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bob ryan

Chris Ford was an unpretentious member of the Celtics family who really knew how to play basketball

Chris Ford (left), who was in the Celtics organization from 1978-95, was a teammate of Larry Bird's and later his head coach.Blanding, John Globe Staff

His Celtics teammates nicknamed him “Doc” in the spirit of identifying an obese man as “Tiny.”

For Chris Ford’s landlocked game was the antithesis of the airborne extravaganza put on nightly display by Julius “Doctor J” Erving.

Chris Ford was 6 feet 5 inches, a good starting point for a basketball player. But he was not faster than a speeding bullet or able to either leap a tall building in a single bound or bench press 300 pounds. What he did was figure this basketball thing down to a science.

“I’ve always liked him because he is so fundamentally sound,” said no less an authority on basketball than John Havlicek.

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Chris Ford always knew who he was on the basketball floor.

“If you matched me up with any 10 guards in the league for a footrace, I’d finish 10th,” he told me in a 1979 session. “But that’s no indication of what I can do defensively. I like to think I’m an intelligent player on the floor. At 6-5, I can drop off that extra step to prevent quicker guys from driving on me, and I can still bother them on their shot.”

Exhibit A took place in a 1980 playoff sweep of the Houston Rockets, when Ford neutralized mercurial 5-9 scoring machine Calvin Murphy, a future Hall of Famer. How did he do it? He just took out his protractor, figured the angles, and went to work; that’s how. It was classic Chris Ford.

Chris Ford died this week at age 74, and the lead in all national accounts identified him as the man who made the first regular-season 3-pointer when the rule was incorporated into the NBA.

Yes, on Oct. 12, 1979, the same evening as Larry Bird’s NBA debut, Chris Ford drifted into the right corner in transition with the Rockets leading, 17-16, took a pass, set his feet, took a deep breath, and sank a one-hander with his feet firmly anchored to the floor. Thus, NBA history was made. A Steph Curry was an unimaginable concept.

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Yes, it was an old-fashioned set shot, one Hank Luisetti would have admired. Chris Ford was the penultimate NBA one-hand set shooter (John Lucas was the last).

“I think that set shot is my best shot,” he maintained. “Stand still. Look at the label. Shoot. Yeah, I’d have to say that’s my best shot.”

He had become a Celtic three games into the 1978-79 season as a gift from Detroit’s Dick Vitale, sort of the down payment on a bequest that would result in Kevin McHale and Robert Parish becoming Celtics on draft day in 1980. The price to obtain him was the forgotten Earl Tatum, and Vitale, then the Pistons general manager, also threw in a second-round pick.

It was the start of a 17-year Boston association that would include being a player, assistant coach, and one of seven men who both played on championship teams and coached the team: Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, Dave Cowens, and M.L. Carr being the other six.

But Chris Ford had tentacles that extended well beyond Boston. He was born on Jan. 11, 1949, in Atlantic City, N.J., and he remains the greatest player, and highest scorer, in the history of Holy Spirit High School in that city. They still talk about the guy who could bring up the ball, pass it off, and assume a spot in the post. He truly did it all for that squad.

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From there he went to Villanova at a time when the Big 5 was in full flower. Rival Philly foes labeled him a “hot dog,” and indeed frankfurters came soaring out of the crowd when Villanova took the Palestra floor. Ford said it was because he was a back-patter and fist-waver on an otherwise unemotional team, and, anyway, he didn’t care.

“I never took it personally and I actually thought it was very funny,” he told me. “I kept Oscar Mayer in business.”

He had a brilliant college career, which concluded with a trip to the 1971 NCAA championship game, in which the Wildcats lost to mighty UCLA. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

At this point, I must say I always thought I owed Chris one forever. The story containing these quotes appeared in the Sunday Globe of Jan. 28, 1979. That afternoon, Chris Ford scored a career-high 34 points on 17-of-24 shooting in a 103-102 victory over the Warriors. And check this out: His 17 field goals included seven “jumpers,” five set shots, two leaners, two drives, and a flying tip-in. Take that, Dr. J.

Oops, almost forgot. He also had four 24-second-clock buzzer-beaters. Four!

Thanks for making me look good, Chris.

A year later, he was starting alongside Tiny Archibald in the backcourt as the Celtics won title No. 14. It was a well-deserved ring.

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Now here’s the thing about Chris Ford. I’ve been blessed to meet countless people in my various professional and collegiate travels, but none who were nicer or more unpretentious than Chris Ford. He was simply your next-door neighbor who, instead of heading off to an insurance office or law firm, was going to work at the Garden, and it was the same whether he was a player or coach.

I’m talking about a Chris Ford who, when running a basketball camp, went to every room to introduce himself and sign whatever they could find for him so sign.

I’m talking about the Chris Ford who once coached the Celtics in the afternoon and then coached his son’s eighth-grade travel team in Methuen that evening.

I’m talking about the Chris Ford who assured a worried family that their little girl’s approaching his son while the Fords were dining was not a problem. “We’ve been there,” he said. “She’s adorable. No worries.”

(Thank you, tweeters, for sharing these memories).

I’m also talking about a Chris Ford who kept abreast of what was going on outside the NBA and who immediately tagged new acquisition Kevin Gamble with the nickname “Oscar” in reference to the American League outfielder with the world-famous Afro.

And I’m talking about the Chris Ford whose Celtics team was somehow hanging tough in a 1995 playoff game against a superior Shaq-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic squad in what would be the last game ever at the old Garden, turned to the press corps sometime in the second half and said, “How are we in this game?”

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Celtics PR impresario Jeff Twiss has been with the team for 42 years. He’s seen ‘em all. Here’s his take on Chris Ford:

“Chris always thought about others before himself. He truly cared about everyone who was associated with the Celtics. He gave added meaning to ‘Celtics Family’ with his steady leadership and demeanor. He was the epitome of the name on the front of the jersey meaning more than the back with his last name on it.”

There you have it.


Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com.