September 24, 2010
Earning an ‘A’ in the D-League: Jeff Potter ’05 is President of the Successful Fort Wayne Mad Ants D-League Basketball Team
This story is part of a weekly series profiling Oregon Law alumni whose class reunions occur this fall.
Jeff Potter just couldn’t get basketball out of his blood.
He played the game since the age of six, excelled in high school, and played for the Ducks from 1992 to 1995. He played professionally for six more years before heading to law school. When the opportunity arose to form his own team, it was a no-brainer for the Redmond, Washington native, though he recognized the risk involved.
After graduating from Oregon Law, Potter worked as a prosecutor for Chicago’s Cook County. “I liked it, I felt like I was on the right track,” he says.
It was during that time that his father-in-law John Zeglis, former CEO and chairman for AT&T Wireless, proposed the idea of forming a minor league basketball team. While there are numerous basketball leagues at the minor league level, the two men decided launching a team in the NBA’s Development League made the most sense.
Introduced in 2001 as the National Basketball Development League, the name was changed in 2005 to the National Basketball Association Development League and began affiliating with NBA teams. The NBA teams sends down two players at a time, who must be in either their first or second season. The rest of the team is made up of players whom D-League coaches and executives believe have slipped through the cracks for various reasons, but are good enough for an NBA roster. The league has grown from eight teams in 2001 to sixteen teams in 2010.
“Joining the D-League was really the only chance to create a successful franchise,” Potter says. “The brass ring was always an NBA connection and that’s what the D-League has. If you want to be the best you have to partner with the best.”
Potter goes on to note that the decision to resign his position in Chicago and move his family to Indiana, where basketball is king, wasn’t made lightly.
“There was a three percent chance this could ever happen, but the more people we talked to and the more research we did convinced me to go full board with getting this team off the ground.”
Having a law degree certainly didn’t hurt in the team’s formative stages. In fact, law school is an important talking point for Potter, who says he chose to come back to the UO after being overseas because it felt like home.
“There’s no better preparation for business than law school,” he notes. “First, because you are dealing with contracts, which you study in your first year and in business law courses. Second, because law school teaches you how to think. You are able to clearly spot issues and develop responses. You write and communicate on a higher level. You’re always looking ahead two to three steps down the line.”
As it turns out, Potter’s risk paid off. The Fort Wayne Mad Ants became official in 2007 and have seen a great deal of success as one of the most recognizable of the D-League teams and one of the most highly-attended. The team also boasts being the only in the D-League with three NBA affiliates: the Indian Pacers, Detroit Pistons, and Milwaukee Bucks.
Potter credits this success to the recognition the D-League has been garnering with nationally televised games on the Versus network (last year, the Mad Ants played two nationally televised games), as well as the fact that the Mad Ants have been around for three years now and more and more of the team’s players are graduating to the NBA.
A great deal of the Mad Ants success also can be attributed to the professional yet fun-loving atmosphere Potter and his staff have created around each game, and the extension of that mood into his office. A photo or two circling the Web of Potter sporting an afro wig and fake chest hair during a “’70′s Night” themed game prove this point.
“We host twenty-four parties each year,” he says referring to the team’s regular season schedule. “On our very first opening night we were just hoping someone showed up to the party and we ended up setting a record for opening night attendance in the D-League. We have great halftime shows ’— strange, exotic halftime shows. It’s a really fun atmosphere that carries over into our office.”
That environment helps Potter keep everything in perspective. He notes during our phone interview that he’s using air quotes to describe the “work” he was just doing by watching a two-hour practice. That would be considered work, however, for anyone who didn’t love basketball and their job as much as Potter. Although he jokes, Potter is serious about constructing a top-notch franchise and providing affordable family entertainment for the people of Fort Wayne.
“We’ve brought the highest level of sport that Fort Wayne has to offer,” Potter notes. “Not only do we have million dollar talent playing on the court, but there’s always a chance to see someone rise up. Oliver Lafayette was a player on our team who was called up to the Boston Celtics last year and had the opportunity to ride the crest of that wave to the NBA Championships. That garners more national attention for Fort Wayne.”
Attention also has been gained through the team’s use of the Internet and viral marketing. The Mad Ants not only have a website, but a frequently updated Facebook and Twitter presence as well. All of their games are streamed live on the Web, and Potter runs his own blog complete with candid and witty insights into both his personal and professional lives. Even the Mad Ant mascot, a six-foot ant that feasts on the bones of his opponents, has acquired a cult following with his devotees dubbing him “Nightmare Ant” and running a personal Twitter account just for him. All of this publicity led to the team being featured on the television show One Tree Hill last year in which a character was trying out for a spot on the Mad Ants team.
“There are only bigger things to come,” Potter adds.