Phil Ford has always known how to make an entrance.
In his debut with the Kansas City Kings in 1978-79, he was chosen NBA Rookie of the Year as the franchise clinched its first division title in 27 years.
Kings fans who knew about Ford’s amateur days might have seen that coming. He took the college game by storm as well, and the excellence continued through his four years as North Carolina’s point guard.
On Sunday, Ford will join nine others who will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Midland Theater. The program begins at 8 p.m.
In a time before recruiting was a media frenzy, Ford was a hot commodity, a star guard from Rocky Mount, N.C., about an hour’s drive from Raleigh. North Carolina State, the Atlantic Coast Conference kingpin at the time and the 1974 NCAA champion, wanted him. So did Lefty Driesell at Maryland. But Ford wanted to play for North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
“He’s always meant a lot to me,” Ford said.
Ford admired the fact that Smith had awarded the school’s first athletic scholarship to an African-American, Charles Scott, about a decade earlier, and Scott became the conference’s first great black athlete.
“When coach Smith recruited (Scott), a lot of guys took notice,” Ford said. “I know I did.”
When Ford got to North Carolina, even with a load of expectation, he didn’t know where he’d fit in. At early practices, Smith told Ford he might have to play for junior varsity. It was merely a motivational message.
Freshmen eligibility had been on the NCAA books for only two years at the time, and Ford became the first freshman to open a season for Smith. The team was young. Future NBA standout Walter Davis was a sophomore, along with big man Tommy LaGarde and guard John Kuester. Mitch Kupchak was a junior. And the Tar Heels were being led by a freshman.
North Carolina lost both games in the Big Four Tournament, which brought together the four Tobacco Road teams — Carolina, Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest. By the end of the regular season, the Tar Heels stood in a three-way tie for second in the ACC behind Maryland.
But the ACC tournament was magical. North Carolina survived in overtime against Wake Forest and Clemson and faced the defending champion Wolfpack in the final.
The dazzling Ford controlled the action, driving North Carolina to victory and becoming the first freshman chosen most valuable player of the tournament. Ford deftly operated the Tar Heels’ Four Corners offense, a stall tactic to everybody who had to defend it, a deadly piece of strategy for a North Carolina team that relied heavily on Ford’s ball-handling and quickness.
“You really had to have five good ball-handlers, five good shooters and five good defenders, and we had that,” Ford said.
In the pre-shot clock days, North Carolina broke out the Four Corners, placing players in each corner of the half court with the idea of getting a layup or heading to the free-throw line to protect or add to a lead. The idea had originated with legendary coach John McLendon; popularized by Smith, a fellow Kansan; and perfected on the floor by Ford.
By the time he was finished with college, Ford had helped lead the Tar Heels to the 1977 NCAA final, where they lost to Marquette, and won nearly every major individual honor the next season as a senior.
Now, it was on to Kansas City, although Ford originally balked at the idea. “I doubt you’ll see me in a Kansas City uniform,” he said shortly after the Kings made him the draft’s second overall pick.
“That was a mistake,” Ford said. “I didn’t handle things well. But I got there and I loved the city, and it was great playing for Cotton Fitzsimmons.”
From a 31-51 season in 1977-78, the Kings had their best season in Kansas City with a 48-34 record in 1978-79. Ford won the rookie award, teaming with Otis Birdsong for one of the NBA’s top backcourts, and Fitzsimmons was the league’s coach of the year.
The team continued to play well over the next two seasons, but in Ford’s fourth year, the Kings’ roster changed and Ford’s effectiveness waned. He was traded to the Nets in 1982, and his NBA career was over by 1985.
Ford has remained tight with North Carolina’s program over the years, serving as an assistant coach and radio analyst. Most recently he served on the Charlotte Bobcats’ staff, and looks to get back into coaching one day.
But what occupies much of his time today is the Phil Ford Foundation to help fight childhood obesity.
“We’re just getting it started,” he said, “trying to raise awareness and find solutions.”