Becoming Mr. Mad Ant

The unlikely story of how a Chicago native became the face of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Ron Howard’s professional basketball career actually started an hour late and a few dollars short.

At 24 years old, Howard had just about given up the idea of playing basketball for a living until, at the urging of a friend, he attended an open tryout for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants -- then about to enter their inaugural season in 2007-08.

He was an hour late.

“I went to the open tryout and I showed up an hour late because there’s an hour time difference from Chicago to Fort Wayne – there shouldn’t be,” Howard remembered, able to now laugh off the situation. “So when I showed up I was an hour late. I’m coming to an open tryout to tryout for a team, and I’m an hour late. So I’m thinking they’re not gonna give me a chance.”

Howard was able to place a call to a friend who knew Jeff Potter, the President of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, and that friend convinced Potter to give Howard a chance.

Then there was still, of course, the matter of money.

“I get there and there’s a fee to try out,” Howard said, estimating the cost at $185. “I’m broke. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t come with any money, I barely have gas money. So they allowed me to use a credit card over the phone.”

From there, all the road-fatigued Howard had to do was stand out amongst a crowd of what Potter and Howard each remembered to be about 120-130 players, mostly at Howard’s position of guard.

It was, even by Howard’s standards, a longshot.

Rewind the tape even further and the fact that Howard even made it to the Fort Wayne tryout – let alone that he'd enjoy an NBA D-League career that has spanned seven seasons, all with the Mad Ants, and over 7,500 game minutes (fifth all-time) -- was a fortuitous feat in itself.

Howard started his college career with Marquette and actually played alongside Dwyane Wade his freshman year. Howard then transferred to Valparaiso, where he was selected to the All-MCC Second Team in 2005.

When his college career concluded, he figured he knew exactly what was next for him.

Instead, he went undrafted.

“I knew I was good enough to play in the NBA, I just assumed that I would get drafted and I’d live happily ever after,” Howard said. “That’s honestly what I assumed, and that obviously isn’t what happened. It was a shock.”

Howard did not have an agent and although he did endure a brief stint playing in Mexico, his options quickly started to diminish without anybody working for him. And with that, came a dose of reality for a recent college graduate who just had his first child with his wife.

“I’m out of college and I had a degree but I didn’t have a job at all,” Howard said. “So I was living with my mom and it got to the point where I said, ‘You know what, basketball was over.’ I can’t just sit here broke. I had to start going on job interviews.”

So that’s exactly what Howard did. The 6-foot-5 combo guard known for his ability to draw contact in the lane and play stout perimeter defense remembers going on interviews with Kraft (Inc.) and a real estate company in Chicago.

“Anything to get my foot in the door,” he said.

Seemingly out of basketball options, it wasn’t until his friend who knew Potter, the same friend that called Potter on the day of his late arrival at the tryout, told him about the Mad Ants that he decided to give it one more shot. He admittedly didn’t know much about the NBA D-League at the time, but that was all about to change.

At the tryout, Potter said Howard played “really well”, but Howard’s fate was not yet sealed after the first day.

“Then they made cuts (after day one), which I didn’t know,” Howard said with a laugh. “So I made it to the second day, but at eight that night I didn’t have money to get a hotel. So I have to drive back to Chicago. I arrive in Chicago maybe at midnight, take a shower, eat, and it’s like two in the morning now, which is three Fort Wayne time. And it started at eight the next morning. So I got three hours of sleep maybe.

“I remember sitting at the edge of the bed and telling my wife, ‘I’m not going.’ She asked why not. I said ‘I’m exhausted, I’m tired, they’re probably not gonna take me anyway. And I’m gonna probably crash because I’m exhausted.’”

At that point, Howard said his wife – who he had been with since they were both 15 years old -- changed his mind by saying that she had a “good feeling” about this specific opportunity.

”So after that, I went, and the rest is history,” he said. “Fort Wayne drafted me. After that season I signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, almost made the team, and I’ve been able to have a basketball career since then.”

Now fast forward to the present as Howard is halfway through the 2013-14 NBA D-League season. The same player that was an hour late to his open tryout is one of the premier players in the NBA D-League, and has been for the past several years. He has only ever played for the Mad Ants -- a rarity in a league where player movement's the norm. He has, in many ways, become synonymous with Fort Wayne.

Heading into All Star 2014, Howard, now 31, has scored nearly 4,000 points in his career, second on the all-time NBA D-League list, and he is less than 300 points away from the all-time mark currently held by Bakersfield's Renaldo Major (also still active).

While Howard doesn’t possess elite athleticism, he plays smart, wastes little movement and has emerged as one of the best scorers in what is considered the second-best basketball league in the world. Last season, he averaged 19.1 points per game (sixth in the league) and this year he’s upped that average to 21.5 (seventh in the league).

“He’s so aggressive,” said Duane Ticknor, Fort Wayne’s coach during the 2012-13 season. “His mid-range game is so tough so that when he comes off a screen, they have to stay close to him and have to stay connected yet he’s smart enough to create contact, and if they give him space he’ll knock the shot down, so he’s a tough guard.”

Howard, who, uncharacteristically for a scorer his size, does not thrive from 3-point range, uses the free-throw line as his best friend.

"Ron is a guy that can get fouled every single play," Fort Wayne swingman Sadiel Rojas said.

This season, Howard is averaging over eight free-throw attempts per game, fourth in the league among qualified players, and is making them at an over 87 percent clip.

Take his first game of 2014 as a prime example. On January 3 against Iowa, Howard scored a season-high 36 points on just 15 shots, none of which came from 3-point range. He did, however, hit 14 of his 15 tries from the charity stripe.

Ticknor also said -- only half jokingly -- that there could be another reason Howard finds himself at the line so often.

“He’s so well respected around the league, I think not just by players, but by referees and coaches and everyone,” Ticknor said. “I think obviously that doesn’t hurt him getting to the foul line either.”

The man they call “Mr. Mad Ant” has been a consummate team player for Fort Wayne. After playing most of his career off the ball, Ticknor switched Howard to point guard last season.

“We were struggling and then after Christmas I made a trade and moved Ron to the point guard position and I think that’s where he should have been playing the last five years,” Ticknor recalled. “He’d be in the NBA if that would have happened.”

Howard has accepted a similar shift in role this season.

"He's really embraced not taking as many shots this year because I need him to close games," Fort Wayne Head Coach Conner Henry said. Henry is validated by the fact Howard has scored more "clutch points", points scored in the last five minutes of the game when the game is separated by five or less points, than any player in the NBA D-League this season. "Ron has embraced it, he's accepted the challenge and he looks happy playing."

Howard's teammates appear happy playing with him as well.

"Most star players on teams, they don't want the new guy to come in and be super agressive and shoot your shots, but the first thing (Howard) told me was, 'I need you to be real aggressive, I need you to shoot your shots. There's enough shots for everyone, I need you to be a scorer.'" Fort Wayne newcomer Trey McKinney Jones said. "That really surprised me and showed a lot about his character."

The biggest criticism of Howard is that he’s 31 years old, has been an NBA D-League All-Star now three times (tied with fellow 2014 All-Star Othyus Jeffers for most all time), but has yet to earn a spot on an NBA roster despite several close calls, including a training camp invite with the Indiana Pacers this summer.

That said, Howard seems to only be getting better with age. He was an All-Star last season while leading Fort Wayne to its best season in franchise history and he has the Mad Ants primed for another playoff berth this year. In the interim, he also played a key role on the NBA D-League Select Team in NBA Summer League this past June where the Select Team finished with an all-time best record of 4-1.

With his track record, it’s a bit of a mystery why an NBA team hasn’t enlisted his services. But Howard -- who reminisced two occasions where has was close to signing a deal with the Bucks -- knows that in this business, sometimes talent and character isn’t the only deciding factor for making an NBA roster.

“When you go into camp sometimes with certain teams you realize that, like, I’m better that these two guys, but they have three-year deals, so it doesn’t really matter,” Howard said. “So yeah, it’s like that, but it’s like that for us all. So it’s just something you learn to deal with. And we understand the politics involved with it as well as being in the right place at the right time. So it just comes along with the business.”

The other option for Howard is to play overseas where he could find a much more lucrative payday. But Howard, who says he’s turned down "a lot of money" from international teams, has fought that urge.

“I’m not against going overseas if the opportunity is right,” Howard said. “Some guys will go overseas for anything just to say they’re going overseas. I won’t do that at all. The opportunity has to be right, and I’ll definitely look at that. But right now, man, I’m living out my dream and trying to get that NBA guaranteed contract.”

Another reason Howard hasn't relocated overseas is because he has a firm foothold in Fort Wayne and he's established himself in the community maybe unlike any other NBA D-League player with their home city. Ever.

Howard’s family -- him, his wife and his two daughters -- live right in Fort Wayne and remain very active in the community. Among other things, Howard and his wife run a sports camp for children and Howard has even attended an open baseball tryout for the Fort Wayne Tin Caps, the Class A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.

“His nickname is Mr. Mad Ant and there’s a reason for it,” Ticknor said. “He’s loved around the community and he’s earned it. It wasn’t something that was given to him. He gives a lot back to the community and he’s a good family man and he does things the right way.”

For context, Howard has played more games with Fort Wayne than any other NBA D-League player in one city with one franchise.

“When other players come into Fort Wayne, Ron is just identified as Fort Wayne,” Ticknor said. “He’s established himself on and off the court in Fort Wayne, so there’s just immediate respect there. Plus he’s a quality player, an All-Star player, so when players come in, everyone knows Ron throughout the league.”

Settling in Fort Wayne was never part of the plan for the Chicago native -- "It’s definitely not something that I thought would ever be at all, but it truly is home,” Howard said -- but in the end, Fort Wayne has given Howard and his family a place that has embraced them as much as they have embraced it.

“He’s everything that’s right with this team and frankly the league,” praised Potter.

Howard’s story is an uncommon one. In a league devoted to sending players to greener pastures, an optomistic Howard has found more than he could ever imagined in the NBA D-League and in Fort Wayne.

“I’ve gotten to live my dream,” he said. “I’ve played in NBA basketball games. I put an NBA jersey on with my name on it. I signed an NBA contract. I’ve done some amazing things that could’ve been taken away from me before it started. So I embrace where I’ve been. I’m blessed.”