By Alex Squadron
During the reporting process for my new book, Life in the G: Minor League Basketball and the Relentless Pursuit of the NBA, I came across so many remarkable G League stories begging to be told. Unfortunately, not all of them could be fully unpacked in one project.
The story of Ron Howard, aka Mr. Mad Ant, is briefly recounted in Chapter 3, but below is the complete, unabridged version. I hope you enjoy it.
Ron Howard was ready to move on.
Well, maybe not ready. But at 25 years old, it was time to get real. To be practical. Waiting for the phone to ring: not practical. Training for a job he didn’t have: not practical. Clinging to a childhood dream: not practical. The practical thing to do was to move on from basketball, pursue a new path, and start making money to support his family. So Ron was sort of, kind of, more or less ready.
In the late 1990s, Howard had been a standout player at Whitney Young High School in Chicago. He spent a year at Marquette University alongside Dwyane Wade before transferring to Valparaiso, a mid-major program in the Missouri Valley Conference. There, Howard gradually began to make his name, earning All-Conference honors in his junior and senior seasons. He was a solid all-around player—an athletic, six-foot-five guard who attacked the rim fearlessly, orchestrated the offense, and locked down on defense.
In Ron’s mind, the NBA was a possibility.
In reality, it was a pipe dream.
He declared for the 2006 NBA Draft but did not get picked. Without an agent, he struggled to find other professional opportunities. He played in Mexico for a few months, helping Trigueros de Ciudad Obregón win the 2007 CIBACOPA championship, but returned home to discover that no new doors had opened up for him. Money was tight and his wife, Reesha, had just given birth to a baby girl.
“I had decided that basketball was done. It wasn’t for me. I knew I could play, but it just wasn’t working out. It’s not for everybody,” Howard said. “I had to pull my degree out and start getting the resume together.”
Once that was done, Ron began applying for jobs—desk jobs and normal nine-to-fives. As he awaited responses, a friend encouraged him to pursue one more opportunity. A new D-League team was launching in Fort Wayne, Indiana—just a three-hour drive from Chicago—called the Mad Ants. Ahead of their inaugural season (2007-08), the Mad Ants would be hosting an open tryout.
The D-League? Ron knew very little about it. At first, he was hesitant. Do I waste my time with this? he pondered. I’ve already given this up. I need to focus on other things, explore different paths. I said I was done. I’m done. But the more he wrestled with it, the more he figured, why not? He could give it one more shot. No expectations meant no pressure. And when it was finished, he could peacefully move on with his life knowing that he had turned over every stone.
Though it was billed as the “Take Off to the NBA” Mad Ants Open Tryout, Howard didn’t view it as a possible road to the NBA—to the place every basketball player dreams of being. “At that point, it was just to be able to play ball. That was literally it,” he said. “It was literally my last chance to be a professional basketball player.”
Ron hadn’t been working out or training, but he nonetheless made the trek to Fort Wayne—a quiet city in northeastern Indiana, just 18 miles west of the Ohio border. It was his first time visiting the area. He pulled into the parking lot early, collected his things, and sauntered toward the facility. As he got closer, he could hear noise emanating from the building: balls bouncing, shoes screeching, whistles blowing, men grunting.
Huh, he thought. That’s weird. It wasn’t yet 8:00 a.m., when the tryout was supposed to start, but there was definitely something going on inside that gym. He opened the door a crack and peeked in. The court was teeming with people: players rotating through a series of conditioning drills, coaches milling about the sidelines, executives murmuring to each other. Ron let the door close softly.
That’s when it hit him. Ron was actually on time for the tryout… in Chicago. In Fort Wayne—in the eastern time zone—the clock was about to strike 9:00 a.m. “Back then, the time in your car didn’t change automatically, so I had no clue,” he said. “I’m a smart guy. You don’t show up for a job interview or a tryout late. And definitely not an hour late.”
Any shred of hope he was clinging to seemed to dissipate in that moment. No way the Mad Ants would take the unknown, unproven, slightly out-of-shape guy who also showed up an hour late. Just no way. Fortunately, the team still agreed to let him try out. Ron just had to sign in and pay the $150 entry fee.
Ron didn’t know that there was an entry fee. In fact, had he known, $150 might have been enough to deter him from coming (“If it was $250, you and I probably wouldn’t be talking,” Ron told me). Now he was standing at the check-in table, an hour late, without the money. Once again, the team was willing to make an exception for him: Ron called Reesha, who relayed credit card information over the phone.
At last, Ron was good to go; though his problems were just beginning. What was once an uphill battle now felt a lot more like a lost cause. There was the fact that coaches were understandably frustrated with him. And that joining the tryout at this stage was like trying to jump on a train while it was already in motion. Surveying the gym did little to lift his spirits. His stature might have stood out at one of those nine-to-five jobs, sure. But here? It was unremarkable. He was strong, but not uniquely strong. Tall, but not uniquely tall. The place was full of similarly-built guards, some of whom Ron recognized from pick-up runs in Chicago.
As if those hurdles weren’t enough, there were rumblings among the players that the team was only planning to take one or two guys. By then, Ron’s chances seemed closer to nonexistent than slim, so he played that way: free, unburdened, assertive. No need to stress over this, he told himself. Whatever happens, happens.
What happened was that Ron thrived. He made plays on both ends of the floor, helping his team win game after game after game. Throughout the scrimmages, he could sense that he was separating himself from the group.
The tryout lasted all afternoon. It was dark outside by the time coaches gathered everyone at mid-court for some final words. This is it, Ron thought. Here we go…
“If we call your name, you’ve made it to day two…”
Ron frantically scanned the huddle, hoping to find bewildered expressions that matched his own. Nobody flinched. Apparently he was the only one who didn’t know that the tryout spanned two days. He tried to maintain a calm façade, half listening and half panicking, when…
He barely reacted. His mind was elsewhere, already trying to work out the logistical nightmare he now found himself in.
“For those who were called, be here at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.”
8:00 am? That was less than 12 hours away. Ron had no clean clothes, no money for a hotel room. He didn’t know a single person in the Fort Wayne area. It was three hours to Chicago, three hours back. How the hell was he going to pull this off?
Seeing no other option, Ron hopped in his car and raced the 160 miles home. He arrived just after midnight, ate a quick meal, took a shower, and crawled into bed around 1:00 a.m. central time. He closed his eyes and… beep, beep, beep, beep. His alarm was already sounding. It was 3:30 a.m., time to get moving. Ron groaned, dragged himself up, and sat on the edge of his bed. His legs felt like dense metal poles; his arms like bags of sand. He buried his head in his hands. Was it worth it? Was it really worth it to keep going? Did the teeny, tiny, microscopic chance that he might make the Mad Ants really outweigh the hassle he was about to go through? The answer, he ultimately determined, was no. Ron wouldn’t bother. He would ditch the second tryout.
“What’s wrong?” Reesha’s voice broke the silence. She was barely awake, gazing over at her husband.
“I’m not going,” Ron whispered. “I’m exhausted. There’s no way I’m going to make it. I’m not in shape to do this. I’m not going. I’m not going to waste our time.”
He was about to get back in bed when Reesha, half asleep, muttered, “You should go… I have a good feeling.”
A good feeling? Ron couldn’t believe he had let that persuade him. You know when it’s easy to have a good feeling? When you don’t have to get out of bed at 3:30 a.m., drive three hours in the dead of night, and compete in an all-day tryout on barely any sleep. That spurred different emotions. Bad feelings. But here Ron was, cruising down I-90, headlights guiding him through the pitch black, fighting like hell to keep his eyes open.
And, of course, Reesha was right. Somehow, someway, Ron played well again. It defied logic; two hours of sleep + six hours of driving was not a winning formula. Ron relied on adrenaline, harnessing every ounce of energy left in his throbbing muscles. Once he stepped on the floor, it was just basketball: something familiar, comforting, the only part of the last two days that had made any sense. Ron’s patented mid-range jump shot was falling. He was getting to the basket, dishing to teammates, shutting down his man on defense.
When it was over, the team remained noncommittal—final decisions, coaches said, would be announced “soon.” To Ron, no answer was almost as frustrating as an answer of no. What was he supposed to do before “soon”? Wait for the phone to ring? Prepare for a job he didn’t have? Cling to his childhood dream? He took pride in his efforts, but pride wasn’t paying the bills.
Upon returning to Chicago, Ron continued the miserable job hunt. Weeks passed. He stopped dwelling on the tryout, presuming—as he always had—that nothing would come of it. He was home on the evening of November 1, 2007, roughly a month later, when his phone buzzed. Then buzzed again. And again. Several texts came in simultaneously.
“You did it!”
Ron had to ask: “Thanks… but what did I do?”
Friends informed him that the Mad Ants had just picked him in the seventh round of the 2007 D-League Draft. That Ron Howard didn’t have to move on. Not yet.
“I was a nobody,” Ron later said, reflecting back on that life-changing moment. “I didn’t have a name. I was just nobody.” Now he was a Mad Ant. Within a few days, he would be off to training camp in Fort Wayne. His foot was in the door of the NBA’s official minor league. His career was very much alive.
Today, in the peaceful city of Fort Wayne, nestled along the border of the eastern and central time zones, Ron Howard is better known as “Mr. Mad Ant.” His No. 19 jersey was retired by the franchise in 2017. He was with the organization from its first open tryout in 2007 to its first D-League championship in 2014, claiming an MVP trophy, three All-Star nods, and two Jason Collier Sportsmanship Awards over that span. Before forward Renaldo Major, Howard briefly held the D-League’s all-time scoring record. He averaged 17.5 points, 4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game for his career. After retiring, he accepted a job—a desk job, finally—as the community development manager for the Mad Ants. He now serves as the color commentator for the team's broadcasts.
Despite his success at the D-League level, Ron never got a chance in the NBA. He went to training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks (2008), New York Knicks (2009), and Indiana Pacers (2013), but was waived each season. Still, a journey that began with nothing more than a sliver of opportunity and a “good feeling” ended with a spot on the D-League’s Mount Rushmore.
As Ron liked to say about his story, “When a door shuts, try to see if the window is open.”