Chris Ford’s basketball life began at St. Michael’s Dante Hall in the Ducktown neighborhood of Atlantic City.
From there, the Holy Spirit High School graduate went on to make NBA history and cross paths with some of the most legendary figures in basketball history.
Ford, the most accomplished athlete to ever be born and raised in Atlantic City, died Tuesday at a Philadelphia hospital after suffering a heart attack earlier this month.
He was 74.
“Chris was beloved by his family, friends, Ducktown, Holy Spirit High School, and all of South Jersey,” according to a statement from his family. “He always showed humility and respect for all those that were fortunate enough to be a part of his life.”
In a 2021 interview, Ford said: “It all started down here in Atlantic City at St. Mike’s, then went out to Holy Spirit, Villanova and into the pros. There were a lot of people along the way that are still here in South Jersey in the Atlantic County area that took the ride with me.”
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Ford grew up in Ducktown. More than 50 years after he graduated from Holy Spirit in 1968, the 6-foot-5 Ford is still the school’s career scoring leader. He played for Villanova University in the 1971 NCAA Tournament title game against a UCLA team coached by John Wooden.
Ford made the first 3-pointer in NBA history.
He won an NBA championship as a player with the 1981 Boston Celtics, who were led by second-year player Larry Bird.
Ford once dunked over Julius Erving, earning the nickname “Doc” from his Celtics teammates.
As an NBA coach, Ford coached Hall of Famers players Bird and Allen Iverson. He won two NBA championships as a Boston assistant coach.
A life in the game
Chris Ford practically held a family reunion last week.
Ford lived four distinct basketball lives, each one of them notable.
He first made a name for himself at Holy Spirit. Ford averaged 33 points per game as a senior and finished with 1,507 career points — still the Spartans’ record.
Steve Parker, a 1970 Mainland graduate, played against Ford at Holy Spirit.
“He was 6-5 in high school, but he played the wing,” Parker said. “If they had 3-point shooting in high school (back then), he would have scored twice as many points. He was deadly from the outside. He was not a flashy player, very fundamentally sound.”
What did those high school days mean to Ford? His Holy Spirit uniform hung on the wall of his home office.
“He was not only a great friend, but I can honestly tell you Chris was not just a great basketball player, he never forgot where he came from,” said Larry DiGiovanni, a longtime local high school coach who grew up with Ford and played with him at Holy Spirit. “He always came back to the Atlantic City community. He just gave more than people realized to this whole area.”
Chris Ford, a 1968 Holy Spirit High School graduate who went on to play and coach in the NBA…
The second part of Ford’s basketball life played out at Villanova.
Ford finished his college career with an average of 15.8 points and six rebounds, helping the Wildcats make three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Villanova and Ford met UCLA in the 1971 NCAA Tournament final at the Astrodome in Houston. It was the first time the Final Four was held in a domed stadium. UCLA won 68-62.
“Chris Ford was an integral part of one of the great eras of Villanova Basketball,” current Villanova men’s coach Kyle Neptune said. “Playing for Coach Jack Kraft, he was a gifted distributor, scorer, and defender. He is a true Villanova legend.
“Our staff is especially grateful to Coach Ford for the active role he played in our program once his outstanding NBA playing and coaching career was complete. He was a humble presence at games and alumni events, always supportive of our program. This is a sad day for all of us at Villanova and we send our condolences to the Ford family and the teammates who cherished him.”
Former Villanova coach Jay Wright tweeted that Ford was his boyhood idol.
“He was more of an idol,” Wright tweeted, “when I knew him as a great family man , loyal friend and passionate @VillanovaAlumni.”
Ford’s journey took him to the NBA next. The Detroit Pistons drafted him in the second round of the 1974 draft with the 17th overall pick. Ford played his first six seasons in the NBA with Detroit, averaging 8.4 points and helping the Pistons make four straight playoff appearances.
In October 1978, three games into the NBA season, Ford’s basketball life changed forever. The Pistons traded him and a 1981 second-round pick to the Boston Celtics for Earl Tatum.
Chris Ford’s historic basketball career began at Holy Spirit High School.
The Celtics were about to begin one of the best stretches of success by any team in NBA history.
It was with the Celtics that Ford earned himself an individual place in NBA history. He made the first 3-pointer in league history. The basket came Oct. 12, 1979, in the Celtics’ season opening 114-106 win over the Houston Rockets. Ford finished 1 for 1 from beyond the arc, and as a sign of how much the game has changed since then, he would not make another 3-pointer until Nov. 17 of that season.
Bird made his NBA debut in the Oct. 12 game. Among the Rockets’ players that day were Moses Malone and Rick Barry.
Ford started 74 games for the 1981 Celtics, who won the NBA title. He retired after the 1981-82 season. Ford played in 794 NBA games and averaged 9.2 points per game.
Ford, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn and K.C. Jones are the only Celtics to earn championship rings as players and coaches with the organization.
“As a player and coach, Chris Ford’s career spanned over a decade of Celtics basketball, and he made his mark every step of the way,” the Celtics said in a statement Wednesday. “Doc, as he was affectionately known by his teammates, was a fundamentally versatile all-around guard.”
As of 12:01 a.m. last Friday, hindsight really was 2020.
Ford’s fourth and final NBA act came as coach.
He became a Celtics assistant immediately after retiring, helping Boston win NBA titles in 1984 and 1986. He took over as head coach of the Celtics in 1990 and led Boston to Atlantic Division titles in 1991 and 1992. Ford coached Boston for five seasons, finishing with a 228-188 record.
He would go on to coach the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers. Ford finished with a career coaching record of 323-376 in nine seasons. Ford also coached two seasons (2001-03) at Brandeis University, a Division III school in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Jack McCallum, a 1967 Oakcrest graduate, played against Ford at Holy Spirit and covered him in the NBA as a Sports Illustrated writer.
“I remember the night I played against him. I had six (points),” McCallum said in a 2012 Press Interview. “Chris had 37.”
McCallum tweeted Wednesday that Ford had the unenviable task of coaching former teammates Bird and Kevin McHale with the Celtics.
“He did it with aplomb,” McCallum tweeted. “The expression ‘He never forgot where he came from’ can be applied to many athletes, but none more than Chris, who wore his Atlantic City roots like a lettermen’s jacket.”The past few years, Ford was a familiar presence in Cape-Atlantic league gyms. He lived in Egg Harbor Township in the winter and Margate in the summer. His son, Chris Ford Jr., is the Atlantic City High School athletic director. His grandson, Chris Ford III, is a promising sophomore basketball player at Egg Harbor Township High School.
Ford III this month changed his number to 42, the number his grandfather wore at Holy Spirit, Villanova and in the NBA.
In April, Ford was inducted into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
“I’ve been around for a long time in a lot of different areas,” Ford said in an interview last spring. “I’m fortunate people still remember me. It’s still nice for people to come up and say, ‘Hey, when I was a little kid, I saw you play.’”
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