Al Ford – Mississippi Delta’s Finest
by Bryan Crawford
When I moved from Chicago to Jackson, MS in the mid 90′s I came in with the attitude that Chicago in particular and the state of Illinois in general produced the best basketball players by far of any place else. But after spending almost 10 years of my life down there I came to realize that what I believed early on couldn’t have been any further from the truth. Most people don’t know this but per capita, the state of MS produces more NBA players than any other place in the country (Illinois is 3rd, so I was almost correct in my theory). That’s insane to even think about, but it’s true. A lot of my readers have read my post on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf when I went on record as saying that he was the best player ever from the state of MS. Well now I want to introduce you to Alphonso Gene Ford who at 6’1″ and 190lbs was arguably the best scorer ever from the state and somebody that I’m almost willing to bet you’ve never heard of before.
Al Ford was from Greenwood, MS which is in the northern section of the state commonly referred to as “The Delta”. Mississippi in and of itself is about 90% rural and in these areas poverty is essentially a way of life; the delta is no exception. For most deltans, the only chance of ever making it out is through sports. Al Ford starred at Amanda Elzy HS in Greenwood and after graduating in 1989 he attended Mississippi Valley State University which was coached by the legendary Lafayette Stribling. “Strib” ran an offense that was very free flowing and revolved heavily around shooting the three. Al was the perfect fit for that system. His first year playing Division I basketball in coach Stribling’s system, he averaged 29.9ppg and led the country in scoring. His sophomore season he averaged 32.7ppg which was second behind Bo Kimble at Loyola Marymount. His last 2 years at Valley he averaged 27.5 and 26ppg respectively finishing his collegiate career with a per game scoring average of 29ppg. He was the first player in NCAA Division I history to average 25ppg in 4 seasons and his 3,165 career points rank him 4th all time on the NCAA scoring list with “Pistol” Pete Maravich being #1. It didn’t matter that he played at a small black college either. Putting up numbers like that, people take notice. In 1993 the league took notice and the Philadelphia 76ers made him the 5th pick in the second round of the NBA draft. That draft included Chris Webber, Shawn Bradley, Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, JR Rider, Calbert Cheaney, Bobby Hurley, Vin Baker, Lindsey Hunter, Allan Houston, James “Hollywood” Robinson, Sam Cassell and Nick Van Exel. He played only 5 games with the Sixers and then in 6 games with the Seattle Supersonics before going to the CBA and then eventually to Europe in 1995, which is where the legend of Al Ford begins.
He started in the Spanish league and was instant offense as soon as he stepped off the plane averaging 24.9ppg his first year. The following year he went over to the Greek league and took a team that wasn’t that good all the way to the playoffs and a spot in the league championship final four. He then went to Turkey and came back to Greece where he became a Euroleague star. That year he averaged 24.9ppg and helped his team, Peristeri to the playoffs. In 2001he played for Olympiakos where he averaged 24.8 points, 4.8 boards, and 3.2 dimes in only 20 games! From there he moved on to Italy and put up numbers in that league too. in 2001 and 2002 he was the Euroleagues top scorer.
In spite of the ridiculous amount of points that he scored everywhere he played, what most people didn’t know was that in 1997 he was diagnosed with leukemia. I don’t know what it is about these cats from Mississippi with incurable diseases but like Mahmoud, Al didn’t let that stop him and he continued to give people the bid’ness! In 2004 the disease apparently had taken it’s toll and he was forced to retire; two weeks after he announced his retirement, Al Ford was dead at the age of 32. In his honor, the Euroleague renamed it’s annual top scorer award the Alphonso Ford Trophy.
Could Al Ford have played D1 basketball at a major college or university? Absolutely. Could he have made it in the NBA? More than likely. But the way I look at it is this. He played in the SWAC which is Division I-AA and what I like to consider a “minor league” of Division I-A which is where the big boys play. He made it to the NBA and given the chance probably could’ve had a decent career. But he became a star in the Euroleague — just like he was in the SWAC – which is basically a minor league to the NBA. In my opinion coming from the SWAC and going to the Euroleague was an easy transition for him because they were essentially one in the same. Either way, Alphonso Ford is one of the greats to ever play this game. It’s just a shame that outside of the Mississippi and Europe, no one had ever heard of him. That’s why I’m giving him props and showing him love by writing this story. He should be an inspiration to every basketball player out there because his story just goes to show that no matter where you are or where you come from, if you can play somebody will find you and give you a shot.