The rites of manhood take various forms. For a backwoods country boy, it can be the first overnight hunting trip with his father.
Increasingly, for black youths, the trial occurs on asphalt courts, where the mystical emergence from childhood is witnessed by a jury of one's peers. More meaningful than a driver's license, a half-dozen whiskers or the first embrace, the boy becomes a man when he can dunk a basketball.
It is strange, the, that the player often mentioned as the best in college basketball in the nation is black, very much a man, but cannot dunk.
"My teammates tell me I have white man's disease," says North Carolina's Phil Ford.
To understand phil Ford, one must learn that Ford's journey from the dirt court and backyard apple barrel basket to All-America recognition at the University of North Carolina is as unique and unflawed as the person inside the V-necked, baby-blue-trimmed jersey.
There are reasons Ford does not dunk. His upward leaping ability and height (6-2) are his only true physical weaknesses, though it is routine to see Ford broad jumping five rows of seats diving for a loose ball.
To Ford, the dunk is a single, optional bolt in a complex machine. Within it is an expression of anger, of vengence, soaring above life and smashing your strength in its face.
There is not a trace of this anger in Ford, however. The middle son of schoolteachers. Ford has a brother who is a doctor, a sister who is an A student and warm childhood memories.
Ford has one frustraiton. It grew from a story-telling session in his family's modest, neat home in a black section of Rocky Mount, N.C. Phil Ford Sr. had gone out searching after dark that typical day for his 6-year-old son, found him playing basketball blocks away at Buck Leonard Park and administered the usual spanking for wandering too far, too late with companions too old.
Ford listened on such a right to the story of his father with amazement.
"My daddy was very poor," Ford said recently in his tiny dorm room at UNC. "His father was a sharecropper in Marietta, and he worked his way through college and got a master's degree when it was very tough for blacks to do that kind of thing.
"I thought about it. And I didnt know if I had that much guts and desire.
"My daddy told me," Ford continued, "that's it's not the height a person reaches, but the depth form which he comes."
There lay the frustration. Ford saw no depth from which he could not rise. An underdog only in his beloved backyard basketball court, it became his proving ground.
Short, gangly, with a funny walk still his trademark, Ford felt compelled to do even battle with the older, toughter kids in the neighborhood. (They used to beat him in H-O-R-S-E by dunking.) He would pilfer his mother's homemade cookies and buns, offering them to friends if they would just stay another hour in his backyard.
Even now, Ford is genuinely frustrated by the naive notion that he should pay the perfect game, not once, but every time out.
It riddles him so, that he'll practice 10 or 12 hours a day, even if he overdose it, as in his sophomore year, when he twisted a knee before the NCAA playoffs in a pickup game at home.
Finally, Ford sought his brother, the doctor, for a medical answer to his question.
"I asked my brother, 'Why can't I always be hot?'" Ford recalled. "My brother explained to me that it has to do with how you slept, what you dreamed about, what you ate, what you read before you play.
"I'm going to make a detailed log of what I do before games. I never feel I've done it well enought. Coach (Dean) Smith tells me no one has ever played the perfect game. But I'm still going to try and do it. Maybe it can be done."
Rudolph (Slick) Johnson, a smooth athlete two years' Ford's senior who lived next door, held the little guy at bay, never telling him what he could plainly see - Phil Ford was going to be great some day.
"They bumped PJ around, yeah," said Johnson. "But they saw he had ability. he hust had it, you know?"
Ford's Rocky Mount High School coach, Richard Hicks, watched him play little league baseball and even then, Hicks recalls. "There was just something about him that you didn't see in other kids."
His present mentor has a similar insight into Ford's remarkable competitiveness.
"Phil would never come out and admit "said Smith, "but he's always wanted to The Best."
Smith has relinguished much of his own authority, giving Ford more oncourt command of his intricate plan than any other player ever. Ford call the plays often finding Smith calling the same play from the branch.
Rick Brewer, UNC sports information director is found of saying, "Phil Ford was simply born to run the four corners," Smith's successful delay game.
Ford learned to dribble the ball low on the pounded dirt court of his backyard. Outside shooting was a must basket. He used finesse and smarts, not muscle.
Now he is a familiar sight dribbling the ball low, away from his man, drawing the defense to him and firing the perfectly timed to an open teammate in the four corners, or freeing himself for an open jumper or patiently drawing the foul and sinking free throws inside a bubble of noise.
Ford is cool at the foul line (Smith can recall him missing only critical free throws), but his effervescence is everywhere.
"People ask me why I play Phil Ford so much," said Smith, known for his frequent substitutions, "Well, all his cheering and jumping get in the way on the beach.
A typical version of his free throw heroics came last year in the NCAA East Regionals. Ford went to the four line with a hyperextended elbow and hit two shots with two seconds left for a 79-77 win over Notre Dame. On the way out Ford ran into one of his friends, the head coach at Maryland, Lefty Drisell, who told him, "You little s.o.b. I knew you'd win it in the clutch."
Ford controls his emotions "Fighting is ignorant," he said. "Animals fight. That's barbarous."
A peacemaker, he is a lover of all people and all things. "Something I'd really like to do," said Ford, "is sit down and talk with a guy who's against intergration." To see him play basketball unselfishly and with purpose is to examine the way he lives.
"I like basketball because I like the competition, and I like the idea of guys working together," he said, "It's just like life here on earth. That's what we have to do, all creatures of God. Work together, for peace."
Recruited by 329 school, Ford narrowed the choices to N.C. State and UNC because they were his home. He chose to be a Tar. Heel because of Smith.
What a sold him was a 90-minute conversation about poverty, problem in the United States, race relations - everything but basketball.
"He told me everyone has a little prejudice in them, but that we should live as people the best we can," said Ford, delighted to find similarities between himself and an older, successful man of opposite background. Coach Smith has his stuff together."
If I had to choose the ideal qualities I'd want in a guard, the result would be Phil Ford," said Smith. "I don't know a guard anywhere in the world who is as suited in an NCAA Tournament final, has been named an All-America and has slung Olympic gold around his neck in Montreal.
His greatest thrill?
"When someone tells my parents I'm a nice guy," he responded.
Ford has used his wisdom not only to dissect defenses, but also to keep things in perspective. His family has always been more important than his school, a friend more valued than a team, a teammate more cherished than victory.
He will graduate with a degree in business, and while hopful of a pro career, is thinking of other worlds, too.
"The idea of having your own desk, wearing a tie to work, using your mind - I like that," he said.
During the summer, he said Fords at a local dealership, but only one - to his uncle. He had better luck at another offseason job as a bank teller.
"A degree is the first thing I want, because basketball will last only, say, 10 years," said Ford, as if it were five minutes. "I want to live, always. I never want to die."