Would you know Ron Howard if you saw him on the subway? A Chicago native, Howard graduated from Valparaiso University, a small school in Northwestern Indiana, in 2006. After going undrafted, he has played in Mexico, Venezuela, Israel, Australia, and most prominently, for parts of seven different seasons for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League.
While he is one of the longest tenured and most decorated players in the history of the D-League, the most common response when he is mentioned is “there’s a basketball player named ‘Ron Howard?” followed by one or several Andy Griffith or Happy Days jokes. Likewise, when the D-League itself is mentioned, it is either offhandedly, or with a level of ignorance unbefitting of the only domestic minor league of one of the biggest sports leagues on the planet. Ask yourself how often a team name is mentioned along with reports of players being sent down or called up to the NBA. Usually, the epithet “D-League Affiliate” is used, as though these teams are interchangeable. On one hand, this can very easily be excused by how often affiliation changes in what is still a growing league. On the other, finding the answer for these questions would take less time than it took for you to read this sentence. I’m not saying it’s malicious, just that it represents the D-League’s status, even among the most hardcore of basketball fans.
To be fair, the Mad Ants, Howard’s home for 247 games, has used a quick refrain of the Andy Griffith show theme song whenever Howard hits a free throw, an event that has happened nearly 1200 times now in his storied career as the all-time leading scorer in D-League history. When you think of an accolade like “all-time leading scorer,” you could be forgiven for thinking of an explosive, Jordan-esque offensive force, yet Ron Howard has averaged 20 points per game only twice in his D-League career, in 2009-10, and again this past season, where he split Co-MVP of the League with Iowa’s Othyus Jeffers, another elder statesman of the league.
Initially, Howard was, as his size would suggest, a swingman. While he was good enough to stick in the D-League and become the Mad Ants’ all-time leading scorer, it always seemed as though his game was restrained by something. Two seasons ago, then Mad Ants coach Duane Ticknor decided to let Ron run the offense, taking advantage of his best attributes (his ballhandling, intelligence, mid range game and foul drawing acumen) to turn him into an unquestioned star at the D-League level. “When Coach Ticknor finally gave me the ball, he gave me the confidence and told me “okay, you’re the point guard now, go out and do it.” He didn’t give me an out.” These past two seasons, usually the point where most players begin to exit their prime and begin the slow slide into uselessness, Howard posted by far the best numbers of his career from any perspective, taking fewer three pointers and more free throws than at any point in his career. His WS/48 numbers were nearly double his previous career averages. Despite the late heroics of Tony Mitchell (an unquestionably flashier player and two-time defending D-League Slam Dunk champion), it was Howard’s jumper with a little over a minute left in Game 2 of the Finals that gave Fort Wayne the lead for good.
Statistically, Howard is solid if unremarkable, posting career per 36 averages of 18.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.4 steals on .481/.324/.804 shooting. He’s a good defender, but not an exciting one. When asked about how his game doesn’t always translate well to highlights, Howard admitted that he’s tried to play a little flashier in an attempt to draw the NBA’s notice. “Yeah, I’ve done that. You know, I’ve taken 150 threes in a season and all of that,”Howard said after the D-League Select team’s 87-75 first round victory over the Denver Nuggets. “In the end, I’m continuing to get better, every single year. I think that’s what it’s more so about, above anything. Continued improvement, showing the ability to get better, and knowing that I have to be working hard. That’s what matters to me.”
At 31, Howard is one of the elder statesmen of both this D-League team and Summer League as a whole, joining former NBA players such as Josh Howard, 34. Unlike his fellow Howard, Ron has never played in an NBA game. Physically, Howard is as unimposing and unassuming as his game. Listed at six foot five and 200 pounds, he’s skinny, not particularly muscular, and hardly looks the part of dominant professional athlete. Generous with both a smile and a handshake, he doesn’t act the part of eternal NBA bridesmaid, of a defeated man relegated to playing in an inferior league for inferior pay for his entire career. When he smiles, he reveals a set of braces, hardly the most common mouthwear for a successful 31 year old. Yet, when questioned, he reveals his quiet maturity: “I’ve been in every situation as a basketball player. I’ve seen it all,” he says, with a quiet intensity.
On Thursday night, the D-League Select team’s run in the 2014 Summer League tournament ended at the hands of the Knicks, 83-70. Howard finished with 8 points on 2-4 shooting in around 18 minutes of play. The DLS team will play again on Friday, in the consolation bracket, but for the most part, they’re done. Whatever impressions these players were going to make, they made. For Ron Howard, it might not have been enough. It would be old hat for Howard at this point, having previously signed and been cut by the Bucks, Knicks, Knicks again, Bucks again, and Pacers over the course of his career, always returning to the Mad Ants eventually.
His career with the Mad Ants got off to a famously rocky start. After making the roughly three hour drive to Fort Wayne to attend an open tryout, he arrived an hour late due to the time zone change between the two cities, which he was unaware of. The Mad Ants allowed him to try out, however, and what happened since, as they say, is history. Now, nearly a decade later, Howard is the leader of a championship team, a multiple time All-Star, reigning MVP and all time leading scorer of both the Mad Ants and the D-League, the former of which led to his being billed under the sobriquet “Mr. Mad Ant” by the team, a designation he wears with pride both on the court and in the community, where he runs an annual basketball and art camp for children, regularly donates to area food banks, and mentors boys at Northwood Middle School, where I attended just a few short years before Howard’s now fateful tryout. He is the face of the Mad Ants, and one of the defining sports faces of Fort Wayne, where I was born and raised and which now, finally, has its first professional basketball championship since 1944. Thanks in large part to Ron Howard.
That Howard is still a relative unknown is what perhaps speaks best about the status of the D-League in today’s game. His profile by the eminent Lee Jenkins has zero comments. Despite the Amar’e Stoudemires and Rajon Rondos of the world being sent down for practice sessions, despite high profile draft picks like Hasheem Thabeet being sent down, players like Ron Howard are why the D-League exists. To give skinny Chicago kids from Valparaiso the chance to become a pillar of a community a mere three hours drive from his home. To become a professional. To become a champion. “I’m blessed to be where I am at this point,” Howard responded when asked about his NBA future. “Of course the NBA is my goal, but if I don’t make it, I’m not gonna jump off a building. I understand that I’m blessed, this is a wonderful opportunity that I have. People would cut their arm off to be where I am, to do the things I have done.”
Would you know Ron Howard if you saw him on the subway? Not in his stomping grounds, you wouldn’t. Fort Wayne doesn’t have a subway system.