Professional basketball teams have spent a king's ransom on extraordinarily tall men who have failed to win championships.
The Kansas City Kings tried a different approach this season. They drafted a 6-foot-2 guard, gave him a handsome but hardly royal salary, then sat back and marveled as he truned into the crown prince of the NBA.
No rookie guard in the association's history -- not Jerry West or Oscar Robertson or Bob Cousy or Pete Maravich -- rivaled the impact that Phil Ford has made on his team.
Ford has defied one of the basic axioms of the league. No longer can it be said that only big men effectively can turn around the fortunes of a club and become its "franchise" especially if they are straight out of college.
The Kings were entrenched losers before Ford arrived. While fashioning only one winning record in the last 12 years, they had tried everything from moving out of Cincinnati to trading for a 7-foot-4 center in an attempt to change their tradition.
But with the same key personnel as last season, and Ford, Kansas City has gone from a 31-51 mark in 1977-78 to present 40-27 good enough for first place in the Midwest Division. The NBA has had few other such stunning turnarounds in its 39 seasons.
In the process, Ford has become the runaway favorite for rookie of the year honors and seems certain to receive heavy support in balloting for most valuable player, an award that has been won by only two first-year players: Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld.
"You just have to look at the roster and what they did last year to see Ford's impact," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta, whose team will try to stop Ford Friday night in an 8:30 game (EST, WDCA-TV-20). "Guards aren't supposed to mean what he has meant to them. This deep into the season, you know he is for real. There is just something about him that brings out the best in everyone."
Ford has kingly qualities. He is unselfish, generous, modest, gutty and trustworthy. His teammates love his passes, his coaches love his leadership and his friends love his dependability. He is an athletic dream, a player who speaks well of everyone, who hustles every step and who considers defeat an unacceptable punishment.
Like a crafty politican, Ford has a public face that shows few cracks. He quickly changes the direction of questions about himself, using them instead as a forum to praise his teammates. He brushes of inquiries about technique or strategy, preferring to answer in the cliches that may athletes use for protection.
In one game this season, when he was nearing the club record for assists, a team official told Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons about the possible achievment in the fourth quarter. Ford was furious.
"I don't want to know about what I am doing personally," he said. "I'd rather not be told about it. Individual statistics are nice but I want the team to win first."
Coming from many athletes, that might be interpreted as false modesty. But Ford's sincerity makes such statements credible.
"That is what makes him a born leader," said Fitzsimmons, who gave Ford floor control of the team the first day he suited up. "Nobody thinks he's feeding them a line. They believe him and they are inspired by his example."
Ford brought a winner's attitude to the Kings this season and his spirit alone seems to have overpowered his team's losing habits.
He has never known anything but success. He was a marvelous high school athlete, the playmaker on the gold medal-winning U.S. basketball team in the 1976 Olympics and the best player, at least statistically, in North Carolina history.
The rigors of pro basketball have not dampened the enthusiasm and joy he carries to the game. He still bounces after loose balls, claps openly after food plays, prods teammates to good performances and dashes down court with the recklessness of a demolition derby driver.
"He makes other people around him look good," said Motta, "and that may be the highest compliment you can pay any great player.
"He does what you hope every playmaker can do. He can make the right pass when you need it and he can hit the jumper. So what do you do with him? He can burn you both ways.
Motta and the Bullets have seen Ford, the NBA's No. 3 assist man, only twice this season but that has been enough to make them believers.
The first time was in Capital Centre in December. The Kings were considered upstarts then, sure to crumble after their early success once opponents adjusted to the new fast-break style Ford generated.
The Bullets were in control of both Ford and that game until early in the fourth period. Ford then ripped off eight points and an assist creating fast breaks by beating most of the Washington players to the other end. The Kings went on to win, 110-109.
The second game was played here in late January. This time, Ford took command from the opening tap. With Kevin Grevey injured, the Bullets tried to handle Otis Birdsong, Ford's backcourt mate, with the much smaller Charles Johnson. So Ford kept calling Birdsong's play, the Kings kept getting easy baskets and they wound up running away with a 142-128 triumph. Ford had 33 points and 13 assists.
In both meetings, the Bullets have not been able to cope with Ford's unique ability to seize every opportunity to create a fast break by sprinting down the floor with the ball at breath-taking speed.
Ford has been administering similiar damage to almost every league club this season. Fatigue had been considered a major problem, at least during his college career, but he has defied even that scouting report. During the past month, when the Kings have stumbled (they've lost their last four games), he has grown stronger, twice handing out more than 20 assists in a contest.
The team will need every bit of his energy in its remaining 15 games. Reserve center Tom Burleson is sidelined for the season with a bad knee and forward Scott Wedman is recovering from a freak automobile accident that will keep him out of uniform for at least two more weeks. Without them, the Kings' already fragile bench has crumbled, putting more pressure on the starters.
"I think our style will help us get loose," said Ford. "If we were a deliberate team, we might tighten up and press. But we run a lot and that gets us into the flow of games better.
"This is a young team. We are good now but we are going to get better."
With Ford in control, perhaps one day they'll be good enough to be kings of the NBA.