Born: February 9, 1956
Position: Point Guard
Professional Career:
Kansas City Kings (1978-’82)
New Jersey Nets (1982)
Milwaukee Bucks (1982-’83)
Houston Rockets (1984)

“How can you expect to win the game when three of our starters wanted Ford’s autograph?”

University of Rochester coach Mike Neer

Sports is filled with a bevvy of surprising twists and turns. Little known players plucked deep in the draft or who languish in minor and overseas leagues sometimes make it big like Nick Van Exel. Other times, players fulfill the hype surrounding their #1 pick status and routinely exhibit the stuff of legend like Magic Johnson.

Then there are the handful of cases… the handful of sobering, disquieting and painful cases… of players gifted beyond belief. Who possess talent able to change the course of games, if not the course of The Game, but who never get the chance to totally work their magic, to ply their skill to the utmost.

That’s the maddening case of point guard Phil Ford. Greatness, sheer basketball beauty, cut down as it was blossoming into something spectacular. Something positively wonderful.

Before Ford became a professional sensation, he was an amateur prodigy. During his four seasons at the University of North Carolina (1975-’78)  he was a 2x All-American and would leave the school as its all-time leading scorer. His mark of 2,290  points would stand until Tyler Hansbrough surpassed it in 2008. As a sophomore, he was the starting point guard on the 1976 gold medal winning US Olympic team in Montreal. And in 1978, Ford would collect a treasure trove of awards: the John Wooden Award, the USBWA Award (now the Oscar Robertson Trophy), the NABC Player of the Year, the Sporting News Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year.

Ford was simply the man of the hour and with the #2 pick in the 1978 NBA draft, the Kansas City Kings made it abundantly clear they intended to make him their choice. Ford made it abundantly clear as well that he wanted no part in joining the Midwest ball club.

Despite the warnings, Kansas City drafted him anyways, spurning trade offers. It was Ford or bust for the team:

Throughout the negotiations, [Kings General Manager Joe] Axelson was stubborn. When he announced “the door is closed” on possible trade talks involving Ford, he added: “Ford is our property for a year, come hell or high water.”

Thankfully, fire and brimstone were avoided and Ford signed with the Kings in late September. Ford’s reticence for joining Kansas City stemmed from the 31-51 finish the team had the prior season and the generally crummy records they had posted the previous decade. However, new Kings coach Cotton Fitzsimmons convinced Ford that the club would have no rebuilding to do if Ford hopped aboard:

“We had to draft him and then take our chances from there. We needed to turn this thing around – and I think Phil Ford can do it.”

Slow mo Phil Ford

With mesmerizing play like that shown above, Fitzsimmons was right to have faith in the abilities of Ford. The rookie came out white hot and instantly ignited the tender box that was the KC Kings. With only one playoff appearance since 1968, the Kings franchise was ostensibly moribund but featured a hidden trove of talent with veteran center Sam Lacey, free agent signing Darnell Hillman, and entering-their-prime forwards Scott Wedman and Bill Robinzine.

Then there was Ford’s backcourt mate Otis Birdsong, whose offensive game was as melodic as his name. The two formed an undersized guard tandem but it was nigh unstoppable. GM Axelson was positively giddy declaring Birdsong and Ford “could be a backcourt for all time in this league.”

Spurred by Ford, the Kings improved by 17 wins to finish the 1978-79 season 48-34. This was good enough to win the Midwest Division crown, the only time between 1952 and 2002 that the franchise would win its division. It was thanks to such ridiculously good games as this one from Ford:

Phil Ford scored 22 points and dished out 21 assists, one shy of the franchise record, and sparked the Kansas City Kings to a 121-112 National Basketball Association victory over the Phoenix Suns Friday night.

Against the Bucks later in the season, Ford would match the franchise assist record (22) and also victimize Milwaukee with 26 points.

Although unselected for the All-Star Game, Ford would garner a place on the All-NBA 2nd Team  and All-Rookie 1st Team. He also ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, gathering 62 of the 66 votes. Coach Fitzsimmons turned into a hype man and sang like a canary concerning Ford’s skills:

Phil Ford… was praised by his coach as “the best point guard playing basketball.”

“And if he’s the best in this era,” said Kansas City King coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, “he’s probably the best ever… Phil is one of those rare kinds of players who can jump up in the air, spot three guys open, and always give the ball to the guy with the hot hand – or give it to the best shooter.”

Despite the lofty regular season, the Kings would get pummeled mercilessly by the Phoenix Suns in the playoffs, setting up the first of three straight postseason matches between the clubs. After splitting the first two games of the series, Phoenix would blow the Kings out by 15, 14, and 21 points in the final three games. Ford played terribly all series as he was harassed by defensive ace Don Buse into eight points and six assists per game along with 26% FG for the five games.

The next season, Ford again worked his magic in the regular season producing such phenomenal games as this scorcher in Los Angeles:

Phil Ford matched his career high with 34 points and rookie Reggie King performed brilliantly in the fourth quarter to lift the Kansas City Kings to a 114-108 victory Thursday night over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Ford scored 11 points in the final period to help the Kings post their second straight victory over a division leader and also end a three-game Laker winning streak.

Ford’s numbers largely remained the same from his rookie season but he managed to reduce his turnovers from 4.1 a game in 1979 to 3.4 in 1980. However, Ford would receive no league-wide honors this season. The Kings practically replicated their previous season, too, with 47 wins and a playoff engagement with the Phoenix Suns.

In the first round, best-of-3 mini-series, Ford showed more spark than he had the previous year, but Don Buse continued to demonize Phil. In Game 1, Buse held Ford to just 2 points until the final four minutes when Phil uncorked 12 points in a furious attempt to erase a 17-point deficit. The Kings rally fell short and they lost the game 99-96. KC  won Game 2 at home 106-96 before being run out of the gym in the 3rd and final game in Phoenix, 114-99.

The 1980-81 Kings would surprisingly enjoy their most successful run and it would be Ford’s final season at the peak of his game. He averaged career highs in points per game (17.5) and assists per game (8.8) but would appear in only 66 games due to a broken bone near his eye suffered in February 1981. The resulting surgery cost him the rest of the season and he wouldn’t rejoin the Kings until late in their playoff run.

With fellow starting guard Otis Birdsong going down injured as well, the Kings stumbled to a 40-42 record that season but survived 2-1 against Portland in the first round mini-series which featured two overtime games and an average margin of victory of just 5 points. The Kings would next exorcise their demons by finally smiting the Suns in a 7-game second round thriller, after blowing a 3-games-to-1 series lead.

Ford was able to rejoin the team for their Western Conference Finals showdown with the Houston Rockets, another 40-42 team. However, with Ford’s absence, the Kings had dialed down their uptempo approach and had become a plodding team. He struggled to adjust to the team’s new  style and the Rockets prevailed in five games with Ford averaging a respectable eight points and six assists after such a long layoff and in reduced minutes.

Ford’s career never quite got on track again. The next year, the Kings traded for point guard Larry Drew and the two swash-buckled for the full-time starting job. Ford got 27 minutes with 10 points and six assists a game, Drew received 24 minutes with 11 points and five assists. The Kings decided Drew was their man and traded Ford to New Jersey after the 1981-82 season. Seven games into the 1982-83 season he was traded to Milwaukee.

His stint with the Bucks lasted only that season and after a season-plus with Houston, Ford’s career was over by 1984. During those final seasons, he was dogged by accusations of alcoholism, which he denied, and  has since been convicted of driving while intoxicated.

The unfulfilled promise of Phil Ford is truly enormous. His rookie average of 8.6 assists per game ranks fifth all-time for first-year players. During his first three seasons, he steadily improved his play and a point guard of the age, if not the ages, was was being born. He is one of only six players to average 16 points, eight assists and 1.5 steals per game over the course of their first three seasons.

The others? Oh, some cats by the names of Magic Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Isiah Thomas, John Wall and Chris Paul plus the mighty mouse, Damon Stoudamire. In the NBA Phil Ford was a blindingly bright flash in the pan, but a flash in the pan, nonetheless.

Just one of the unfortunate truths about sports.

Honors

Rookie of the Year (1979)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1979)
All-Rookie Team (1979)

Statistics

Regular Season: 482 Games

MPG PPG APG RPG SPG FG% FT%
Career Average 28.0 11.6 6.4 1.8 1.22 0.467 0.820
Career High 34.7 17.5 8.8 2.3 2.20 0.502 0.889

Playoffs: 15 Games

MPG PPG APG RPG SPG FG% FT%
Career Average 27.7 9.1 5.7 1.7 1.47 0..365 0.717
Career High 36.7 17.3 8.7 2.4 2.40 0.465 1.000