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KANGZ, A-Z: Phil Ford, the pure point guard

Phil Ford made an instant impact with the Kansas City Kings, but it was short-lived.

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Kansas City Kings v Washington Bullets

Editor’s Note: While we wait for the return of NBA basketball, we’ll be taking a look back at Kings history through the Cincinnati Royals and Kansas City days to identify the best players for each letter of the alphabet. We hope you enjoy KANGZ, A-Z.

There is a strong chance that within a year, or maybe two, De’Aaron Fox will be the best Kings player for the letter F. But we’re not at that point yet. For now, that title belongs to Phil Ford.

Ford is regarded as arguably the greatest point guard to ever play for the University of North Carolina. He paved the way for several future generations of Tar Heel point guards like Kenny Smith, Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, and Joel Berry, among many others. Ford was the ACC Tournament MVP as a freshman in 1975 and followed that with three straight All-America seasons, including earning first-team honors in both 1977 and 1978.

Ford was also the national player of the year as a senior and graduated as UNC’s all-time leading scorer, an honor he held for 30 years until Tyler Hansbrough broke his scoring record in 2009. Ford was also the first player in ACC history to post 2,000 points and 600 assists in his college career, a feat that has since been matched by both Travis Best and former King (for 18 games) Greivis Vásquez.

The then-Kansas City Kings had the second pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. There were rumors that the Kings tried to persuade Magic Johnson, who had just completed his freshman season at Michigan Sate, to join the draft, but their famously cheap general manager Joe Axelson low-balled the future Hall of Famer. Instead, the Kings landed on Ford, coming off a sterling collegiate career.

Ford’s NBA career started off swimmingly. He was immediately installed as the team’s starting point guard, and he did not lack for flair, having run an uptempo offense at UNC. He averaged 15.9 points and 8.6 assists per game in his first season and was the near-unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year over Reggie Theus. Ford was also named to the all-NBA second team that year. Only 21 players have ever made an all-NBA team in their rookie season.

The Kings won 48 games in that 1978-79 season after only 31 the year before, earning a bye to the Western Conference semifinals. They lost 4-1 to the Phoenix Suns, and Ford struggled in his playoff debut; the rookie averaged 8 points and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 26.3% from the field.

The next year, Ford was essentially exactly as productive as he was in his first season. His scoring upped slightly to 16.2 points per game while his turnovers came down from 4.1 to 3.4, but his assists per game also dropped to 7.4. The Kings won 47 games, qualifying for the playoffs for the second straight season, though this time without a bye. They once again ran into the Paul Westphal-led Suns. Ford was much better in his second playoff appearance, recording 17.3 points and 8.7 assists per game on 46.5% shooting, but the Kings still lost the series 2-1.

Ford had the best season of his career in 1980-81. He averaged 17.5 points and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 47.8% from the field and 83.1% from the free-throw line on 5.4 attempts per game. He had a complete offensive arsenal. The Kings, however, struggled that season and were 32-34 when Ford suffered a fractured eye orbit and missed the end of the regular season. They still earned a playoff berth with 40 wins after beating Dallas in game 82, and they managed to upset their way into the Western Conference Finals after finally beating the Suns in the semifinals.

In Ford’s absence, the Kings turned their series against Phoenix into a slugfest without a true point guard. Their starting backcourt was the 6’6” Ernie Grunfeld and the 6’7” Scott Wedman, neither of who was really a ballhandler, but it worked. Ford had difficulty finding his role after two months out with the team succeeding in a new style; he still had some blurred vision and was ineffective in the conference finals against Houston.

Unfortunately, Ford was never really the same after that eye injury. He was no longer comfortable driving into the lane, robbing him of what made him special. The Kings only won 30 games in 1981-82, and Ford was off to New Jersey.

Ford’s peak with the Kings was short-lived, something that can sadly be said for several of this team’s lottery picks, but much of the blame rests on that freak eye accident. At his best, though, Ford was an all-NBA point guard. That’s the bar Fox has to aim for.