When Celtics rookie Dee Brown made his NBA debut in November 1990, he was briefly overwhelmed by his surroundings. He looked to the post and saw Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. He looked to the perimeter and saw Larry Bird.
This first-round pick from Jacksonville University was being tasked with fitting in with all three future Hall of Famers. It was a lot. But rookie coach Chris Ford, who had won a title playing with Boston’s Big Three before coaching them to two more as an assistant, ensured that Brown did not feel out of place.
“He helped me out a lot being around them and being the new guy on the block,” Brown said Wednesday. “He helped me navigate those relationships.
“And being the point guard, those guys always thought they were open. And he’d say, ‘Dee, you’re the point guard. You’ve got to speak your mind and talk up.’
“He helped me with that and gave me the platform to do that. He helped me to see that I did belong on the floor with those guys.”
Ford, who died Tuesday at the age of 74, had an ability to connect that resonated with his former players and teammates.
“Chris was such an important part of our success, as a teammate, coach and friend,” Bird said in a statement.
Ford’s family gave no cause of death in a statement released through the Celtics. Ford leaves his wife, Kathy; children Chris Jr., Katie, Anthony, and Michael; and seven grandchildren.
The Atlantic City native was selected by the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the 1972 draft after a standout career at Villanova.
He was traded to the Celtics in 1978 and was a key part of their 1981 championship team, averaging 8.9 points and 3.6 assists per game. He also made the first 3-pointer in NBA history, on Oct. 12, 1979.
Ford retired as a player in 1982, and in 1983 he started a seven-year stint as a Celtics assistant coach, with championships coming in 1984 and 1986. He was named head coach in 1990 and went 222-188 over five seasons, but the Celtics were unable to advance past the conference semifinals during his tenure. Ford also was head coach of the Bucks, the Clippers, and briefly with the 76ers.
Celtics great Cedric Maxwell, who spent four seasons as Ford’s Boston teammate, described him as a “talkative leader.”
Maxwell recalled an 1981 NBA Finals game against the Rockets during which he was drilling one shot after another. But on a critical play late in the game, Maxwell passed the ball to an open teammate instead of shooting. The shot missed.
“And I get back to the bench and Chris said, ‘Damn it, don’t you pass right now,’ ” Maxwell recalled with a chuckle. “ ‘Don’t you pass that ball at all.’ I said, ‘But he was open.’ And he said, ‘I don’t give a damn. You’re hot. Don’t pass.’ ”
The Celtics went on to win the championship, and Maxwell was named Finals MVP.
Maxwell said it was not awkward when Ford became an assistant coach in charge of directing many of his former teammates. If anything, the comfort level allowed him to be more frank. Bird, McHale, and Parish still played for the Celtics when Ford was named head coach in 1990, and Brown, then a rookie, said he did not play any favorites.
“He was hard on them, and he was fair,” Brown said. “He was hard on everybody. He’d go at Larry if Larry did something wrong. He’d go at Kevin. He’d built equity with them by being a player, so they respected his knowledge. And when he was upset about something, he let them know.
“He didn’t hold anything back. I always respected that.”
Maintaining a family atmosphere was important to Ford, too. When Chris Jr. worked as a team ball boy, Maxwell knew him only as “Chocolate Milk,” because he would sneak the sugary drink to Maxwell on the bench during games.
Longtime Celtics public relations director Jeff Twiss and Ford were both born on Jan. 11, and on their big day, they would race to offer birthday wishes to the other first. Twiss’s daughter, Lindsay, took piano lessons from Kathy Ford.
“Chris and his family were always right in the middle of team gatherings, like apple picking,” Twiss said. “Those things brought great joy to him, those bonds and family types of feelings.”
Brown said Ford’s intensity could be jarring during games. But afterward, he would invite players to dinner and talk about the team, their families, and their lives.
“A lot of coaches in the late ’80s and early ’90s didn’t really separate professional lives from personal,” Brown said. “But he did, and he was the perfect coach for me.”