Away From Home: Story of Euroleague Top Scorer Trophy's Eponym
by Selman Baydar 08/29/2015
(Illustration: Ayça DUMAN)
Taylor Rochestie who had a very successful season with Russian club Nizhny Novgorod was awarded with 2014-2015 Alphonso Ford Euroleague Top Scorer Trophy before the Final Four in Madrid. And we, as Lagruppa, would like to honor the hero of this award, which has been given with same name for the last 10 years, by reminding his inspirational story once more.
Alphonso Gene Ford was probably an unfamiliar name for Americans except people of Mississippi and followers of NCAA, but he was a joy to watch for basketball fans in Europe, notably to the supporters of clubs he played for.
He had already proved his unique scorer character at the age of 18. Mississippi Valley State coach Lafayette Stribling’s offensive, free flowing system which revolved around shooting the three was perfectly suited for Ford(1). He was the leading scorer of NCAA in his freshman and second in his sophomore right after Bo Kimble. At the end of his four year career in NCAA he was the first player in history to have an average of 25 points per game and fourth in all time scorers with 3.165.
At the 1993 draft, Rod Thorn, NBA Vice President of Basketball Operations announced Alphonso Ford’s name–who was probably losing his hopes slowly- just after the NBA legends like Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, and Allan Houston while late Conrad McRae was still there waiting on his chair impatiently. Philadelphia 76ers had picked him 32nd overall in second round. Easier said than done, it was the first time that Mississippi Valley State, a modest state university, was sending a player to NBA(2).
(Alphonso Ford's name is being announced during the 1993 NBA draft)
But may be Philadelphia was not the ideal place for Ford. Even though he had played with three assists per game during his whole NCAA career, General Manager Jim Lynam was regarding him as a point guard. They had even skipped Nick Van Exel, a pure play maker, for the sake of Ford. Because Assistant coach Tony DiLeo had been tracking him for some seasons and he was fascinated with his ambition, especially with his ability to clear himself for a shot.
All in all six games and 16 minutes in his first year with Seattle Supersonics, and five games with Philadelphia 76ers in 1994-95 was not a good start to NBA for Ford. After being unable to attract NBA scouts with his marvelous effort at CBA, Alphonso Ford flew to Europe where he was to find oneself, where he’d be characterized not just as a winner, but also a leader and eve a hero.
“After high school, I wanted to stay close to home. Now, it's time to grow up, see the world, and see what's ahead for me.”
Alphonso Ford, before flying to Philadelphia, when Europe was probably not even crossing his mind(2)
In 1997, right at the time when Ford was walking to his climax step-by-step, he got the bad news that destroyed him. He was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 26,and because of the treatment he spent a whole season without touching the basketball, what he called as his biggest passion. This should also be the milestone why he didn’t try his chance with NBA one more time. I want to have a digress here for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf since when I hear the name Alphonso Ford, first name to come to my mind is Rauf’s, involuntarily, who is another star player with Mississippi origin. It had come to my attention that Abdul-Rauf was constantly blinking his eyes, while playing for Fenerbahçe. Having a child’s mind, I had assumed that he was a little neurotic.I was not that wrong actually; Abdul-Rauf was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome at a young age. But that fellow from Mississippi, who had been fighting against the hardships of life, could have overcome that huge obstacle in front of him even by getting stronger.
Ford, too, without considering to surrender, turned back to court with Greek Club Sporting Athens, after a year of break.And without losing a bit from his game. He secureda fair 11th position for the humble Greek club which was actually trying to avoid relegation.
He met with number 10 jersey, which identified him, at his second station in Greece, Peristeri. While my eyes were at Turk Telekom Players Goran Jagodnik’s and Murat Evliyaoğlu’s hands on 13 October 1999 at Ankara Sports Center, he scored 22 points for Peristeri. While the club was saying farewell to Korac Cup after losing against Spanish club Estudiantes, Alphonso Ford was becoming top scorer of Greek League for the third time.
At his second season with Peristeri, Alphonso Ford finally stepped to Euroleague where neither coaches like Ivkovic or Obradovic nor great defenders like Fucka or Reyes could stop him. While Peristeri was getting eliminated at Top 16 after an aggregate lost against Basque club Tau Ceramica, his name was written in gold letters to the organization history after his 41 points in a game record plus being top scorer. He was also selected to seasonal top five with 26 points per game performance. After all the success at Euroleague, Ford was selected MVP in having a great share in club’s third position in Greek basketball league.
Before 2001-2002, Ford moved from Athens to Pireaus. Olympiakos was far from success since the triple glory of 1997 where the head won Greek league, cup, and European championship. This time, they gave away Final Four chance to archrival Panathinaikos in the last ditch, but Ford was on top anyway. He was once more Euroleague top scorer with 25 points per game and Greek cup was won by Olympiakos thanks to him.
While 2004 Summer Olympics to be held in Athens was coming closer, clubs had to get their facilities ready for the organization, and naturally budgets for player contracts had to be cut off(4). While Bodiroga was leaving Panathianikos for Barcelona, and his teammate from Olympiakos Theo Papaloukas moving to CSKA Moscow, Alphonso Ford was on the way to Ergin Ataman’s Montepaschi Siena. Even though his statistics dropped at Siena where there were many offensive weapons beside him, Alphonso Ford had a thriving season and was selected to All-Euroleague first team second time. He was saying "This is a dream. Everybody who plays in Europe wants to make it here. So it's a dream for me to make it here after playing so long"(5) during his interview with euroleague.net before his’ and Montepaschi Siena’s first Final Four experience.
After the season with Mens Sana, Ford was pretty tired. He had played a total of 63 games averaging over 30 minutes. Not just from those good-for-nothing pills, he was even tired of basketball. But Scavolini Pesaro, another Italian club, came up with an offer to stir him up. Of course he couldn’t refuse, because he had points to score, there were more fans to chant his name and opponent coaches for him to leave weak at their knees.
He could not have an ordinary performance in exchange of his contract, that was not his cup of tea. He kept the ball rolling, continued with his show and had a huge share in Pesaro’s 4th position in Italian league and having chance to appear on Euroleague in the forthcoming season.
Ford had been struggling for seven years. But his struggle was much bigger than just survival which proceeded season-by-season not day-by-day. After all, he completed another season, meeting the expectations exceedingly, amazing new basketball fans in a city he just met. As expected, Pesaro’s contract renewal offer came at the end of the season. Ford’s lingering response was sign of the bad news actually. Yes, he renewed contract with his beloved TEAM, but fans joy didn’t take long and in the morning of August 26th, basketball fans in the city of Rossini were destroyed with that first disheartening news. Alphonso Ford had retired from basketball, issuing a public letter.
10 days after retiring from basketball with his letter, Alphonso Ford died on, 3 September 2004 at the age of 33.During those days, Scavolini Pesaro was at a pre-season tournament. Whole team including Coach Phil Melillo flew to Greenwood, where the funeral was to be conducted, even though TV rights for that tournament were also sold. Despite officially retiring, and hanging his jersey in the club arena after his death, retirement of number 10 jersey took only three years, until Carlton Myers wore it against Scafati on September 30, 2007 on the road.
Before 2004-05, Euroleague named annual top scorer award after Alphonso Ford, honoring him. With another twist of fate, first winner of that newly named trophy was Charles Smith, who had replaced Alphonso Ford at Scavolini Pesaro and even stayed at the very same apartment with him. Smith received the award from the hands of Alphonso’s wife Paula Ford in Moscow, and gave back to her thinking she deserves the first award “Alphonso Ford”s name written on.
We tried to connect many people, especially to clarify the rumor that Alphonso Ford played a couple of games with Turkish team. During these efforts we reached to his son, Alphonso Ford Jr. with a pleasant coincidence, and asked a couple of questions.
Lagruppa: Hello, due to some resources Alphonso Ford agreed with Turkish club “Emlakbank Ortaköy” in 1998, and even played in a couple of games. But we couldn’t find any serious data in this respect. Could you know anything?
Alphonso Ford Jr.: I'm not familiar with his play in Turkey. I remember it was one summer he was supposed to go over to the country but everything pretty vague.
Lagruppa: Do you also play basketball?
Alphonso Ford Jr.: Yes I do actually; I played for Amanda Elzy Highschool in Greenwood MS, just as my dad. We won two back to back State Championships in 2012 and 2013. Something I like to brag about that my dad didn't do.
Lagruppa: Do you what he felt after his diagnosis and when he couldn’t play. Did he think about retiring?
Alphonso Ford Jr.: Well, when my father was diagnosed in 1997, according to my mom, I was only a couple months old. My mom though said he always stressed that he didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him because he was still "him". He was always optimistic about playing again. He felt as if it was the only way he could play again actually, him getting better. This made him incredibly happy and excited about playing again. What I think said the most about my father's character was his persistence and strong willed. No matter what he was going through, he always wanted to keep basketball in his life and nothing could stop him from that.
Lagruppa: How was his connection with Greenwood, the place he was born and raised?
Alphonso Ford Jr.: He was very familiar at a gym that his friend owned and played basketball there every chance he got home. It really kept him connected with people from the city. My father had a very real connection to Greenwood and especially his former college, Mississippi Valley State. You could pretty much see him anywhere around the city, he was no stranger here. A lot of people looked up to him here. Actually he was just placed in the SWAC Hall of Fame by his former college. He is a familiar name here in Greenwood Mississippi even after his death.
Lagruppa: He was phenomenal during his days in Europe. And after his loss, his name was given to one of the most important awards of European basketball. You must be proud?
Alphonso Ford Jr.: I am very proud actually; it's an honor to know that a guy that had so much impact on a sports league was my father. It's something I always think about. A lot of the time it still doesn't seem real.
1. CRAWFORD, Bryan “Al Ford – Mississippi Delta’s Finest” https://nationalbasketblogassociation.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/al-ford-mississippi-deltas-finest/
2. There are Mississippi State players who were drafted before, but Alphonso Ford is first to have minutes in NBA after being drafted.
3. JASNER, Phil “Ford Eager To Make His Mark On World” http://articles.philly.com/1993-07-03/sports/25976023_1_sixers-lafayette-stribling-tony-dileo
4. Wikipedia: Alphonso Ford https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphonso_Ford
5. Euroleague.net: Final-Four Interview Alphonso Ford http://www.euroleague.net/features/interviews/euroleague-2002-03/i/10786/final-four-interview-alphonso-ford-montepaschi