Iowa player, was Portland’s only player to receive end of year honors, being named to the USBL All-Defensive team.
Facing many of the same attendance challenges as its predecessor, with some games achieving only 300 spectators, the Portland Wave team would fold after the playoff loss to Philadelphia. Owner Bill Beyer could not create a suitable successor to the Mountain Cats, and within the blink of an eye, professional basketball in Portland was gone as quickly as it had arrived. Both teams only lasted a single season in the USBL, which survived as an alternative to the NBA Development League until 2008.
Players and coaches from the Wave either sought ought the next basketball adventure or tried to return to their previous lives. Chasing basketball’s growing international popularity, Jay Webb and another Portland forward, Charles Macon, were drafted to play the following year in the Korean Basketball League. Assistant coach Jim Graffam returned to his position at UMaine-Fort Kent.
However, Head Coach Rick Simonds would eventually find his way back to professional basketball in Portland, although it would be more than a decade before another basketball franchise operated in the state. However, Simonds ultimately became the color commentator for the Maine Red Claws, the NBA Development League expansion franchise and heir to the short-lived Portland Mountain Cats and Portland Wave teams.