First Ones In, Last Ones Out: Howard and Potter Complete Journey For Title

The Mad Ants have won their first NBA D-League championship thanks to their two leaders.

FORT WAYNE, IN -- When the final buzzer sounded and Fort Wayne could celebrate its first-ever NBA D-League title, Ron Howard immediately found Mad Ants President Jeff Potter and gave him a hug.

In that moment, a weight -- one that maybe only the two of them could truly understand -- was lifted. The losing seasons and disappointments that had piled up in previous years seemingly disappeared as the player who embodies the franchise and the executive that runs it finally reached the top together.

Fort Wayne defeated Santa Cruz, 119-113, in Game 2 of the NBA D-League Finals to complete a series sweep behind 32 points from Tony Mitchell and 23 from Howard.

Howard, lovingly referred to as Mr. Mad Ant, was a member of Fort Wayne's inaugural team in 2007-08, and it was Potter who gave Howard a shot to make the team via an open tryout.

"As crazy as it may sound, it's because of him that I'm here," Howard said of Potter. "It truly is. A smart decision he made to allow me tryout, you know, those (seven) years back, and it meant a lot. I wanted him to always know that, that I don't take that for granted and I'll never forget that."

When asked about the moment on the court with Howard, an emotional Potter struggled to find the words to encapsulate what he was feeling.

"It's wonderful," Potter repeated, at one point appearing to fight back tears.

That said it all.

Potter and Howard have been the constants in a franchise that, prior to last season, had never made the Playoffs. In all, the Mad Ants racked up five consecutive losing seasons prior to 2012-13, and it wasn't until this season that the team won a Playoff series.

"I think that is why it's so much sweeter," Potter said. "To finally be able to figure it out for whatever reason, to get the players and the right coaching staff, I think it makes it special."

Of course, Howard and Potter did not do it alone. Transforming a hard luck team to one that won 12 in a row to close out the season is no small task. And the cast of characters that made it happen in Fort Wayne makes the triumph that much more unbelievabe.

The team's other superstar, Mitchell, was playing in China this fall. Key wingman Sadiel Rojas was teaching himself how to walk again just two years ago after he suffered a career-threatening back injury. Forward Will Frisby had retired from basketball for two years before returning this season. Veteran leader Chris Porter was a college standout at Auburn, but that was in the late 1990s. And key reserves Matt Bouldin and Tim Ohlbrecht were acquired via trade in February.

"There's a lot of stories within the group," Fort Wayne coach Conner Henry said. "And to bring it all together as a group -- from injuries to retirements to age to youth -- it's a pretty incredible feeling that once it starts to come together, it creates kind of a life of its own."

No player, however, was able to pen his story more so than Howard. Always one of the most respected and well-liked players in the league, Howard's place as the league's predominant figure went from circumstantial to concrete in just a few months. In March, the seven-year vet became the league's all-time leading scorer and this past week he was named 2014 Co-MVP, in large part due to his ability to lead Fort Wayne's to its best season ever.

"It was all a giant puzzle," Henry said. "And somehow it came together."

The end result is sweeter than fiction, a fairy tale that Howard and Potter likely don't want to end.

In fact, after the majority of the crowd had cleared out and the arena staff was sweeping away the confetti from the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum floor, only two members of the team -- Howard and Potter -- remained to savor the victory just a few minutes longer.