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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Former Mad Ants star Ron Howard guards Robert Black, 11, during the Mad Ants Basketball Academy on Monday at the Ash Centre.

  • Howard talks to the campers about 3-on-3 defense and court spacing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 1:00 am

For Mr. Mad Ant, it's about having fun

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

It's supposed to be fun.

That simple tenet of sports seems forgotten all too often in this age of LaVar Ball, parents pushing kids to specialize in one sport way too early and athletes justifying the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

But inside the ASH Centre on Monday, amid the laughter, smiles and jubilation of 56 kids on Day 1 of the Mad Ants Basketball Academy, sports are simple – and fun.

Boys and girls, some as young as 6 and others as old as 18, of different races, run at a frenetic pace throughout the two gymnasiums. Some have masterful looking crossover dribbles but most gleam when they covert a simple layup. The level of encouragement each kid shows the other is amazing; a steady hum of claps rings off walls emblazoned with the Mad Ants' new blue-and-gold logo that promotes their parent club, the NBA's Indiana Pacers.

“Seeing the look on their faces when they get it, when they really get something, that makes it worth it,” said Ron Howard, the celebrated former Mad Ants player who is head instructor at the camp that runs until Friday. “When you're teaching them something that's simple to us, like a jab step or using their left hand, and they do it and it works, the excitement they get out of that is wonderful.”

Putting Howard, 34, in charge of the camp is as wise as any decision the Mad Ants have made at Memorial Coliseum. As good an ambassador for sports as there is in Fort Wayne, Howard and his wife, Reesha, have run camps in Fort Wayne since 2012 and affected countless youths.

Howard, who starred for the Mad Ants from 2007 to 2014, helping them to a D-League championship, winning co-MVP once and the Jason Collier Sportsmanship Award twice, epitomizes the idea hard work can make your dreams come true. He wasn't expected to have such a professional career – the Mad Ants retired his No. 19 last season – and it wouldn't have happened if he had let people outwork him.

But that work he put in was grounded in the fun that he had playing the sport, and that fun was stoked at an early age when, sadly, many parents these days are making it more about business than amusement.

“The biggest thing (I want here) is for them to have fun because these kids are young. As you know, whatever you do, you want to have fun with it,” said Howard, who is a community outreach coordinator for Lutheran Hospital.

“I was fortunate to have fun playing basketball. I really loved it. There were days I didn't want to go to practice at all, you know what I mean? But I continued to go because I loved it. If you can keep the fun in it, especially now when it's not as serious, you can develop that love for it at an early age and when it starts to get serious then you've developed the foundation and you know you love it.”

As Howard speaks, he has his eyes on the court. As much as he's watching the kids, he's keeping an eye some of the other instructors, like Kendan Lewis, who played at Saint Francis last season, and Indiana Tech's Darren Groves, making sure that they're making sure everyone is having fun. There is plenty of Mad Ants staff on site, too, including Kevin Bloom and Allie Lane, and coach Steve Gansey will be out later in the week.

They're helping to grow the game and create young Mad Ants fans – the cost is $250 per kid – and adding to the city's burgeoning youth sports scene. And, hopefully, the kids continue to remember that it should be fun.

“In some situations, the fun is being taken out of it with kids taking it too serious. You've got 8-year-olds and their parents are already talking about (playing in) college. It's more important for them to have fun right now,” Howard said. “As us adults know, once it's over, we have a long life to be serious. What I want to teach these young boys and girls is to have fun because if you have fun then you'll be better at whatever it is (you're doing).”

Justin A. Cohn is a senior writer for The Journal Gazette and has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1997. He can be reached by email; phone, 461-8429; or fax 461-8648.