The weather in Erie, Pa., is deceiving. The skies are pastel blue, and no cloud dares make an appearance. The sun beats down; and if you were to stay in your house all day, you might call a friend to speculate on how warm it is outside. Yet mounds of snow cover the sidewalks and streets, the product of a classic, out-of-nowhere March blizzard in Western Pennsylvania. The temperature feels like it’s dipped into the single digits, and if you are at all skeptical about that, a blast of wind to the face makes your nose hairs feel like icicles and forces you to believe.
Even the inside of Erie Insurance Arena, home of the Erie Bayhawks of the NBA Development League, feels like someone turned the air conditioning full blast. I stand on the baseline with my two videographers, watching Ron Howard, a forward for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, in town to take on the Bayhawks. Howard is the subject of our “day in the life of an NBA D-League player” video shoot. I have absolutely no desire to take off my giant winter jacket. A few of Howard’s teammates shiver during breaks in the action. Others blow warm air into their cupped hands. Howard, though, seems relaxed and focused. Although he’s outfitted in a sleeveless Mad Ants T-shirt and a pair of cut-off sweatpants, the brutal cold, both inside and out, doesn’t appear to affect him as he swishes jumpers from just inside the 3-point line.
Comfort Inns and Applebee's
Howard has spent most of his adult life traveling to and from small (mostly cold) cities, playing basketball in front of a few thousand fans and leaving that night or the next day. As a seven-year veteran of the NBA’s minor league system, he is used to spending time in places like Sioux Falls, Erie and Canton. He’s well-adjusted to the countless stays in Comfort Inns and meals at Applebee's and Arby’s. “I’m pretty used to it," he said. "I can go to sleep anywhere, even if I’m standing up or sitting. Being able to call teammates I’ve had three years ago and laugh about something that happened in a hotel in, like, Maine, those are the things that are fun about it.”
He feels just as at home on the road as he does in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he has settled down with his wife and two children. It’s a lifestyle I can’t understand. I was agitated enough trying to make the two-hour drive from Cleveland to Erie without my car spinning off the icy road. Downtown Erie is especially drab in winter, even with the sunshine. The roads are covered in snow and lined with chain restaurants, dilapidated buildings and old factories that make parts of the city feel like a ghost town long abandoned.
Yet, Howard seems like a guy who doesn’t let circumstances bother him. When I spoke to him in his hotel room after the shootaround, he relayed his back story.
Howard's Basketball Bio
Howard graduated from Valparaiso University, where he averaged 13.8 points per game as a junior and won the Homer W. Drew Sr. Memorial Most Improved Player Award. But he generated no interest from the NBA or elsewhere. Lacking money to support himself and his newborn daughter, he moved back to Chicago to live with his parents. A friend urged him to drive three hours from Chicago to Fort Wayne on a whim to participate in a Mad Ants open tryout. Unaware of the time difference, Howard showed up an hour late, but he was still allowed to try out. He made it through to the second day of competition; but lacking money for a hotel, he drove back home to Chicago, caught a couple hours of shut-eye and drove back to Fort Wayne to finish what he started. He made the team. A man once so devastated by his lack of pro basketball prospects that he had given up hope of ever playing the sport again was now a proud member of the Mad Ants.
"I was naive coming out of college," he said. "I just assumed I would play in the NBA and be happy ever after. But you have to understand that obstacles will come and you have to overcome them, and things usually work out."
Howard finishes his story, sits back in his chair and smiles, revealing a fresh set of braces, which were placed over his teeth just four days ago. He asks if any of us have seen Breaking Bad. He’s been plowing through episodes of the popular TV series on roadtrips. We chat about Johnny Manziel’s pro prospects and whether LeBron James will ever return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The conversation turns to the NBA and Howard’s place in it.
Howard has spent a minimal amount of time in the NBA—training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks twice (2008 and 2011), New York Knicks (2009) and Indiana Pacers (2013), before being cut. He appeared in just one pre-season game, with the Pacers. After seven years in the D-League without a substantial call-up, does Howard still believe he has a realistic chance to play basketball at the highest level?
NBA Call-Up Coming?
"I definitely want to get a call-up and spend some significant time in the NBA," he said. "I think I've earned that privilege, but it's not just about that. It's about timing and a little luck as well."
Howard speaks about the NBA with the same enthusiasm as a player fresh out of college. He’s still playing for a call-up—and playing well, I might add. He’s a three-time D-League All-Star, the only player with that accomplishment on his résumé, and most of the people around him think he’s close.
Our media contact, who set up the day with Howard, says the Pacers still have interest, whether it be as a player now or a coach later. Conner Henry, Fort Wayne’s head coach, is incredulous when asked why Howard hasn’t been called up yet. "I wish he would get that call-up, because if an NBA team got him, they'd realize that he'd be a quality player for their team, provide leadership and be able to knock down a shot," Henry said. "I think he'd stick [in the NBA] for the remainder of his career."
After watching Howard drop 22 points on Erie later that night (something he does on the regular, averaging 20.6 points per game this season), I felt the same way as Coach.
The Mad Ants leave Erie with a 104-92 victory, but there's little time to celebrate. The team has to drive straight to Delaware for a match-up with the 87ers the next night. Another long ride, another hotel bed and another meal at a chain restaurant await them.
I can’t imagine it. I’ve been dreading the short ride back to Cleveland for most of the day. But at least when I get home, I’ll have my own bed and a meal cooked by my own hands (granted, it will probably be some really average spaghetti). But for Howard, the dream of the NBA is still very much alive, and just to be playing basketball for a living is what he calls “a blessing.”
“Growing up, you always want to play in the NBA," Howard said. "But I almost had everything taken from me, so I have a different appreciation for everything that I have now.”