When Eugene Spates joined the Maine Red Claws, NBADL affiliate of the Boston Celtics and (at the time) Charlotte Bobcats, New England fans may have recognized him from his collegiate career at Northeastern University in Boston from 2006-2009. Maine fans in particular may remember his battles with the Maine Black Bears in America East play. When he joined the Red Claws, he won over a new set of fans.
Spates impressed the Red Claws' scouts after spending the 2009-10 season in Luxembourg, where he averaged 34.6 points and 13.2 rebounds per game with BC Mess. He was selected by the Maine Red Claws in the seventh round of the 2010 NBADL draft, and posted averages of 6.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 16 minutes per game.
One of the hardest parts of being a fan of minor league sports is the high amount of roster turnover. Just when you start to get attached to a player, he moves on. The best players get promoted to higher levels. Struggling players get sent down. If the parent club decides they need someone at a different position, they may trade away your favorite player to acquire the piece they need. Or that underdog that earned his roster spot at an open tryout may get cut when a higher profile player becomes available. A player that has formed a bond with the fans can be gone tomorrow.
On February 14, 2011, Spates was traded to the Springfield Armor for Vernon Goodridge.
Even though Spates has not been on the Red Claws roster since 2011, he is still a mainstay in the hearts and minds of Red Claws fans, as he returns to Maine every summer for the Junior Red Claws camp and Dunkin Donuts summer clinic series.
"It's fun to come out here [to Portland] every year because the kids all remember me and considering I haven't played since 2011, they enjoy me every time I come and they're like 'coach will we see you next year?' so I feel obligated to come back."
The kids crowded around Spates for autographs would then back away from him and start chanting "dunk it," trying to get a slam dunk from the powerful 6'8 forward. Sometimes he would oblige, but most of the time, he would teach the importance of a well-rounded game or continue signing autographs. He experienced similar reactions at the summer clinics.
"It's pretty much like the camps, except, for one, it's free and for two, they are four hours at a time."
The clinics are different in one way, however. The camp, which is designed for kids of varying skill levels, instructed kids on more than just dribbling, passing and shooting. The camp got into strategy and court awareness. The clinics are intended for a younger group.
"We show up at a site and basically teach the fundamentals of basketball. We're trying to introduce some kids to it, and the ones that are already introduced can take some time out and learn from a former Red Claw and have fun with it."
For Spates, Red Claws summer camp and the clinics are a return to the familiar. Following the path of several NBADL players, Spates opted to play his professional basketball overseas, where the financial incentives are greater than they are in the development league. He spent the 2013-14 season in Qatar with Al Gharafa, averaging 12.6 points and 6.2 rebounds to go along with a little bit of culture shock.
"It's a different world. The first thing you have to get used to is the heat."
The weather in Qatar during basketball season is typically hot, humid and muggy, with temperatures regularly getting into the 100's with 80% or higher humidity and a dew point in the high 70's to low 80's.
In addition to climate changes, Spates also had a communication and culture barrier to overcome.
"Most of my teammates spoke Arabic or Persian, so communicating was pretty hard. So was getting used to their culture, with the prayers and the eating restrictions they had."
One of the cultural differences didn't require adjustment for Spates, as he was able to appreciate fine dining, Qatar style.
"I asked one of my teammates for a nice place to eat, not too expensive or too cheap. He said 'Oh. Applebees.' They go to Applebees, Chilis, Fudruckers. That's a nice restaurant to them. It reminds me of home because I go to those places here [in the states] but to them, it's luxury."
While Spates is still deciding where he wants to play next season, he hasn't ruled out a return to the NBADL. However, whether he is in the states, the Middle East or wherever the basketball trade winds carry him, he will always hold a special place in his heart for Portland and for the Maine Red Claws and their fans.
"I remember my first game. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know the fan support was that great here. Even when the season was over, the fans still check in on you to see how you are doing and wish you well. Even though they want you to be on the Red Claws, they don't care where you play as long as you're still having fun."
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