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, hadnt become complacent.
That was my concern: Wheres his head at? Hes been here a long time. Hes 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). Thats the goal, to make some money and support the family. But if it doesnt work out, I want to make sure youre still 100 percent in. He told me, Coach, you dont have to worry. I have no reason to not come in here and prove myself. Thats 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 hes 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.
Ive never been like that. I still havent 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.
Ive had tastes of it. I just came back (from the Pacers), but I still have something Im 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 dont work hard and play well, Im not getting back out of here, Henry said.
That explains Howards demeanor on the Concordia Theological Seminary court Thursday, when he worked as hard as the players fresh out of college.
Hes eager to get back to the NBA.
I understand the business aspect of it, he said. (Getting released by the Pacers) doesnt mean Im not good enough. Theres 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 youre doing things like this – coming to (a D-League) practice – because its not like Im 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.