FORT WAYNE – Take a look around this place, if you dare.
You’re gonna get wet, but that’s OK. Champagne is in the very air, stinging your eyes, dripping from the ceiling. It’s beneath your feet, puddling on the floors, turning the soles of your shoes sticky.
But that’s OK, too.
That’s OK, because this is seven long years being unleashed this night, and five of ’em would have made doubters of the Optimist Club. You spend your first five seasons thrashing around below .500, never sniffing the playoffs, that’ll happen.
Now they’re champions of the D-League, these Mad Ants, and if there’s anything you can take away from that it’s that champions are formed from an alchemy barely understood even by the ones who practice it.
Sure, it’s a dash of talent here and a pinch of gumption there and a healthy spoonful of plain willful stubbornness. But the wrapper all that comes in never looks the same from champion to champion to champion.
Take a look around this place …
Over here is the coach, Conner Henry, and if he’s the biggest duck in the celebratory puddle, you can hardly blame him. He arrived last summer as a first-year head coach for a franchise that had played all of two playoff games in its history. Nine months later, he’d taken that franchise to the best record in the D-League and an unbeaten run through the playoffs.
And over here?
Over here is Chris Porter, the one-time Sports Illustrated cover boy whose NBA career vanished before it had hardly begun, and who’d spent the intervening years playing basketball wherever they’d have him and making bad decisions off the floor. Now, having turned his life around, he’s not only a champion but a man his coach all but called the heart and soul of the team.
And this guy?
This is Sadiel Rojas, who broke his back two seasons ago when he was undercut on a dunk. A rookie with NBA aspirations then, he had to start all over again, and now look at him. That was him you saw flinging the ball into the rafters as the final horn blared the other night.
There are others.
There is Ron Howard, of course, Mr. Mad Ant, who, long after anyone could realistically consider him an NBA prospect, became the co-MVP of the league and, in a too-perfect melding of man and moment, drilled the cold-blooded jumper that put the Mad Ants up for good in the title-deciding game.
And then there’s Will Frisby.
Thirty-two years old, he’d been out of the game for four years and working at a church in Florida when Mad Ants President Jeff Potter persuaded Henry to sign him.
And, after averaging 7.4 points in 4.2 rebounds in just 17.8 minutes in the regular season, Frisby emerged in the playoffs as a force on the low blocks.
Now, like all the others, he’s a champion.
“I never had an issue one time all year,” Henry said Saturday night of all of them. “We had the great leadership, and then we figured out how to play. There was a little bit of struggle at the beginning, and then all of a sudden we found our legs and started to piece it together.
“And then you make a shot to win a game, and then you win another game; … all of a sudden you start believing.”
And after that?
After that, you never stop.