Epic video for epic Mad Ants night

The Mad Ants won the D-League championship with a 119-113 victory over Santa Cruz on April 26 at the Memorial Coliseum. It was the first pro basketball title for Fort Wayne team since the Zollner Pistons in 1945. Check out the in- and post-game highlights of the exciting night. By Justin A. Cohn. (Some video courtesy D-League)

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Ben Smith

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Years of hard work pay off with title

– So here comes one last shot, going clank in the night for the Santa Cruz Warriors. And I am thinking of Torgeir Brin, oddly.

I am thinking of Torgeir Brin and Evric Gray and Bobby McDermott, Gerald Oliver and George Yardley and the nicest man on the planet, Carl Bennett, who surely would have loved this. I am thinking of the entire cavalcade of Fort Wayne pro buckets – the Pistons and the dimly remembered Warriors and the 10 seasons of Fury in the CBA, and of course the seven seasons of these Mad Ants, who Saturday night brought it all full circle.

It all marches through my head now as the buzzer blares and Sadiel Rojas flings the basketball into the rafters, and a blizzard of red-and-gold confetti settles whirling to the floor. Because it’s all of a piece, of course, and this might be the best piece, the sweetest, because as recently as two seasons ago even the Mad Ants’ most loyal fans must have thought that what happened Saturday night – Mad Ants 119, Santa Cruz 113, a 2-0 sweep in the D-League finals, a league championship – would never happen.

They were coming off a 14-36 season, their fifth in the D-League, and had never so much as made the playoffs nor finished north of .500. And then they went 27-23 and made the playoffs under Duane Ticknor, and then Ticknor went to the NBA and the Ants plucked Conner Henry from the Los Angeles De-Fenders staff, and …

Well. You know: A 34-16 record, three 2-0 sweeps in the playoffs, and, look, here’s Conner Henry again, his shirt translucent from a champagne shower, beads of it glistening in his hair.

“I’m just awfully happy for everybody,” he said. “All the people the last seven years, and I’m really happy for (team president) Jeff (Potter) and (owner) John (Zeglis). You know, this is the baby for them that they’ve really worked every day to be successful. And they had tremendous faith in me.”

And the faith came back to them, in spades. Henry put together a team that was tough and resilient and clutch, and that played defense as if they standing on the edge of a 100-foot drop. And they won.

They won, mostly, the way they did Saturday, when they built a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter and then lost it all, and then got it back. Before long Porter was tipping the Warriors’ last shot out to Rojas and Rojas was flinging it toward the heavens, and not much longer thereafter Potter was grabbing Tony Mitchell and then Tim Olbrecht and then Rojas, as people scurried around passing out D-League Champions caps and shirts.

“What are you feeling right now?” someone asked Potter a few minutes later.

“I don’t know if I’ve been this happy,” he said. “I’m so happy for my family, for our investors for our unbelievable fan base who just have stuck with us through some thin and now through some thick.”

He smiled, turning away. And then here came Ron Howard, who’d been through all that thin himself, and someone asked him the same question, and all he could say was “Wowwww” until Porter came charging up to him and wrapped him in a bearhug.

“I told you, man,” he roared. “You remember that conversation we had? You know I said it! You know I said it, man!”

“We did it!” Howard replied.

They did it. And when it was done, they climbed up on the stage and passed around the championship trophy, and finally Ron Howard, Mr. Mad Ant himself, raised it and grinned fit to burst.

Behind him, in the stands, someone was holding up a banner. It consisted of just two simple words, but they were the only two words this night would ever need.

HAIL ANTS, it said.

Hail, yes.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.