For years, those who watched the Fort Wayne Mad Ants wondered what the franchise would be like if it delivered a team as strong as its game-night entertainment.
Now we know. The combination produces an extended fourth-quarter dance party for NBA Development League champions.
“After the L.A. double-overtime win (to end the regular season), we got an email from a lady at 2 a.m.,” Ants co-owner John Zeglis said. “She wrote, 'I just went to my first Mad Ants game with my kids who are 4 and 5. What a great experience. What classy players. They made them feel like they were the only ones who counted.'
“In three little paragraphs, she never said 'what a thrilling game' or whether we won or lost, but she said 'my kids' nine times," Zeglis said. "At the team dinner the next night, I framed that and passed it out and told them that was the championship season.”
Don't get Zeglis wrong. Massive winning – after five barren seasons and a first playoff appearance last year – is something the franchise hopes to continue. The Ants completed their terrific 2013-14 season Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum, beating Santa Cruz 119-113 to sweep the D-League best-of-three finals. Fort Wayne was 6-0 in the playoffs and closed the year with 12 straight wins.
“For all these loyal fans and the excitement that winning brings, I'm sure delighted,” Zeglis said, “and I want to repeat and three-peat.”
The Mad Ants more than paid their dues to get to this point, trying dozens of players and a handful of coaches. Two years ago, they were the worst team in the league, "the dregs" as Ants president Jeff Potter bluntly recalled.
After coach Duane Ticknor retooled the culture of losing into one of winning, Conner Henry took over and raised the bar again. The Ants found the right mix of veteran players, such as Ron Howard, Chris Porter, Sadiel Rojas and Will Frisby and mixed those with younger guys such as Tony Mitchell, Trey McKinney-Jones and Ramon Harris. Late-season tweaks brought Matt Bouldin, Tim Ohlbrecht and Anthony Harris on board.
Mitchell brings more extraordinary athletic prowess to the court than any Mad Ants player in history. He scored 25 of his 32 points Saturday in the first half and threw down two dunks that would bring anyone out of their seats.
“I came in and had a good game, but give credit to all these guys,” Mitchell said. “They worked hard all year long. I have to give credit to these guys. I just take what the defense gives me. These guys were finding me. That's all it is – teamwork.”
True teamwork requires unselfishness. True teamwork requires an all-for-one, one-for-all (insert your own cliche here) approach that sounds cheesy but rings true when a team puts together a season like the Mad Ants produced.
Porter has been everywhere. He's seen everything. He's won championships at all sorts of levels, six by his count. As Zeglis points out, you can't underestimate the experience provided by Porter, Frisby and Howard.
“It was the never-quit, never-say-die attitude we had from Day One,” Porter said. “Never quit, never stop, keep fighting, it's for real. This is what we wanted from Day One. It's for real.”
No one can appreciate the journey more than Howard. He lived through the lost years, through a season where the team squandered 13 fourth-quarter leads. He saw teammates come and teammates go. He saw players get NBA call-ups throughout the league – players who don't bring the court savvy or skills of Howard but somehow attract the NBA scouts – and he kept plugging away.
This season, Howard set the D-League scoring record, won co-MVP, repeated as the league sportsmanship winner, earned back-page-column love in Sports Illustrated and hit the shot-clock beating jumper late that proved Saturday night would be a night of destiny for the Mad Ants.
“Ron embodies what the NBA D-League is all about,” D-League president Dan Reed said. “Here's a player who clearly has NBA talent, who came in to an open tryout hour late and turned into the all-time leading scorer in our history, an MVP and now a champion. He's a great guy and I know he means a lot for the city of Fort Wayne.”
Howard has a ton of great attributes. I'd list either humility or honesty at the top.
“I'm truly blessed, that's the only thing I can say,” Howard said. “Coming into this season, I didn't have a goal to be MVP or have a goal to win the championship, as bad as that may sound. My goal was to be better than I was last year and to continue to work hard. God blessed me with this wonderful team, this wonderful city. I'm blessed.”
Combine the regular season (34-16) and the postseason (6-0) and the Mad Ants posted 40 wins in 56 games, a winning percentage of .714. There's not an owner or general manager or fan base that wouldn't take that kind of winning anytime, anywhere.
Zeglis, remember, framed that mother's email, the one that said nothing about winning or losing and everything about the team.
“We're in the fun business,” Zeglis said, “and we're in the happiness business.”
Fun and happiness fit well with the championship business, too.