FORT WAYNE – I’m a lifer.
– Conner Henry
So here is where the life has dropped him this time, in a basketball town from way back. The Pistons were born here, back in the days of set shots. The CBA, more fun than should be legal, lived here for a decade. Now it’s the Mad Ants and the D-League, a sort of CBA all grown up.
And what of Conner Henry, standing up there this brilliant October day in a red Mad Ants shirt and blue jeans because his luggage hasn’t caught up with him yet?
I don’t remember playing in Fort Wayne, the new coach of the Mad Ants is saying.
If so, it was the only place he never played. Or coached. Or learned to coach by being a sponge around coaches.
In 13 years as a coach and a pile of years before that as a player, he wore Celtic green in the Boston Garden, watching Bird and McHale do their thing. He followed the game to Italy, France, Spain and Greece, and, before that, to less exotic locales: Yakima, Wash., and Rapid City, S.D., where he remembers his room number at the Days Inn (219) and all those lovely bus rides.
I had a hot plate to boil water, and I made $8,000 for the season, Henry recalled.
Now Henry comes to Fort Wayne, where Duane Ticknor coached the Ants to the playoffs for the first time last year and then landed a job in the NBA as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies. Now Henry, California born and bred, lands in the Midwest after Rapid City and Europe and Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and Australia, where he spent five years as an assistant and head coach in Perth and Sydney.
What he’ll bring to this job is the lifer’s mosaic of all those experiences, all the lessons learned from his high school coach and the coach at Claremont-McKenna, Ken Scalmanini, and all the men he played for: K.C. Jones in Boston, Bill Fitch in Houston, Eric Musselman and Flip Saunders in Rapid City.
You learn a lot of things from all different age coaches, Henry says. (Fitch and Jones) had completely different styles. K.C. was quiet, Bill was animated.
What’s my style? Combination of both. I get pretty intense, but I also think we need to have a good working environment where there’s not a lot of pressure. Everybody knows there’s expectations, but just play hard and have a good time.
And learn to roll with it as players go up and down throughout the season, something at which Ticknor was a master and Henry seems to understand as well. The CBA years taught him all about the transient nature of the game and also about the value of feeling there’s someone in your corner when you’re just trying to make a living at it.
I think you’ve got to communicate with your players, Henry says. That is probably No. 1. You really need to maintain close contact with your players throughout the season, whether that’s 10 minutes in an airport lobby finding out why the kid’s not playing well.
And then hopefully, through that communication and through hard work, you build trust with those guys. (So) they like coming to the gym. If they can come to the gym daily and want to work hard and have it as their sanctuary, that makes it easier. So that’s the environment I hope to create.
No lifer would have it otherwise.