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Chris Ford’s big basketball life remembered by Villanova teammates

Ford was front and center at a hinge point of basketball history. He made the first three-pointer in the history of the NBA.

Chris Ford coached 30 games for the Sixers during the 2003-04 season.
Chris Ford coached 30 games for the Sixers during the 2003-04 season.Read more

Chris Ford packed a big basketball life into his 74 years.

Ford, who died Tuesday, was an Atlantic City legend, a Ducktown legend, scoring 33 points a game as a senior at Holy Spirit High, still the school’s all-time leading scorer. A Big 5 player of the year at Villanova, Ford played all 40 minutes in the 1971 NCAA title game against UCLA. He once averaged more than 15 points a game for the Boston Celtics and won an NBA title with them.

Ford was front and center at a hinge point of basketball history. He made the first three-pointer in the history of the NBA.

He also coached the Celtics for five seasons, went on to coach Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Clippers, and 30 games as interim coach of the 2003-04 Sixers, where Ford famously didn’t go for Allen Iverson’s “practice?” routine.

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Asked about Ford as a player and coach, former ‘Nova teammate Tom Ingelsby interjected, “Friend and grandfather.”

Staying in touch all these years, Ingelsby said, “We would talk three minutes of Villanova basketball, 20 minutes about our grandkids. He was a great guy, great player, great father, great husband.”

They were the backcourt, splitting up 17 assists between them in that UCLA game, although if asked for a favorite memory from 1970-71, Ingelsby went back to the game that got them to the Final Four, the 90-47 win over previously unbeaten Penn. The pair eventually had their jerseys retired together in 2006.

In many ways, the descriptions of Ford are exactly what you’d expect. “A winner,” Ingelsby said. “He just played team ball.”

Yet a college nickname was “Hot Dog.”

“He was kind of ahead of his time, in terms of throwing his arms up to the crowd — very emotional,” said another former teammate, Fran O’Hanlon, who was a couple of years ahead of Ford. “He would celebrate and pump up the crowd. You didn’t see that then. Nobody paid any attention to the crowd.”

But a hot dog? Opposing Big 5 crowds took it and ran with it, bringing hot dogs to the Palestra to throw his way. Ingelsby said he didn’t think Ford liked the label.

“There was nothing about him that was a hot dog,” O’Hanlon said, in terms of Ford’s game, which was both old school and cutting edge. “He was one of the first big guards, a 6-6 guard.”

Villanova under Jack Kraft would play what was known as a Ball Defense, a matchup zone, with Ford on one of the wings. What really stood out to O’Hanlon, who reached an NCAA regional final when Ford was a sophomore with him, was how even on three-on-one fast breaks, Ford the only defender back, “He would never get scored on. He was so long, like an octopus.”

One noteworthy aspect of that 1970-71 ‘Nova team: While star Howard Porter averaged 23.5 points a game, the other four starters all averaged between 15.8 and 13.0 points.

Ford went on play 10 seasons in the NBA with Detroit and Boston, scoring 7,314 career points alongside teammates such as Bob Lanier with the Pistons and Larry Bird with the Celtics, before Ford retired to the coaching staff, eventually being in charge in Boston for five seasons. Ford later was a Sixers assistant in 2003-04 before becoming interim head coach for the last 30 games, which included a benching of Iverson for missing practices, and Iverson saying Ford had told him that his teammates didn’t respect Iverson.

“He’s old school,” O’Hanlon said. “Iverson didn’t do what he was supposed to do and he benched him.”

“He taught the fundamentals,” Ingelsby said. “He’d emphasize a commitment to the team.”

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And if he’d once added a little mustard to his own behavior … waving a towel on the bench, raising his arms after a big bucket … even appearing in the 1979 basketball cult film The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh … it all fit together. By the time Ford was an NBA vet, the hot dog label was long gone. Videos of that first three-pointer showed Ford taking a pass from Tiny Archibald, hitting from up top, merely taking some steps back, ready to play defense.

“A great competitor,” Ingelsby said. “Just a great teammate.”

“This is a rough one,” O’Hanlon said. “It really is.”