With a bottle of champagne in his hand, veteran Ramon Harris stood surrounded by his teammates late Saturday at Memorial Coliseum, where the Mad Ants had just won the D-League championship with a 119-113 victory over the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Harris waited for silence and then addressed his teammates in the locker room.
In your lifetime, man, you may only get one chance to be the first to do something, he said. This is the first time in Mad Ants history that they had the best record, finished the regular season No. 1 and won the championship. This is the first time, man, and we’re the first to do so. That’s definitely a blessing. No question, that’s a blessing. So now the rest of the Mad Ants teams have got to follow in our footsteps. You know what I’m saying?
It was a season of firsts for the Mad Ants, who had spent the majority of their seven seasons in or near the D-League’s cellar.
The previous high-water mark had been last season, when they won 27 of 50 regular-season games and got swept by Santa Cruz in the first round of the playoffs under coach Duane Ticknor.
The Mad Ants went 34-16 this season, captured their first division championship and had the best record in the regular season. They won 17 of their last 20 games and took the top seed in the playoffs, allowing the team to select its first-round opponent.
Then came best-of-three postseason series against Reno, Sioux Falls and Santa Cruz.
They swept them all, finishing the season on a 17-game winning streak at the Coliseum.
Along the way, Conner Henry was selected Coach of the Year by his peers.
And Ron Howard, who has played for Fort Wayne in each of its seven seasons, was selected co-MVP along with Iowa’s Othyus Jeffers by league coaches.
No one with the Mad Ants had ever received such honors before.
I’m truly blessed, said Howard, who also became the D-League’s all-time leading scorer and won his second straight Jason Collier Sportsmanship Award.
That’s the only thing I can say: I’m truly blessed. This year, coming into this season, I didn’t have the goal of being MVP
I didn’t have a goal of winning a championship, as bad as that may sound. The goal was to be better than I was last year and continue to work hard. God has blessed me with this wonderful team, this wonderful city. I’m blessed.
With veterans Chris Porter, Will Frisby and Tim Ohlbrecht, NBA prospects Tony Mitchell, Trey McKinney-Jones and Matt Bouldin, and Henry, the Mad Ants won the first professional basketball championship for a team from Fort Wayne since the Zollner Pistons won the National Basketball League title in 1945.
Since then, the Pistons went to two NBA Finals and lost, and the Fury went to the Finals of the Continental Basketball Association and lost.
It doesn’t get any sweeter than this, Howard said. This is where we’re supposed to be. We worked so hard all season.
We’re champions. That’s what this season was about. We learned how to be champions.
All those games (in the playoffs) were tough games. But we figured out ways to win.