Phil Ford: The Greening of a Star, 1980

[The “greening” in the headline refers to money, not a carbon-neutral energy source. It also refers to how the amazing Phil Ford, a consensus All-Everything guard three seasons running at the University of North Carolina, took the NBA green in the late 1970s and plowed it into a stellar rookie season with the then-Kansas City Kings. 

Sometimes forgotten today, Ford wanted no part of the lowly Kings and, loudly calling out the NBA system before going green, warned Kansas City not to select him in the 1978 NBA draft. He wouldn’t sign with them, no matter what. The Kings drafted Ford anyway, and he eventually got with the NBA program and announced, “Kansas City here I come.” But for a few tense months, Ford was headed either off to Italy or into federal court for a pitched legal battle, which he may or may not have won. American sports law was then transitioning from antitrust to labor law, which didn’t auger well for Ford. But, back then, anything was possible. 

This article was penned by the late Dan Lohwasser, who then covered University of North Carolina basketball for United Press International. Because Lohwasser is a huge UNC supporter, he focuses a little too much here looking back at Ford’s days in Chapel Hill and not forward to his future navigating NBA arenas. But it’s a nice article just the same about a player who remains indelibly etched in my memory as consummate point guard and winner. Lohwasser’s story appeared in Zander Hollander’s The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, 1980.] 

The dozen or so sportswriters at the hastily assembled news conference outside Dean Smith’s office at the University of North Carolina on June 9, 1978 were stunned. Many of them had covered Phil Ford’s entire incredible four-year basketball career at UNC. They had grown used to expecting the unexpected on the court from the personable young All-American from nearby Rocky Mount, but Ford had one more story for them before ending his days at Chapel Hill. 

Against a backdrop of bleachers in Carmichael Auditorium and flanked by his college coach, Ford explained that his departure from UNC would be even more dramatic than many had thought. He announced that he was taking on the pro sports establishment by challenging the draft system in a way nobody really had before. 

Picked second in the NBA draft by the Kansas City Kings a few hours earlier, Ford disclosed he had other options. “I would like to play on a team that is more of an established winner,” he said. “I have three options. I can either play pro basketball in Italy, play in the NBA, or be a graduate assistant here at Carolina.”

For the Kings, it was a calculated gamble. Sports attorney Donald Dell had been on the telephone at least three times before the draft begging them not to draft Ford, so they knew his feelings. Ford also knew a little about what was going on in Kansas City, where the Kings had finished 31-51 and down in the cellar of the Midwest Division the previous year. His former teammate, John Kuester, whom he had played beside for three years at Carolina, was already toiling for Kansas City, and it was reasonable to assume word had filtered back to Chapel Hill via the Kuester-Smith connection. 

But for the Kings, the choice was clear. They needed a point guard to team with Otis Birdsong, their top pick the year before, in the backcourt. “We knew Birdsong wouldn’t do a bit of good unless we got someone else to run the team,” said the Kings’ coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, in retrospect. “That’s why Phil Ford was the only pick for us. Regardless of what he said, he was the man we needed. Even if he was serious about signing in Italy, he was the only pick for us.”

To the sports establishment, Ford had opened up a whole new red-hot issue.  The increasing number of big contracts, the right to free agency, and the breakdown of the reserve clause had already given pro athletes more rights, but no one thus far had really contested the regulation that binds a player to the team that drafts him. There had been complaints. O. J. Simpson scoffed at going to Buffalo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar balked at reporting to Milwaukee. But as the weeks wore on after that June 9 press conference, it became increasingly clear Ford meant business. It was a long, hot summer for Fitzsimmons and Kansas City. 

During those months, Ford remained in Chapel Hill. Newspaper editorials across the state praised his independence. In a series of subsequent interviews, Ford disclosed that money was not the problem, and he seized on the independence issue. “Slavery was over 100 years ago,” he told one writer. 

Phil Ford signs with Kings. GM Joe Axelson (l) unpacks Ford’s jersey for the cameras.

On September 29, the headlines announced that Ford was finally a King. He had signed a five-year contract, reportedly for $1 million. The only public explanation he has ever given for his change of heart was that Fitzsimmons and the Kings’ general manager Joe Axelson, had convinced him that signing with the Kings was his best career choice. 

For Kansas City, the gamble paid off. When Ford packed his bags for Kansas City and decided to play, he gave 110 percent, just as he had done as a collegian. He reported to the Kings midway through the exhibition season, and his impact was swift and sure. He hit double figures his first night out, and by midseason, it was clear he was the leading candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year. 

“There are very few guards who can dominate the game the way Ford can,” said Houston Rockets coach Tom Nissalke. “We had John Lucas, Nate Archibald could, and so could Oscar Robertson. They could all control the tempo of the game, and so can Phil Ford.”

By season’s end, the reluctant rookie had, indeed, become Rookie of the Year. He finished fourth in the league in assists with 8.6 a game and averaged 15.9 points. On one night, he scored 22 and handed out 21 assists. Another evening, he cut loose for 26 points and a club-record-tying 22 assists. The Kings jumped from last place to first place in the Midwest. Fitzsimmons was named NBA Coach of the Year. Jubilantly, he announced to the world that Phil Ford was the best point guard in the game and probably “the best of his era.”

For those who followed Ford during his days at Carolina, his NBA success came as no surprise. He held the lead or was among the leaders in every statistical category at UNC—except rebounds and dunks. He took the Tar Heels to three Atlantic Coast Conference championships and was generally regarded as the best player in the league. In 1976, he led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal. 

And after all, Dean Smith-coached players had a reputation as winners in the pro ranks. Ford’s former teammate and best friend Walter Davis had taken rookie honors the year before at Phoenix, Bob McAdoo won the award in 1973, and, in 1977, the Bullets’ Mitch Kupchak was named to the All-Rookie team. While at UNC, Ford had overshadowed both Davis and Kupchak. 

How did Phil Ford come so far so fast? The answer is as much the story of Phil Ford the person as it is the story of Phil Ford the athlete. 

Athletically, Ford’s trademarks of the game include explosive bursts of speed and a jerky, low dribble that includes a variety of reverses. He can hit an open man with a perfectly targeted pass as well as anyone. His peripheral vision is incredibly good. His shot is the long jumper, which he executes by going from full speed to zero, setting them scooting. At 6-foot-2, Ford can’t dunk the ball and doesn’t even try. “They say I have white man’s disease,” he jokes. 

But Ford brings more to the game than athletic ability, and this is the reason he becomes the undisputed floorleader in any game and the reason he is so valuable. He plays the game with unbridled enthusiasm, and Kansas City fans have fallen in love with the emotional derring-do approach that easily made him the most popular athlete at the University of North Carolina. During his freshman year, he stole the show from David Thompson when Ford and company knocked the defending NCAA-champion North Carolina State team out of the ACC Tournament. Ford’s picture, not Thompson’s, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The caption announced: “Run over by a Ford.”

As a person, Ford is never at rest. Asked why he was one of the few Carolina players who never spent time on the bench, Smith once explained, “Well, his cheering and jumping gets in the way.” He is restive, easily agitated. If Ford were an animal, he would be a sleek, prowling cat. 

Another key to Ford is his intelligence. His roots lie in the small eastern North Carolina town of Rocky Mount, where his parents are teachers and where the initial sharpening of his skills began with an apple barrel nailed to a tree by the elder Ford. His father is the son of a sharecropper who worked his way to a master’s degree and raised another son to be a doctor.

At Rocky Mount High School, Ford did everything. He played forward at 6-foot-1 and emerged as one of the hottest recruiting prizes to come out of the tobacco belt that also produced David Thompson. 

The recruiters came in droves—320 of them. From UCLA, Notre Dame, and North Carolina State, they came to the small house on King Circle. Ford never told anyone no. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” he says. 

Desperately thin at guard, Dean Smith also made the pilgrimage to Rocky Mount. He met Ford in the summer after his junior year, and the two talked for 30 minutes about civil rights, poverty, world problems, and Carolina’s School of Business. Ford later said that what impressed him most about Smith was that the topic of basketball never came up in that initial meeting. 

Ford narrowed his choices to North Carolina and North Carolina State. Smith hung on. Not since Charlie Scott had he had a player who could control a game, and he saw those qualities in Ford. “There was just something about him that you didn’t see in other kids,” said Richard Hicks, his high school coach. 

Mabel Ford said her son asked his parents to decide for him. They refused. Ford was to make his own decision, and he recalls nearly breaking into tears when he telephoned Eddie Beidenbach, State’s chief recruiter, with the bad news. 

Quickly, Ford and Smith forged a friendship that was really a father-son relationship. Smith, not a man given to absolutes, praised Ford as a leader both off and on the court. For Ford, the feeling of respect was mutual, and they remain close today. Smith still finds time to catch as many of Ford’s games as possible. 

The lone honor to elude Ford during his collegiate career was an NCAA championship. With Ford and Davis on the same team, it looked like Carolina’s year in 1977. The Tar Heels stormed through the NCAA playoffs defeating Kentucky, Notre Dame, Nevada-Las Vegas, and Purdue. The difficult road had taken its toll, however, and Davis was out with an injury and Ford was suffering from an injured elbow that prevented him from straightening his arm. 

When the Tar Heels squared off against Marquette in Atlanta’s Omni, it was Al McGuire’s last year as coach, and Marquette was fired up. They were not to be denied. The final score was 67-59, and Ford took the loss with bitter disappointment, as much for Smith as for himself.   

When Ford’s intelligence, athletic ability, and desire mesh, he is awesome on the court. Such was the case during his final game in Carmichael Auditorium. It was late February 1978, and the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season the championship had come down to one game. An unbelievable recruiting turnaround at Duke, just 10 miles up the road, had made Duke a monster in the ACC. They were in red-hot Carmichael to take the championship, and many believe they would. 

But the Chapel Hill crowd of 10,000 stood in a deafening two-minute, screaming tribute to Ford before the first ball was tossed up. He scored 34 points. His last two came at the free throw line, and the first one gave North Carolina an 86-83 claim to the conference title. He turned from the line, and with arms upraised, he flashed two victory signs. Carmichael Auditorium almost collapsed. 

His 34 points were much more than the difference in the game. Every shot seemed to take on a crucial meaning. Each jumper cut deeply into the hopes of the younger Blue Devil team. It was the old guard against the new. Ford, the tears streaming down his face, was the undisputed king. When it was over, he lay stretched out on the floor of the locker room. The crowd outside remained, and Ford knew it wasn’t the points. 

“I don’t know how many I got,” he said, “and I don’t care. We won. I’m sorry it has ended here. It has been so much fun.”

“There will never be another Phil Ford,” Smith announced when his star departed to shine in the NBA. But it was clear in the ensuing season that Ford left a legacy in Chapel Hill. He helped perfect what is known in the league as the Dean Smith system. It’s a ball-control offense and a ball-hawking defense that features the much-debated “Four Corners” that Ford ran so well. It’s a system based on confidence that makes the Tar Heels so dangerous in close games. Dean Smith-coached teams know they are going to win. 

Ford’s pro career is taking on the same pattern. His opponents should have been ready for the 1978 College Player of the Year, but they weren’t. He surprised them. “You just look at him, and he’s exuded confidence,” said Marques Johnson at the Milwaukee Bucks after an early-season game. “He’s exciting, and he looks like he’s really enjoying himself out there. I had seen him on television, and I didn’t think he could shoot and I didn’t know how well he could see the whole court. Now I’m wondering what he can’t do.”

“A degree is the first thing I want,” Ford once said, “because basketball won’t last forever.” A bachelor, Ford’s first loves are his family and Chapel Hill, where he returns in the offseason. His absolute loyalty to and friendship with Dean Smith and Walter Davis are well-known. 

Ford has always acknowledged there is more to life than basketball. He valued his education as much as he did his basketball experiences in Chapel Hill. On the road, Ford likes classy restaurants. On a recent trip to New York, he took in his first Broadway play. And a lot of his spare time is spent on visits to hospitals and in public appearances. 

Ford is now a long way from apple barrels, Rocky Mount’s Buck Leonard Park, and Carmichael Auditorium, but he remains the same Phil Ford. “Changed? He hasn’t changed. He’s the same Phil,” says Carolina’s sports information director, Rick Brewer. 

And Ford himself admits that his approach hasn’t been influenced by the pro game. “I don’t know why. It’s the same game, the same ballgame and the same goals,” he said. “When the chips are down, I really like to be in demand.” 

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