by Michael Krapovicky | photography by Mark Turcotte
A significant new development in New England sports is underway – Maine’s first professional Men’s American Basketball Association (ABA) franchise. The Maine Bulldogs is the brainchild of owner Chad Gray, who also plays small forward. With a staff assembled in less than a year, player contracts yet to be signed, and the first game to be played on October 28th, 2023, there is still much uncertainty. However, Gray, Head Coach Willie Ponds, Jr., and President Antoine Moiboueyi assure the public that the focus of their corporation – aside from an exciting inaugural season – will be encouraging positive growth of the LA community, and Maine at large.
Through conversations with friends and business associates, over time, he formed the idea of a Maine addition to the ABA.
A brief stint away from the East Coast in the music industry led to business relations with Moiboueyi, who helped Gray visualize the possibility of entering the largely untapped Maine sports market. Gray was also mentored by Ross Kurlend, ABA president, who laid out the step-by-step process of creating an ABA team.
“Kurlend told me to keep overhead low and get the personnel in order,” says Gray. “We also had to have a logo.”
The company name originated from the American Standard Bulldogs he keeps as pets. Gray wishes his basketball team to have tenacity and spirit, like his animals.
“I’ve been breeding American Standard Bulldogs for about 15 years, so I’m keen on the breed,” says Gray. “The Maine Bulldogs are going to play hard, dive for loose balls – we’re going to be dogs on the court.”
Moiboueyi was born and raised in Gabon, Africa. He immigrated to the US and played soccer in Massachusetts and Plymouth, New Hampshire, a senior at Plymouth State in 2001. He eventually began coaching varsity soccer, lacrosse, and basketball, and was a Sports Director in Wilton, New Hampshire in 2006. Moiboueyi wanted to focus on fostering athletes’ well-being and life goals, even off the playing field.
“I was the second person to get involved in the Bulldogs startup,” states Moiboueyi. “I’m licensed to coach, but I wanted to go beyond that – being in the office, organizing the team, and helping with sports psychology.”
Moiboueyi and Gray, both dedicated to the idea of a professional team in Maine, defined their positions within the corporation over time.
“I started out in player personnel, but Mr. Gray thought I should have a bigger role,” recalls Moiboueyi. “Once we started getting staff in place, I was made president of the organization.”
Rounding out the personnel at The Maine Bulldogs are Mike ‘Ram’ McDonough, head of Media and Photography, photographer Matt Anderson, play-by-play announcer Nathan Lapointe, head of Media Communications Zack Paquette, Head of Finance Sophia Adams, and Renee Ponds, wife of Coach Ponds, is the Event Director.
During the team’s first tryouts, Gray was scouting a player who encouraged him to reach out to his coach, Willie Ponds, Jr. for a reference and for general advice. During their first phone conversation, Ponds and Gray felt a mutual respect – and made a meaningful connection that transcended basketball. Ponds sent Gray his resume and was hired as Head Coach of the Maine Bulldogs.
Ponds’ history with basketball is substantial, playing professionally with the Boston Celtics, the US Army All-Star Team, and the Federal International Basketball Association. He was head coach of the ABA’s Virginia Seven City Knights, Florida Makos, and Savannah Grizzlies, and on the staff for seven championships with the Jacksonville Giants. More so than his basketball experience was Ponds’ willingness to be a mentor, friend, and role model for his players that defines his title as ‘Coach’.
“My players will be calling me ‘Coach’ for the rest of their lives,” affirms Ponds. “I want to meet their wives, their kids, their mom and dad – if they are in any situation, I want them to be able to talk to their coach, not necessarily about basketball, but about life.”
“Coach Ponds’ basketball knowledge is impeccable,” relates Gray. “He has a system that is able to maximize each player’s strength and is going to have us ready to have Maine basketball respected at a professional level.”
In addition to Ponds, the team employs Assistant Head Coaches James Libby and Nick Floyd, well-known in the Lewiston Sports community. They also have Antwain Joseph as a trainer, who was Captain of the Haiti National Basketball team.
Schedule of season
The Maine Bulldogs have an 18-game schedule beginning October 28th, where they will play an away game against the regional ABA champion, the Providence Pirates. Their first home game is November 12th, where they will face the Bennington Martens at the Lewiston Memorial Armory and Recreation Center, their home base.
“The Lewiston Armory opened their doors to us, and that was very exciting,” Ponds shares. “Not only the Armory, but the community as well, has really embraced us – the mayor, small business owners – so we will continue to expand the relationships we’re building. We will have a great organization, with great things to come.”
The fledgling team has many obstacles to overcome, and Ponds is ready to face the challenges ahead.
“We have a lot of young guys, some players with experience, but we’ll be facing some teams with a high skill set that have been together for a good amount of time,” Ponds concedes. “I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know what’s going to happen, so winning a championship would be presumptuous. But what I can tell you is, it won’t be from lack of effort.”
Ponds recalls a quote from Mike Tyson – ‘you can plan for everything until you get punched in the face’ – and equates that to how the Bulldogs will prepare for their first game.
“We have some talent, and we are trying to put it together, but we haven’t been tested,” says Ponds. “We’ll know what we are made of from the first couple of games, and then we will make the necessary adjustments.”
Ponds remains optimistic that the Maine Bulldogs will put on an entertaining spectacle for basketball fans.
“There’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done – to lay the foundation, a lot of mentorship for men as players,” says Ponds. “If we put in the work and put our positive attitude on display, people will be lining up to come see us play.”
The Maine Bulldogs are looking for men who can be examples to the community of LA. Gray, Ponds, and Moiboueyi share a philosophy for choosing players for the Maine Bulldogs, that character supersedes basketball ability.
“We value honesty, integrity, and willingness to have involvement in the community,” Gray asserts. “Our goal is to guide great young men that can contribute to society in more ways than just as basketball players.”
Moiboueyi stresses team longevity for the Maine Bulldogs, and though the clock is ticking, they are taking great care in choosing their roster.
“It’s not just the skills on the court, but what kind of person you are – the mental aspect of the game – that is more important,” says Moiboueyi. “We’re looking for a team that will be competitive for the next 5 or 10 years, so we are taking it slow and steady.”
Coach Ponds’ evaluation of a player goes beyond dribbling, passing, and scoring. Those amenable to receive direction and grow as athletes have a decent shot at playing professionally.
“If a person has some skills, wants to grow as a professional basketball player, and is willing to be coached, they are a prime candidate to be a player for the Maine Bulldogs,” Ponds confirms. “As a first-year team in the ABA, we want to have men of character for the community, that will draw fans.”
Gray and the organization are setting high standards, and potential Bulldogs must meet all qualifications.
“We have a culture and a level of excellence we are shooting for – once you put that logo on, there’s lots that comes with it – and players will have to conform,” Gray asserts. “If they don’t, a position on the Maine Bulldogs is not for them right now.”
Gray accepts his role as leader, as a player, as well as the owner, describing himself as an “anchor” for the team.
“From a player aspect, I’ve played for many ABA teams and gone through clinics and tryouts, so I just want to be that veteran who can calm things down and make the right play,” Gray proffers. “I also need to produce – offensively, defensively, a word of encouragement to other players, whatever is needed.”
Gray advises his players that hard work and bulldog determination are traits to apply to situations on and off the basketball court.
“A key factor for success is staying persistent with your passions and goals – doing the work on self,” says Gray. “It will allow you to be able to move forward with the right mindset to be able to tackle anything you want to accomplish.”
Within the community
First and foremost, the Maine Bulldogs wishes to provide a service to the LA community, searching for ways they can reach the populace effectively. Recipients of their charitable outreach will be veterans homes, people experiencing homelessness, elderly folks, and other worthy causes. The Bulldogs will instantiate youth basketball clinics over the next few years and mentor school-age people interested in the sport. Gray and the organization wish to be hands-on with their community outreach, to impart more than just pure entertainment as their legacy.
“My message to the community is I want Lewiston Auburn to accept me as one of their own,” says Ponds. “My wife and I want to be affiliated with the cities and the mayors; we will be participating in a church here, not just sitting in the pews. I want to visit the schools here and set up training camps.”
Currently, in the process of relocating to Maine, Ponds plans on becoming a local fixture.
“I want to be in the area and be recognized, myself and my players,” assures Ponds. “You will see me at a breakfast establishment, having a biscuit and some coffee, talking to the retired folks.”
Ponds recognizes the need for activism here in Lewiston Auburn. “Much like how the NBA performs charitable acts, that’s the kind of thing the Maine Bulldogs can do for this community,” Ponds avows. “There are some people here not living their best life – I want to be a conduit – we can take our players directly to these folks and help them.”
Moiboueyi sees grander plans for outreach beyond LA. “We’re not limiting ourselves to Lewiston; we want to be the Maine Bulldogs, state of Maine,” says Moiboueyi. “We’d like to work with the Maine Celtics, high school teams – if they have any questions, they can email me; I will always respond.”
Gray’s short-term goal is getting through the first season, being as competitive as possible, and becoming a figurehead in the LA community – bringing smiles, uplifting their fans. Long-term goals are player enrichment and increased communication with the Lewiston Auburn citizenry, returning the positivity the team has received from the community.
“Everybody’s been so great,” maintains Moiboueyi. “We are looking forward to bringing a great product to the city of Lewiston – a great group of young men that will be community leaders.”
“A major goal of ours is to develop players to get overseas contracts, possibly even the Maine Celtics or the NBA,” Gray asserts. “We are just going to live up to our slogan, ‘Born to ball, bred to win, Maine Bulldogs, let’s begin!’”
Lewiston | mainebulldogs.com