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Howard still chasing NBA dream

Mr. Mad Ant knows time’s short as he heads to All-Star Game

– When the Coliseum lights are low and the public address announcer is in full crescendo with his starting lineup introductions, veteran guard Ron Howard is the last to climb from the bench – a time-honored basketball tradition usually reserved for the team’s best player. Jordan got it. Kobe gets it. LeBron gets it. And for each home game – and certainly for all time, as long as he wears the appropriate jersey – Howard will come onto the floor with the same, booming greeting: “Misterrrrrrrr Maaaaaaaad Aaaaaaaant!”

“I embrace it,” Howard says of the nickname. “I feel like it’s a blessing.”

And yet for each season he has played in Fort Wayne – this is No. 6 – Howard, the team’s career leader in games, minutes played, points and community goodwill has longingly hoped it will be his last.

Nothing against the place; in fact, he and his wife, Reesha – also a Chicago native – love it here. They and their two daughters, 6-year-old Chloe and 2-year-old Peyton, have made the town their home, and the long-range plan is to stay once the basketball career is over.

But the quest that began when Howard arrived an hour late at the team’s first open tryout in the autumn of 2007 was not to be named “Mr. Mad Ant.” The dream has always been the NBA, and always will.

He hit the big 3-oh Nov. 14. That’s getting on in years for anyone who makes his living playing professional sports. It’s even older for someone who still chases rainbows.

But Howard figures he’s just hitting his stride. And who’s going to tell him otherwise?

For the second time in his career, the 6-foot-5 guard will be in the D-League All-Star Game on Saturday in Houston.

NBA scouts, already in town for the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, will be in the stands, hoping to see something they haven’t already from the D-League’s best.

And maybe – just maybe, Howard hopes – they’ll spot something in him. After all, he’s midway through a position change, so maybe the old Ant has a new trick that has gone unnoticed.

“Right now I’m playing better than I ever have since I came into this league,” said Howard, who averages 18.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and, now at point guard, 4.5 assists.

“To start a new position, as far as a point guard position, and to be recognized as an all-star in this league by all the coaches, is something I don’t take for granted at all. I feel grateful to them. It feels good, at this point in my career, to be looked at at that level.”

For his first five D-League seasons, Howard was a pure scorer; a slasher, with his head down and hell-bent for the rim. Being 6-foot-5, and with a quick first step and a quicker second one, he was a tough matchup.

But out of necessity, when Ants point guard Walker Russell Jr. was traded to Reno this season, first-year coach Duane Ticknor threw Howard into the point guard spot.

“I knew all along he could play it,” Ticknor said. “He played point for me in Korea (last summer). He’s still learning the position.”

Said Howard: “When Walker was traded and it was handed to be, it was like, ‘Now you’ve got to do this.’ I wasn’t uncomfortable. It was weird, but I wouldn’t say it was uncomfortable.”

So maybe there’s a chance he could snag that rainbow, after all.

Howard is aware of the career clock – the one that has taken him from a 24-year-old rookie to 30, which makes him the oldest player in Saturday’s game – but no, he doesn’t sense the pressure. He has played the game he has loved for six years, from Australia to China to Israel.

“I’ve had (pressure) since I got in this league,” Howard said. “When I got in this league, I was the 11th man on a 10-man roster. There was pressure to keep my job every day.

“I’ve been able to live out huge goals of mine. Coming in to the tryout, that was my last-ditch effort to salvage a professional career. That was a scary time, to say the least. But to have played NBA preseason three times and been an all-star in this league twice, it’s humbling to think about, knowing how it could have turned out. I’ve been blessed, man. I really have. It almost never happened.”

Note: Ants forward Tony Mitchell, who will participate in the D-League’s Boost Mobile Slam Dunk Contest, will replace Tulsa’s Jeremy Lamb on the Futures team. Lamb was recalled by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

All-Star Game

Where: Houston
When: 3 p.m. Saturday

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