FORT WAYNE – The late-morning Mad Ants practice was coming to a close, and no question the local media were in full force, swarming around the Concordia Seminary gymnasium sidelines like well, like ants at a picnic.
Normally the teams sessions dont draw such a crowd, but this time there was an attraction.
Wearing an untucked, gray Mad Ants T-shirt and long, dark shorts that revealed a brace on the right knee, Christian Laettner, probably one of the more renowned assistants in all of basketball at any level, was making his first appearance in town, and everyone wanted to record such an event for posterity.
It was last week when news got out that Laettner was hired as an assistant coach, and that he was joining the Ants for a pair of games Sioux Falls, S.D. Practice back home Monday, if only for a day, was the medias first chance at him.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the gym, there is Steve Gansey, the 16 years younger head coach who was a lesser-known assistant three weeks ago but moved up when the Ants fired veteran Joey Meyer.
So how is the young Gansey, a former player from Ashland University and Cleveland State, taking all this attention showered on Laettner?
Heres how: Hi, Gansey says, shaking a reporters hand. Im Bobby Hurley.
The reference, of course, is to Laettners nearly-as-famous guard teammate at Duke.
But you get it. You get it that hes not overwhelmed by Laettner or the cameras or the attention or the moment. Instead, he takes it in stride and joins in its folly.
4-4 so far
The Mad Ants clearly struggled in the early weeks of the NBA D-League season. There was talent, but it didnt blend. Players came and went and came back again. The roster changed with the frequency of an impatient fantasy league owner. And when the Ants, who are yet to make the playoffs after four seasons, started the season 5-10, a coaching change was necessary, the franchises fourth in less than 4 1/2 seasons.
There was some hesitation (to hire) a 26-year-old kid with no prior head coaching experience, admitted team president Jeff Potter, who personally fired Meyer and hired Gansey during the teams road trip to Canton, Ohio. But I think he showed, in the previous two years, that he had the chops more than anything.
Gansey came to the Ants three years ago as an untested volunteer assistant looking to get into coaching. He emailed Meyer, Meyer talked to Potter, Potter said yes, and before the 2009-10 season began, the 24-year-old Gansey was on the Fort Wayne bench.
From the 5-10 beginning, the Ants have leveled out with a 4-4 record under Gansey as he and his more celebrated assistant take the team to play Rio Grande Valley tonight and to Tulsa, Okla., on Friday and Saturday.
When Jeff asked me if I wanted to take over the reins, I finished his sentence, Gansey said. I said, absolutely before he could finish.
Everyone is like, Well, hes 26 and he doesnt know that much. I know that. To switch that around, it just gives me more motivation and gives more spirit to our team, and our players know that, too. Guys are fighting for me. Im over on the sideline, giving energy.
There are some whove said Im in a tough situation, Gansey said. Tough situation? This is a great situation! Im having fun. The guys in practice are having a good time. Its serious, yes, but were having fun doing it, too.
It was Jan. 7 inside Memorial Coliseum – the second night on the new job – when Gansey won his first game. Mad Ants 107, Canton – the same team that beat him the night before – 98.
The next day he got a congratulatory text from an old friend and mentor.
I didnt want to interfere, Meyer said from his home near Chicago. I got up in the morning and saw that he won and texted him. And then I texted him one more time. It was a favorite line that Gene Bartow used to say to me when he lost a couple: Stay tough.
Hes a good friend, said Meyer, who, at 62, is at the closing stages of his coaching lifetime. I want him to do well, and I think he will do well. Just be patient with him. Rome wasnt built in a day. Give him some time, and I think hell do a real good job.