May 3, 1991
This man works at his job. When the game starts, he never takes a seat. Rather, he roams incessantly from a point midway down the Celtics bench to the hash mark, continually yelling instructions, 90 percent of which have to do with defense. He gives new meaning to the phrase "into the game."
He was so into Wednesday's vital triumph over Indiana that when it was over, he sounded like Marlon Brando in "The Godfather." The vocal cords were practically gone.
"That was a must game for us," he said yesterday, his voice somewhat restored after downing some morning tea and honey. "Their crowd was into it. In order for me to be heard, I had to take it up a few levels."
Chris Ford is a rookie head coach, and the 1991 playoffs are like his freshman year final exams. Being coach of the Boston Celtics has become one of the great mine-field jobs in professional sport. No one has forgotten that just a year ago, Jimmy Rodgers was waxing enthusiastic about his team's 157-point effort against the Knicks one day and was a crushed being without a job nine days later. This is life in the very fast lane. Ford had a front-row seat for that particular show, and he is not naive. What happened to Jimmy Rodgers could someday happen to him.
It would not go down too well in the inner sanctum if the Celtics were to be defeated in the first round of the playoffs three years in succession. It would be easy to pinpoint technical reasons, starting with the Larry Bird situation, but in the end, the finger would point to Ford. Somebody would always be able to find something he should or shouldn't have done.
He realizes all this, but there is no evidence any of it has affected him. All season long, Fordologists have marveled at his composure. He always seems to know how far to go. As much as he gets into the game, he never has lost control. His emotions have never interfered with his intellect. He's yet to pick up a technical.
Given the inherent pressures on a Celtic coach these days, we can safely label this a crisis week. Losing Game 2 last Sunday created the predictable local panic. You'd think that after 35 years ofCeltic success, people - fans and media alike - would step back and say, "Look, the Celtics have been in these situations before and have very often bounced back." That is not what happened. We all (oh yes, I was as bad as anyone) said, "Looks like they can't guard these guys. This series is over."
Chris Ford kept saying, "There is no reason to change our game plan. We just have to execute it this time."
Result: Boston 112, Indiana 105.
"The thing which really comes through about Chris," says Dave Gavitt, "is his level-headedness. He never panics. He stays the course. He is mentally tough. That game Wednesday night made it very obvious to me how well prepared the team was for the game, and the entire playoffs."
"You pretty much see the same guy each day," says assistant coach Don Casey. "He didn't walk around after Sunday's loss as if it were the end of the world. Sure, there are always little ups and downs, but with Chris, there is always a recovery."
Chris Ford is operating under a severe handicap. The Larry Bird situation is extremely delicate. Larry can't practice, which makes it very difficult for Ford to prepare his team. Larry can't be relied upon to do everything he once did when the game starts, which is a further complication. Ford is the first Celtic coach who has to work around Larry Bird. He is very close to becoming the first Boston Celtic coach to restrict him. Chris was not pleased at all when LB cranked up a 3-pointer late in the game while the team was trying to spread the floor, work a little clock and just get out of the arena without anything bad happening. Traditionally, you let Larry take that shot because he's Larry and he's made 'em before and it has never mattered if he's missed his previous 10 shots. Now maybe that does matter, especially when there is a 58 percent shooter named Kevin Gamble having a very good night. Mark it down that when the time came to yell at Larry Bird, Chris Ford didn't back down. He did his job.
One of the things that hurt Jimmy Rodgers was that he changed over the course of his two-year tenure. The job got to him. It aged him. It tormented him. It robbed him of his gentle nature and replaced it with paranoia. Someday Chris Ford might succumb to the pressure, but right now he is still the same old Chris Ford.
"His feel for the game is excellent," says Casey, "and the most important thing in his favor is that he still has his rapport with the players and the other coaches. He is aware of feelings and he is receptive to suggestions. That is a major plus for any coach."
Coaching at this level is a volatile profession. Very few do it without turning into something distasteful. Chris Ford may be one of the exceptions.