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Mad Ants: Get ready for the infestation
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
It seems hard to believe, but Fort Wayne has gone without a minor league basketball team for over six years now. Considering the fanaticism our city and state have for the sport, it is nothing short of shocking.
Jeff Potter and John Zeglis, co-owners of the newly established Fort Wayne Mad Ants, have brought minor league basketball back to a city that is more than hungry for it.
But this time, it isn't exactly minor.
The Mad Ants are affiliated with the NBA Development League, or D-League, which is the NBA's official developmental basketball league and began as the National Basketball Development League in 2001. However, David Stern reorganized the league in 2005 and it has been growing ever since and now consists of fourteen teams in cities such as Albuquerque, Austin , Bakersfield, Rio Grande, Sioux Falls and Tulsa.
Just how did Potter, a former prosecuting attorney for Cook county, become involved with the Mad Ants? Well, it turns out that Zeglis, his father-in-law, and himself both had pretty close ties to the NBA in the past. "I was practicing law in Chicago and John and I were talking. I'm a former basketball player. I played professionally all over the world," offers Potter, who also serves as President of the team. "He raised the idea of 'What if we did a basketball team together?' I'd say that was a year and a half or two years ago. Through his experience with AT&T (Zeglis was president of AT&T and Chairman/CEO of AT&T wireless), I think he was the lead advertiser with the NBA, he got to know David Stern that way. So, after we had the idea to investigate the idea of getting into the D-League, we were in front of David Stern and Phil Evans, the head of the D-League, talking about them offering as many franchises as we wanted. [Ed. Note: Phil Evans has since resigned and Dan Reed is now President of the D-League.] So, it was a real whirlwind experience, as far as getting involved with the D-League."
In spite of the way things came together, Potter says that it was an obvious choice to go with the D-League. "That was the only league that made sense for us in basketball. You've got your CBAs and IBLs and ABA, but I could really see from my experience where the D-League was going. So, I thought, 'Here's a chance to get on the ground floor of something that's really building.'"
The D-League differs from those other organizations in many ways, but the biggest would be the affiliation with the NBA. "The D-League started in 2001/2002, the year after I got done playing," recalls Potter, "I think with all the kids that are not going to college and declaring for pro right out of high school, Stern wanted to make sure there was something for them and have a soft landing. I think that continues to this day. It wasn't the same structure that you see now when it started. The D-League was a league just to have a league. Now in 2005, they've kind of changed that model to where we're truly a development league in the sense that we have affiliations with NBA clubs. Right now, we're affiliated with Detroit and Indianapolis. The Pistons and Pacers will send players in their first or second season to us for the purpose of getting better. In fact, the Pistons just signed a player named Cheick Samb, a 7'1'' center from Senegal, to a two-year contract and they've already said in the Detroit Free Press they're going to send him down to us. That's the way we're used. These teams can send up to two players at one time and they have to be in their first or second season. That would only give us four players, so the rest of the league is set up to where the D-League signs players they feel slip through the cracks that are good enough for an NBA roster, but maybe were drafted by the wrong team or overlooked because their school was too small."
For those who remember when Master P played for the Fury, Potter says that isn't likely to happen with this team. "By retaining that ability to sign the good players, it takes out that possibility of a publicity stunt or marketing move of signing some guy who can't play, but might make people laugh in the stands. This is a high quality product. I think I can speak from experience, since I played in it, I don't think the quality of player and athlete was as good as it is now. With the D-League retaining control over who's signed and these NBA players from Detroit and Indy being sent to play for us, you get a real high caliber of player. You're getting NBA players here, literally. That's why, I think, you could call the CBA a minor league. For us, I hesitate to call it minor league when you've got guys that are good enough to be in the NBA. I think it fits more the description of minor league baseball for mid-level cities."
The league has grown from six teams to more than twice that. "The number one thing that Stern wants is to make sure that this league continues to grow. Last year it was twelve. This year it's fourteen. They're going to keep adding teams every year until they get one-on-one affiliations with the 30 NBA teams."
Potter says that basketball fans can expect to see some great games and a whole lot more, "It's the highest level of competition you're going to receive here in Fort Wayne and great basketball. We're also going to make sure there's a lot of family entertainment. If you go to any sporting event now, you have to have something to appeal to everyone. So, we'll have great family nights, great games going on during timeouts and great acts during halftime. There will be a number of things so that no one has to worry about being bored at the game. If I had my druthers, I'm getting Sanjaya from American Idol to sing the National Anthem. Who wouldn't want to see this guy?"
Okay, so maybe he's joking about that last bit, but one thing Potter is very serious about is keeping this team here for the city to enjoy. It's no fly by night outfit. "I think that a lot of people, at least when I talk to them, worry. They ask, 'Where is this going to be?' and 'Where is this team going to go?' due to what happened with the Fury and the CBA. This is as solid an organization as you're going to find, certainly in Fort Wayne, and, I think, in the D-League. My father-in-law and I have worked hard to get a good, solid group of local owners. We have a league that's not going anywhere. The D-League did not start off well and Stern could've said, 'Enough of this. I'll let the CBA take over and it won't be at any cost to me.' Instead, he infused this league with more cash and they've got even grander goals than they had before. This league is not going anywhere. This franchise is not going anywhere. That's the number one thing I want to impress upon the Fort Wayne community. When they're with the Mad Ants, they're with someone who's going to treat then right. They're not going to be left out in the cold."
That leaves just one question unanswered. Why, in what is clearly a Z town (Snickerz, Crazy Pinz, WhatzUp), is the team not called the Mad Antz? "I'm one of those crazy guys who likes to have words spelled the way they are supposed to be spelled," points out Potter.
The Fort Wayne Mad Ants have a fifty game season, half of which will take place at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, including the opener against the Tulsa 66ers on November 23rd . Those interested in ticket pricing or merchandise are invited to call 260.469-HOOP (4667) or visit: www.fortwaynehoops.com