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King of the Colony: An Interview With Mad Ants President Jeff Potter

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Jeff Potter has gone viral.

No kidding. Sure, he's recognizable in Fort Wayne, Indiana as the owner of the Mad Ants, but he's getting to be well known around ye old internets as well. He's on Deadspin. His team is the most recognizable in the D-League, despite being an expansion team last year. He has a blog. His team featured Earl Calloway, who should be in the league, and Jeremy Richardson, who is. He's worked with the Pistons in their development, and will be the first D-League owner to juggle three affiliates in one season. Plus, he has the greatest mascot in the history of creation. So he's got that going for him.

When I gave Jeff a call the other day to talk to him about his franchise, the state of the league, and of course, Nightmare Ant, he caught me off guard with this straightforward approach, humility, and generosity. For a league that so often on the receiving end of ignorant ridicule based on false assumptions, Jeff Potter is another example of the class that is found so often in the D-League.

Our conversation after the jump.

RU: How did you become President of the Mad Ants?

JP:  I started the team with my father-in-law, he was the CEO and Chairman of AT&T Wireless. He sold AT&T Wireless to Cingular. I was a prosecutor for Cook County in Chicago and my background is that I played for the University of Oregon, I played professionally, I want to law school, but it's hard to get that basketball out of your blood. So we met with the league and had some interest in this, and the next thing I know I'm moving out to Fort Wayne and starting a team.

RU: You're one of the highest attended D-League games. Can you talk about the community you've built with the Mad Ants?

JP: One of the reasons we came out here was because it has a history of supporting basketball. The Pistons were here. They did relatively well during their ten years here. They support a hockey team very well here, as well as a baseball team. It was voted the #1 minor league market, so it had a lot going for it. We've really focused on entertainment. It's basketball, but it can't just be a bunch of guys out there dunking. So we have a lot of entertainment stuff, we have great halftime shows. The minute you walk in we try and make you feel like you're at something. We'll bring a band in, we bring stuff out. And that's why we've had success. No one's ever walked away from a Mad Ants game saying "That was boring." People like dancing, so we try and have a really sharp looking dance team. You know, unique name, clever mascot.

RU: Can you tell me about the tryout process and what it means?

JP: Maybe you're not on the radar just yet, but you look at a kid like Ron Howard last year. He came to our tryout, actually showed up late. I almost didn't let him in. He ends up making our team. Does great, ends up starting and was one of our most reliable players. And he's in Bucks camp now.

RU: Do you plan on bringing in anyone from last season back in?

JP: Yeah, I mean, they're all invited. I can see Anthony Kyle coming back. Roy Howard, depending on what happens with the Bucks. I think we took our lumps with a young team, because I wanted to build a foundation where some of these guys would come back. You know, you take Eric Smith who was great at our tryout and showed some flashes. What can he do in year two? That's the kind of guy I can see coming back. Our problem last year was we didn't have a lot of consistency from our bigs. I was pretty happy with our guards and wings. All those guys are welcome to come back.

RU: Has there been any discussion about Samb coming back?

JP: A little bit. I'm heading up to talk to them in a few weeks. In my opinion? They may want to keep him up there. It's hard to find guys who are that long with that kind of shooting touch with that great a timing, blocking shots, and he's worked his head off all summer. He looks a lot bigger than he was when he was with us. I can see him getting some minutes up there this year.

RU: You've got three teams affiliated with you right now. I think for the D-League affiliate it's great. I blasted it a bit for possible complications. The Pacers haven't used it much. The Pistons have been very involved. How are you approaching handling three teams?

JP: I see your point. For us, I think it's fantastic. The more the merrier. On the business side, I'm affiliated with three NBA teams, which no one else in this league can say. So as I'm trying to convince people this is the highest level of basketball Fort Wayne has ever seen. People are really excited about it. Especially because the Bucks have used the D-League. I mean, Sessions came in here last year in his first game and killed us. We'd love to get Sessions back. Cheikh needed to play last year, and he did. I don't think they're concerned about complications. They just want their guys to get minutes which they will. They sent down a guy, Ryan Hoover, to watch over things and make sure things are going right, and he was pleased with everything. I think it helps the D-League to have these teams involved, as well as us.

RU: It's been less than a month since they announced the Bucks affiliation change. Have you spoken to anyone in the Bucks organization?

JP: A little bit. I know John Hammond from the Pistons last year. He was who I would talk to concerning Cheikh. We're going to make sure we get up there and meet with their staff. We have some familiarity with John, and we just want to reiterate what we do well and find out from his feedback what we need to improve, which is important. We'll do the same with the Pacers. What can we do to make using Fort Wayne more attractive? All those things are important to us.

RU: One guy that I think might get time in Fort Wayne is Luc Richard Mbah A Moute. He's classic D-League, a big man unrefined. A lot of talent, but needs more bulk and needs playing time. Have the Bucks mentioned him at all to you?

JP: No, not yet. And I watched him in Milwaukee and I'm almost halfway convinced that they might keep him up there. He reminds me a lot of Afflalo in Detroit. Smart, tough as nails, can go in and play D, he just looks like the Scott Skiles type of player. Down here he can improve his offensive game I think. He's somewhere he can do that and also get used to the speed of the game. It's a faster game in the pros. Like, with Earl Calloway, it took him some time to adjust to it. When I played overseas and I had some buddies that were in the NBA, I felt like I improved so much because I realized, "I'm playing 40 minutes a game. I'm being depended on to get 20 and 10 and to win games." You improve more that way than just working in practice playing 2 on 2 and being on the bench. That's why this league is so useful. We hope we get him and we're doing our best to convince them that's what they should do.

RU: I have to keep hammering this point. I wanted to get your perspective as an executive. The biggest challenge that the league faces, I think is salaries. The league tells me that it's complicated. The biggest problem is turnover. Rosters just turnover so quickly. Honestly, Earl Calloway should be on an NBA roster. The fact that he's not blows my mind. And part of the reason he's in Europe is salary. What can the league do to make the salaries competitive with Europe. It doesn't have to be equal to Europe, but it needs to be enough so that combined with the prospect of being close to the league, it's enough to keep them here. What can the league do to improve that?

JP: That's the toughest thing. Because if you try and come up much more, none of these teams are going to survive. It's tough. The biggest thing they have to sell this on is that unless the big teams want to invest their own money into players. There are a ton of ideas. It's such a mess to think about what you'd have to do there with collective bargaining in that situation. Like, with Earl, making as much as he is in Europe, why would he come back for a second year? It's the same thing when I decided to pay a lot of money to go to law school. "You make an investment in yourself." If you do what you need to in the D-League, for one, you're going to improve your value overseas so much. Sure you can go over to a small team and make money. But those jobs are going to be there. If you go to the D-League, you're going to make more money. You're going to be open to Italy, to Russia, the places that are paying so much. If I was running it, I'd say "Guys, invest in yourselves here. Invest in the opportunity to increase your value with NBA teams." It's about being seen. How many Euro scouts were at the Showcase last year? There's only way into the league now. It's through the D-League. That's why players still come here. They want to play for the very best. You're right. It's tough to deal with. If we pay $50,000, if we double their salary, are they going to suddenly turn down $200,000 in Italy? That's a tough sell for me. Unless we start paying $300,000, you have to sell what you have.

To your point about Calloway, you're right. .A guy that does the right things, you'd like to see him be rewarded. Because then my spiel will make a lot more sense and agents will then be able to convince their players to make that investment.

RU: Can you tell me about how the blog started?

JP: The blog is something I thought would be a good idea to do, to talk about starting a team. It helps to give insight into the process. Hey, it may be completely boring. I think I get more attention talking about Britney Spears and whatever. But it's fun. It's fun to read blogs like yours and read your name out there occasionally. The Nightmare Ant thing is big, obviously. Hopefully I can give some info on guys like Calloway, like Wilmont, to keep people interested. Something to avoid people forgetting about us between May and November.

RU: The Nightmare Ant thing has obviously blown up. I have to tell you, you need to just change the name to Nightmare Ant. If you do that, the Blogosphere will love you for it.

JP: I know, but I have to balance that. I've got all these kids that already cry if they see him. If I call it Nightmare Ant, no little kid will ever want to get near it. I'm trying to work a balance with his alter-ego.

RU: Can you tell me who came up with the mascot design? It's fascinating. You need to bring him out to the All-Star game this year.

JP: The guy who did it, I had this name. And I thought "What am I going to name this thing? The Mad Ants? What kind of mascot am I going to have? A lot of the time you get a little bubbly mascot. I didn't want that. This guy came in, a former basketball player in Fort Wayne. He came in and he had the logo, the colors, the design, everything. And that crystallized it in my mind. He's fantastic, man. He really worked long and hard on making it marketable. I don't know why everyone isn't calling this guy to do their work. He's so sharp and talented. I don't think there's a better mascot than the Mad Ant. He's buff, too. He might be on roids, though.

RU:  You've got Jaren Jackson coming in. What's the direction the team's going to take under him?

JP: Jaren learned under some great coaches. Bill Fitz, obviously Popovich during his Championship run. I think you'll see a focus on defense. I think that was one thing he tried to implement in the middle of the season. People are in their grooves and rhythms by that point, but I think this year you'll see better shooting. Last year our three point shooting was abysmal. I think you'll see a team a year older. There are challenges being an expansion team. A lot of the guys who we have returning have a year under their belt. They can learn from some of the things that worked and didn't work last year to help us improve in year 2. Jaren is incredibly prepared, incredibly smart, he studies his stuff and he's knowledgeable. He's got those things, and we're headed in the right direction.

RU: I assume you left Earl Calloway vulnerable in the expansion draft?

JP: No, I didn't. Sure, he’s over there. But what if it doesn't work out? What if he doesn't like it over there? What if he comes back? He's Mr. Mad Ant. A great player, a great person, a great asset. Even if the odds were one in a million, I wanted to make sure we'd have him if he came back.

RU: What are your thoughts on expansion?

JP: Love expansion. I would love for them to expand more teams to the Midwest so we can travel less. You'll find players, if dilution of talent is the concern. What are they concerned about?

RU: The Western teams are worried about longer road trips, I think.

JP: Cry me a river. Listen, the more the merrier. The more teams, the better. The more people wanting a franchise, which helps pay for the salaries. The more national face it gets. The more value to your franchise. Those Triple-A Baseball teams sell for tens of millions of dollars. You get those one on one relationships with the big clubs. I get three, but if that relationship is more intimate, all the better. Hopefully you'll start to see reduced travel if they can add some of these old CBA markets. It's the fastest growing league out there. It's got a buzz about it. I'd hate to take a step back from that by not building. But what do I know? Hell, I've only been doing this for a year.

RU: Last question. Even with the loss of Earl and the players going overseas, are you excited for next season?

JP: Am I? Oh, yeah. You're sitting here all summer, doing nothing, just selling tickets. When we opened last year, I couldn't believe we had ten people, much less 7,000. Honestly, if all those people hadn't come to our games it wouldn't be where it is. I've been all over the world. But this is the best basketball league you're going to find outside of the NBA. It's an exciting brand of basketball and I hope people come out for it. I'm not looking forward to all the work I gotta do, but I'm looking forward for the season.