FORT WAYNE – One of the first things Conner Henry did after getting hired to be the Mad Ants’ coach last month was to take his star guard out to lunch.
He wanted to make sure Ron Howard, who has been with the team for each of its seven seasons, hadn’t become complacent.
That was my concern: Where’s his head at? He’s been here a long time. He’s had a couple of call-ups and been in the Pacers’ veteran camp. Is (being a Mad Ant) OK? Is this still OK?
He told me he was looking at opportunities overseas. I said, Good. I want you to get out of here (eventually). That’s the goal, to make some money and support the family. But if it doesn’t work out, I want to make sure you’re still 100 percent in.’ He told me, Coach, you don’t have to worry. I have no reason to not come in here and prove myself.’ That’s all I wanted to hear.
Howard, 30, did have multiple offers to play in Europe. So why did he decide to stay in Fort Wayne with the Mad Ants, who opened training camp Thursday?
Simple: love of the city.
This is home for me, he said, noting he has his Game Day Sports Camp and other foundation work that he’s passionate about in Fort Wayne, and that his wife, Reesha, and two daughters weighed heavily on the decision to stay.
Last season, when the Mad Ants went 27-23 and got their first-ever playoff berth, Howard averaged 19.1 points, the second-highest mark of his career, and a career-best 4.7 assists per game.
But he still clings to the dream of playing full time in the NBA, so he promised not to get complacent.
I’ve never been like that. I still haven’t totally reached my goal, said Howard, who played in college for Valparaiso and has been signed by NBA teams four times without having played a game.
I’ve had tastes of it. I just came back (from the Pacers), but I still have something I’m fighting for.
Howard will likely play both guard positions. Were the season to start today, he and Anthony Harris, who averaged 8.5 points and 7.5 assists for the Mad Ants last season, would be the ball-handlers.
Henry, who played 104 NBA games from 1986 to 1988 with Houston, Boston, Milwaukee and Sacramento, remembers the feeling of being sent back down to the Continental Basketball Association.
It takes about a minute to realize, OK, if I don’t work hard and play well, I’m not getting back out of here,’ Henry said.
That explains Howard’s demeanor on the Concordia Theological Seminary court Thursday, when he worked as hard as the players fresh out of college.
He’s eager to get back to the NBA.
I understand the business aspect of it, he said. (Getting released by the Pacers) doesn’t mean I’m not good enough. There’s more to it than that. You have to be in the right situation. But practicing there makes you hungry to know exactly what your goal is and how it feels to be there.
It gives you a different sense of pride when you’re doing things like this – coming to (a D-League) practice – because it’s not like I’m just daydreaming (about being) there in the (NBA). I know how it feels to actually be there and it gives me a different level of confidence to know I can do it.