FORT WAYNE – Here is an all-points bulletin: Be on the lookout for one monkey, age 6; last seen on the collective backs of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants NBA D-League basketball team. If found, please do not return; the Ants have had enough of it.
It’s nice to have that off our back, a relaxed team President Jeff Potter said during Monday’s practice.
For the first time in the franchise’s six-year history, the Mad Ants are in the D-League playoffs – a best-of-three series against Santa Cruz that begins with a 7:30 p.m. tip Wednesday at Memorial Coliseum. Nor is it a coincidence that the Ants’ 27-23 record is the organization’s first winning season.
After four head coaches, some of whom came closer to success than others, Potter hired minor league veteran Duane Ticknor almost 11 months ago as coach No. 5. Ticknor’s unenviable task was to not only bring the team its first winning season but change the culture of an organization that had lost nearly 62 percent of its first 250 games.
I felt at the beginning of the year we were going to be here at the end, Ticknor said. I knew it was going to take time. I didn’t think it was going to take as long as it did. I guess I was kind of like our team – I just kept grinding all year long till we got the right group in here.
The grind began immediately when the Mad Ants lost 10 of their first 13 games.
Spinning the roster like a Rubik’s Cube, players came and went. Out went first-round draft pick JaJuan Johnson and veteran point guard Walker Russell Jr. In came veterans Anthony Richardson, Brandon Wallace, Chris Porter and Tommy Smith – all players that Ticknor hand-picked.
Chemistry is the most important thing at this level, Ticknor said. A lot of guys have personal agendas. You’ve got to get team-oriented guys.
The most successful franchises have team-oriented players and coaches; I think we’ve done that here.
He’s done it at nearly every coaching stop, from the IBL, the CBA and the D-League. With the exception of his first year with the Gary Steelheads in the CBA, Ticknor’s teams have made the playoffs. He wasn’t about to have the streak end in Fort Wayne.
The Mad Ants caught fire in late December and began an eight-game winning streak. Back in the playoff hunt, they won 11 of their last 15.
There would have been no one more disappointed in Fort Wayne if we wouldn’t have made the playoffs, Ticknor said.
Porter and Ticknor have more than a history together, when they were player and coach with the Dakota Wizards in the CBA and D-League. They have a bond; a friendship; a mutual trust.
He’s a great guy, Porter said. What makes him unique is he understands the game; he knows the game; he loves the game; he lives the game.
Coach Ticknor called and said, Chris, I need you,’ and I said, I’m comin’. I love him just that much.
Note: Ants guard Ron Howard, who has missed the last seven games with a fractured right wrist, said he will play Wednesday. Howard averages 19.1 points and 4.7 assists. In two wins over Santa Cruz this season, he averaged 18.5 points and 6.5 assists.