THE NIGHT he made history, Mr. Mad Ant drove back to the seminary and ate carrot cake.
The dessert was a gift from Cindy Joyner, who bought season tickets seven years ago, when the NBA's Development League awarded an expansion franchise to her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. The team was dubbed the Mad Ants after the city's namesake, Gen. Mad Anthony Wayne, and there were open tryouts to fill the roster. More than 120 hoop dreamers showed up at Indiana Tech in October 2007, paying $150 a head. Ron Howard, an unemployed 24-year-old living in a Chicago apartment with his wife and daughter, was an hour late.
"Who arrives an hour late?" recalls Howard, confused by the time change between Chicago and Fort Wayne. "I was too embarrassed to go in." He had a degree in communications and had completed a first round of interviews with Kraft Foods. But Howard had also just driven 160 miles, and while club president Jeff Potter was reluctant to reopen the tryout, he was desperate for talent: One of the "prospects" was in his 70s. Howard was a wiry 6'5" shooting guard five years removed from backing up Dwyane Wade at Marquette.
He made the team and two weeks into the season cracked the starting lineup. Most D-Leaguers spend a season in one city then scatter to other affiliates or other countries. But Howard came back the next year, and the one after that. He did stints in China and Australia, Israel and Venezuela, but he always returned to Fort Wayne, through six coaches and some 120 teammates. Newcomers referred to Ron and Reesha as Mr. and Mrs. Mad Ant.
They live in a four-bedroom house at Concordia Theological Seminary with their daughters, seven-year-old Chloe and three-year-old Peyton. They run a sports and arts camp for kindergartners through eighth-graders every summer. They conduct a Christmas toy drive. Ron volunteers at a food bank, mentors boys at Northwood Middle School and coaches girls at South Side High. He has won the league's sportsmanship award two years in a row. "He has given this town everything he possibly could," says Potter, including hundreds of silky midrange jumpers. Howard turned the Mad Ants into Killer Ants, from 17--33 in his first year to a league-best 34--16 this season, with a berth in this week's finals.
On March 29, Howard sank yet another pull-up from the left wing at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The game stopped. The crowd of 4,024 stood for three minutes. Fans sobbed. Joyner ran to the parking lot and fetched the carrot cake with cream-cheese icing, cooling in her car. Howard's 4,254th point set a D-League record, recalling Crash Davis's 247th home run. "A dubious kind of honor," Crash says in the bush league classic Bull Durham. "I think it'd be great," Annie Savoy replies. "The Sporting News should know."
Like Crash Davis, Howard has been to the Show, if only for a sip of coffee. After his first year in Fort Wayne he signed with the Bucks and played in the preseason. When they released him, coach Scott Skiles said, "You're good enough for the NBA." Since then the D-League has reported 235 call-ups, but none for Howard. He went to training camp with the Knicks, again with the Bucks and last fall the Pacers. Scouts wanted to see him at point guard, so he slid over and still averaged 20.5 points this season. But he is now 31 in a sport that prizes teenagers. "It drives you crazy," Howard admits. He could be mayor of Fort Wayne, but if the Pacers summoned him tomorrow, he'd run a fast break down I-69 and get cheered on the way out of town. Such is life in the minors.
Howard drives to every home game with his wife and daughters, and as they turn down Clinton Street toward the arena, they say a prayer. "We used to pray for Ron to make the NBA, but now I realize that's so foolish," says Reesha. "We just thank God for allowing him to do what he loves. I never wanted to be one of those Basketball Wives anyway. We've gotten so much more out of being here. We've gotten a real home."
The crowd in Fort Wayne stood for three minutes. Fans sobbed. Ron Howard's 4,254th point set a D-League record, recalling Crash Davis's 247th home run.
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ANN JOHNSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JENKINS)
JACK ARENT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HOWARD)