Becoming Mr. Mad Ant
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.”
FORT WAYNE | Ron Howard and wife Reesha don’t have cell phones Duct-taped to their wrists, anxiously awaiting “The Call” or a life-changing text.
They pray daily that it happens, and soon, but they have busy lives, you know, with No. 1 priority being adorable daughters Chloe, 7, and 3-year-old Peyton.
Next is basketball. Lots of basketball.
Ron, 31, is the face of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants’ franchise in the NBA Development League.
This is his seventh season as the only player to have been on every Mad Ants team since the franchise began in 2007. He is referred to as “Mr. Mad Ant” and is the hands-down crowd favorite at home games.
Reesha attends every game at the cavernous Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum, sits among the blue-collar fans, is usually the last one to leave the building with her husband and their little girls, and is affectionately called “Mrs. Mad Ant” by fans young and old.
The Howards love Fort Wayne’s small-town feel, love the caring nature of its people, love giving back with their Game Day Sports Camp each summer and Christmas toy party for the needy — all while Ron’s dream continues to burn like a branding iron.
He wants desperately to play in the NBA.
The ex-Valparaiso University star has come close in training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks (2008), New York Knicks (2009) and Pacers (2013) through their exhibition seasons.
Indiana really liked Howard, still keeps in touch, but it had three point guards at the time.
At 6-foot-5, he is the complete player with one knock against him according to scouts: He doesn’t shoot the 3.
The personable Howard counters by saying his primary role as a point guard is to attack, draw fouls, distribute the ball and shoot the mid-range jumper when open.
In 24 games through Friday night, he is 2-of-8 from downtown while leading the Ants in scoring at 23 points per game.
It should be noted during the 2009-10 season, Howard was 42-of-109 from deep, almost 40 percent.
“I don’t put myself on a timetable,” he said. “I signed with the Indiana Pacers this offseason, had a very good camp and was really close to making the roster.
“I treat my body right. I eat right. I do the right things. I work hard to stay in shape, continue to get better, and that’s what I’ve been doing every single year.”
Howard learned all about commitment and focus while playing for Tom Crean at Marquette, then Homer, Scott and Bryce Drew at Valparaiso.
There are 16 D-League teams and more than 200 players all scrapping, clawing, competing for an NBA look-see. It takes luck, good timing, and game.
This D-League season, there have been 16 call-ups involving 15 players, most of them given 10-day contracts to show what they can do while the guy they replace recovers from injury.
Howard has also played briefly in Mexico, Holland, Venezuela, Israel, Australia and China.
The Pacers, Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic all are NBA affiliates of the Mad Ants, though a D-League player can be signed by any team.
Coach still betting on his guy
“So much of today’s game is either you get a layup or you get a 3,” said Mad Ants’ coach and former Celtic Conner Henry. “That’s the mentality of most (NBA) coaches, most offensive systems. I don’t completely buy into that.
“When I watch the Pacers play, they do not shoot a high number of 3-point shots. They shoot a lot of mid-range distant shots … the kind of shots Ron is probably the best at in the whole D-League.”
Howard is close to a 50 percent career shooter.
“Is he the type of player who should be in the NBA? I truly believe so,” Henry said. “It just takes one door to open, one coach to evaluate him over a lengthy period of time — not just 10 days.”
Is Howard too old at 31?
“Ron can run all day. He’s got a great basketball body,” Conner said.
Mr. Mad Ant’s better half
Reesha met Ron Howard their freshman year at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s tough south side.
They’ve been an unbeatable team ever since. Reesha is a pillar of strength who says she’d be happy for her man if he wanted to quit the game and be a garbage collector.
“I thank my wife all the time for the support she gives me, for the peace of mind she gives me when I’m on the road for six days and how well she takes care of our daughters,” Ron said. “I don’t have to worry about anything.”
That’s what basketball wives do, says Reesha.
“We are regular people who work for everything we get and make the best of it,” she added. “My desires in life are simple and as long as (Ron) is happy, I’m happy.”
The Howards live in a modest prefab home which the Mad Ants helped them find on the campus of Fort Wayne Concordia Theological Seminary. They are the only non-students there but have been welcomed with open arms by school administrators.
With much of their personal belongings still unpacked and storage space at a premium, Ron and Reesha get by with the bare necessities and a smile.
They have a roof over their heads and food on the table. There is no reason to complain.
Many in the Mad Ants’ organization believe Howard’s best chance for an NBA call-up is with the Pacers, who are non-committal on the subject.
But they really do like the perennial MVP candidate who holds 12 Mad Ants’ franchise records.
The Pacers sent a truckload of toys to the Howards’ Christmas needy party. And when Chloe had her 7th birthday while Ron was in training camp, the team rented out the Indianapolis Zoo for her party.
“I got to pet a dolphin!” she squealed with delight.
Meanwhile, life goes on for Ron, Reesha, Chloe and Peyton. It’s a very good one when you think about it.