The Mad Ants believed their playoff experience, defense and grit would benefit them in their first-round playoff series, which opens tonight at Memorial Coliseum against the Eastern Conference-champion Maine Red Claws.
But the Mad Ants’ chances of a second straight championship took a hit Monday when captain Chris Porter’s contract was terminated by the D-League for violation of the drug policy.
"I’m heartbroken for Chris," Mad Ants president Jeff Potter said. "How this affects the team is so far from my mind right now."
However, if the Mad Ants have proved anything over the last three weeks and eight games, it’s that they’re resilient. On the heels of losing six straight games and their best player, Andre Emmett, the Mad Ants won six of their final eight to finish the season 28-22 and take the final playoff spot.
"We have had a lot of stress and I’m proud of the way the guys have fought through it," Mad Ants coach Conner Henry said. "It is a grind. It’s not easy. They’ve been able to do it when it’s time. We need to find that energy when it’s needed."
In the best-of-three series, they will be without Porter, a 36-year-old forward, who averaged 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds but was valued more for his defense and leadership. It’s unknown what Porter’s specific violation was, but the D-League drug-tests its players.
"He’s more than just a player. He’s the heart and soul of our team," Potter said. "I feel for his family and for me to comment beyond that wouldn’t be appropriate."
Porter, Trey McKinney-Jones, Matt Bouldin and Ramon Harris were on the Mad Ants team that won the regular-season championship and went undefeated in the 2014 playoffs. Porter, who had been with the Mad Ants since 2012, dealt with drug problems before and they helped derail his once-promising NBA career.
"They say experience is the best teacher," Porter said in 2014. "So you can help a friend or someone (by saying), ‘You don’t want to go down that road, because I’ve been there, and this is what it’s going to lead to.’ So maybe they take heed to it and make a better decision for themselves."
A second-round draft pick out of Auburn in 2000 to the Golden State Warriors, Porter saw things begin to unravel after his 51-game rookie season and he was traded to the Charlotte Hornets in a three-team, eight player deal, though he missed a flight to Charlotte and never ended up playing in the NBA.
There have been at least three drug-related arrests in Porter’s past: in 2001, when cocaine and marijuana were found in his car; in 2006, when he was caught driving under the influence and with marijuana; and in 2010, when he was sentenced to a year in prison – and had the sentence suspended – after being caught with marijuana.
The Mad Ants were 1-3 in the regular season against the Red Claws (35-15) but haven’t played them since Emmett left – he wanted to avoid injury with a lucrative contract in the NBA or overseas on the horizon – and since they signed Jordan Crawford.
In eight games, Crawford has averaged 22.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
The weakness of Fort Wayne’s roster was size, even before the loss of the 6-foot-7, 218-pound Porter. Lucas Nogueira of the Toronto Raptors has a hamstring injury and Travis Hyman, who has averaged 3.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 17.4 minutes, has been inconsistent.
"It’s a hole without Chris, but I believe in the players we have," Potter said.
Over the past five games, rookie forward C.J. Fair has stepped up with 22 points per game and Bouldin, a guard, has had 17.6 per game.
"The way the playoffs are set up with the first one at home and then two away, we’re pretty confident that if we take care of business at home, we’ve got a good shot of winning one or two on the road," Bouldin said. "We’re confident and feel we match up pretty well with Maine. They’ve got a great team, but we’ve got all the confidence in our team, for sure."