Some critics thought the best way to rebuild the Kansas City Kings was to break up the franchise and start again, New Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons had a better idea.

He put a Ford in the driver's seat.

"I gave Phil Ford the basketball and told him he was our leader," said Fitzsimmons. "The day he walked into training camp I became a better coach than ever before."

With Ford, an exuberant rookie from North Carolina, as the steering wheel, Fitzsimmons has driven the low-profile Kings into first place in the NBA Midwest Division and emereged as the early favorite for coach of the year honors.

That's not bad for a team that has known little but dismal records and for a coach who has directed as many losers as Harold Stassen's campaign manager. Of course, neither the Kings nor Fitzsimmons have ever been touched by a player with quite the invigorating talents of Phil Ford.

What other rookie could make it perfectly clear he didn't want to be drafted by the Kings or play in Kansas City and then sign with the team at the last moment and agree to wear uniform No. 1 and still wind up as the home crowd's favorite and his teammates pet within a month?

What other rookie could get away with bouncing around like some high school sophomore, slapping hands and raising his first in celebration just because his team scored an important basket in a routine, midweek NBA game?

"You can't help but love the way he plays or his attitude," said Fitzsimmons, who knows all about attitudes after having coached at Buffalo last year. "He has all the qualities on and off the court that we felt he had and that we felt Kansas City needed.

"With a guy like Phill, you set up your offense, tell him how you want it run and let him do it. He's a rookie in name only."

Ford's early accomplishments -- third in the league in assists and steals, first on the Kings in assists, minutes played, steals and free throws -- aren't surprising to those who followed his splendid college career. He always was a player so talented he was ready for the pros by the end of his sophomore season.

Yet Ford, who long has been associated with the glow of a winner, didn't want to be covered with the shadow of losing at Kansas City even as the second player picked in the draft. He looked around the NBA, saw how a team like Philadelphia so desperately needed a playmaker, and wondered out loud how he could get out of the Midwest and into the City of Brotherly Love.

"It was something I felt was best for my future at the time," he said. "There was always Europe too, but I really wanted to play basketball here in the States I'm happy now with Kansas City. We are winning and it's fun playing on a team that is growing for the future."

His decision to sign with Kansas City also has breathed new life into Fitzsimmons' coaching career. He had floundered with bad teams the last four years in both Atlanta and Buffalo and many thought the Kings had made a tragic mistake signing him last summer.

But he has shown remarkable patience with this team. He deftly runs players in and out of games, demands that they play with poise and makes sure, of all his athletes, Ford understands most clearly what is expected on the floor.

Fitzsimmons was convinced that Ford's presence alone would solve four major King problems from last season. "We didn't handle the bal well because the back court was really inadequate," hesaid. "We didn't move the ball, we didn't get it to the open man and there was no consistency with how things were done.

"Phil changes all that. He understands completely what I want out there. It tell him and he does it, just that simple. With him, we can run and play pressure defense and go to work."

The Kings have adopted the style of Atlanta and New Jersey, two other young NBA clubs that make up for lack of talent with nonstop hustling, pressure defense, gobs of substituting and as many easy baskets off breaks as possible.

It helped, of course, that this was exactly the way Ford learned to play basketball at North Carolina. "There wasn't much of a transition for me," he said. "I ran the team in college and I run it here. We want to get into a fast tempo and I enjoy that pace the best.

"Of course, it was good that the coach has this much confidence in you. I came in here just wanting to olay and everyone has been great. They've accepted me."

More than that, his teammates have almost begun worshiping him. They can see what has happened -- how a 31-51 club without injured starter Richard Washington and with the same front-line nucleus as last season is off to its best start ever, already having drawn three home crowds of 10,000 plus in a city known for its poor support.

The difference, said guard Otis Birdsong has been Phil Ford and Cotton Fitzsimmons. Cotton has us beieving in ourselves and Phil runs things. You know if you come open, he'll get you the ball."

Perhaps no other player has bene-fited more from Ford's presence than Birdsong, the second pick in the 1977 draft who spent his rookie season as a confused third guard behind Lucius Allen (injured) and Ron Boone (traded to Los Angeles).

Now Birdsong, one of the league's purest shooters, can sing all game about those lovely passes he receives from Ford, which allows him countless open shots. As a result, he is averaging 19 points in only 30 minutes a game.

The only other solid plaver is underrated forward Scott Wedman. The rest of what Fitzsimmons calls "my good but not great team" has to be patched and plugged every game. He utilizes his entire 11-man roster every night, getting the most out of two centers (Sam Lacey and Tom Burleson), two power forwards (Bill Robinzine and Darnell Hillman), two back-up guards (Marlon Redmond and Bill McKinney) and two backup small forwards (Gus Gerard and Bob Nash), none of whom would bring much on the open NBA market.

Ford, who is shooting enough to average only 15 points, is the glue that holds them together. Operating a one-four offense, where he is the point guard, he makes full use of his quickness, ball-handling skills and unselfishness to give discipline to the young Kings.

"We had plenty of incentive right from the start" he said. "When you are picked for last by almost everyone, you want to be first really bad. You don't want people laughing at you. You want respect.

"The one thing I've found is that instead of going against a great guard once in a while, you go against one just about every night in the pros. So you have to be ready and you can't let things get to you for long."

Both the durability of Ford and his team remain major question marks over the course of the marathon season. Once the league catches up to Kansas City's change in style and quality of play, the Kings could run into the same problems Atlanta encountered in February and March last year.

And the way Ford hurtles his body around the court, he leaves himself open to major injuries. In the Dec. 2 game against Washington, he and another North Carolina grad, Mitch Kupchak, became entangled in amassive dive for a loose ball. Kupchak got Kupchak, became entangled in a massive just as easily could have been mashed by his much-bigger opponent.

Ford works better in an open court, just as a race car thrives in a Grand Prix rather than a demolition derby. Give him a half-step, try for a steal instead of stopping his penetration and he'll consistently burn defenses for layup baskets.

"We'll get better, just building around his talents," said Fitzsimmons. "When Washington returns, that will be an improvement. And if we can add a few more players, well, I like our future."

but even on fewer than eight cylinders. the Kansas City Fords are still motoring in with a winning style.