Once again, I realize that the world of GetReligion readers seems to contain a stunningly low percentage of sports fans, especially in comparison with the American public as a whole. Nevertheless, I follow sports quite closely and I have always been fascinated by the unusually high percentage of sports stories that include faith angles. Most of the time -- take the whole Baltimore Sun ignoring Ravens religion-angles thrend -- my GetReligion posts on sports have been rather negative. You know the kind of story I'm talking about. A sports star plays the God card or offers a highly specific comment about the role of faith in his or her life and a journalists never looks into the details or offers any context for these words.
The negative tone is so common, in fact, that people drop me notes from time to time wanting to know if anyone covering sports ever gets one of these stories right. Well, remember that amazing Sports Illustrated story about the great UCLA hoops patriarch John Wooden and the challenge he faced, and met, learning to embrace the great center Lew Alcindor as he made his pilgrimage into Islam and became Kareem Abdul Jabbar?
Well, now a member of the SI staff -- one Lee Jenkins -- has provided another wonderful example of getting the faith-angle right. This time around, we're talking about a back-of-the-book feature about a player who is just as obscure as Jabbar is famous. The man's name is Ron Howard of the Fort Wayne, Ind., Mad Ants franchise in the NBA's Development League and he recently broke the career scoring record for a player in this minor-league circuit.
As Jenkins states it (heads of fans up great sports flicks):
On March 29, Howard sank yet another pull-up from the left wing at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The game stopped. The crowd of 4,024 stood for three minutes. Fans sobbed. Joyner ran to the parking lot and fetched the carrot cake with cream-cheese icing, cooling in her car. Howard's 4,254th point set a D-League record, recalling Crash Davis's 247th home run. "A dubious kind of honor," Crash says in the bush league classic Bull Durham. "I think it'd be great," Annie Savoy replies. "The Sporting News should know."
Like Crash Davis, Howard has been to the Show, if only for a sip of coffee. After his first year in Fort Wayne he signed with the Bucks and played in the preseason. When they released him, coach Scott Skiles said, "You're good enough for the NBA." Since then the D-League has reported 235 call-ups, but none for Howard.
Now, as it turns out, that carrot cake and the fan named Cindy Joyner are in the story's short, lovely lede -- which offers the first hint at the religion angle in this piece:
The night he made history, Mr. Mad Ant drove back to the seminary and ate carrot cake.
The dessert was a gift from Cindy Joyner, who bought season tickets seven years ago, when the NBA's Development League awarded an expansion franchise to her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. The team was dubbed the Mad Ants after the city's namesake, Gen. Mad Anthony Wayne, and there were open tryouts to fill the roster. More than 120 hoop dreamers showed up at Indiana Tech in October 2007, paying $150 a head. Ron Howard, an unemployed 24-year-old living in a Chicago apartment with his wife and daughter, was an hour late.
"Who arrives an hour late?" recalls Howard, confused by the time change between Chicago and Fort Wayne. "I was too embarrassed to go in."
Back to the seminary?
The whole point of this story is to capture the dignity and depth in the life of this wiry, 31-year-old hoops professional, who spent his college years -- as the story notes -- "backing up Dwyane Wade at Marquette." Howard, as noted, spent a few days in the NBA and he also tried his hand at pro hoops in China, Australia, Israel and Venezuela. However, Rod and his wife Reesha kept coming back to Fort Wayne, where the locals call them "Mr. and Mrs. Mad Ant."
This is the big idea, you see. Instead of seeing this D-league stop as a cage, they saw it as a place to play and serve.
They live in a four-bedroom house at Concordia Theological Seminary with their daughters, seven-year-old Chloe and three-year-old Peyton. They run a sports and arts camp for kindergartners through eighth-graders every summer. They conduct a Christmas toy drive. Ron volunteers at a food bank, mentors boys at Northwood Middle School and coaches girls at South Side High. He has won the league's sportsmanship award two years in a row. ...
Howard drives to every home game with his wife and daughters, and as they turn down Clinton Street toward the arena, they say a prayer. "We used to pray for Ron to make the NBA, but now I realize that's so foolish," says Reesha. "We just thank God for allowing him to do what he loves. I never wanted to be one of those Basketball Wives anyway. We've gotten so much more out of being here. We've gotten a real home."
And that's that. Please read it all, to see how the pieces of this mini-drama fit together. But I was left with one question: Why is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mad Ant at a Missouri-Synod Lutheran Seminary? Might there be a story there, too?