Ford, Cheryl 1981–
Cheryl Ford 1981–
Professional Basketball Player
When Cheryl Ford became a professional basketball player with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) 2003, there was no easing into the job for her. She hit the courts running full steam, all six-foot-three, 215 pounds of her. Ford brought to the game a passion and skill that helped push her team, the Detroit Shock, from the league loser to league champion in just one season. Along the way she earned the WBNA’s Rookie of the Year award and was tapped to try out for the 2004 Olympic team. It wasn’t too bad a start for a girl who never wanted to play basketball in the first place.
When future basketball legend Karl Malone met Bonita Ford, the two were students at Summerfield High School in rural Homer, Louisiana. The young couple enjoyed a brief fling. Nine months later, on June 6, 1981, Bonita Ford gave birth to Cheryl and her twin brother Daryl. Malone was long gone, already making national headlines as a top player at Louisiana Tech. Though he later settled a paternity suit with Bonita Ford, Malone had no contact with the children. Bonita raised the twins alone, driving a school bus and cleaning the school’s hallways, to make ends meet. Meanwhile Mal-one was rocketing to basketball stardom with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
Cheryl Ford resented her father’s abandonment, and the last thing she wanted to do was play basketball like him. But her mother had other ideas. “If you keep your kids busy, they don’t get into trouble,” Bonita Ford told the Detroit Free Press. She also noted that her daughter was “the tallest thing around… maybe six-foot in the sixth grade.” The first few times Ford hit the court were disastrous. “I was a tall and skinny and lanky girl that had no coordination or nothing,” Ford told the Detroit Free Press. “I wasn’t good.” At her mother’s urging, Ford joined an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team in Monroe, about an hour and a half away by car. There she met coach Linda Harper, the woman who would turn the 12-year-old into a basketball player. Though Ford couldn’t hold a basketball much less dribble one, Harper saw potential in her. “She has a gift there. She has an instinctive ability. She can read and she can know where a ball will come off, then get it with her athletic ability,” Harper
At a Glance…
Born on June 6, 1981 in Homer, LA. Education: Louisiana Tech, majored in health and physical education, 2003.
Career: Detroit Shock, WNBA professional basketball team, center, 2003–.
Awards: Western Athletic Conference, Player of the Year, 2002, 2003; WNBA, Rookie of the Year, 2003; Louisiana Sports Writers Association, State Player of the Year, 2003,
Addresses: Team —Detroit Shock, Palace of Auburn Hills, 3 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills, Ml 48326.
told the Detroit Free Press. “And she has the desire. She thinks the ball belongs to her.” Though she still struggled with mixed emotions about the game, not wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps, she eventually came to love the sport.
It wasn’t long before Ford’s desire and instinct had transformed into real talent. Soon women’s basketball fans nationwide were cluing into the fact that the ball did indeed belong to Ford. At Summerfield High School, Ford became a three-time All-State player. Meanwhile she led her AAU team to the national tournament. She also became a member of the USA team that competed in the 1998 World Youth Games in Moscow. With the second highest rebounds per game, Ford helped the team bring home a bronze medal. “For a high school player, Cheryl became a national figure,” Harper told the Detroit Free Press.
One person in particular was very interested in Ford’s success—Karl Malone. After a lifetime of estrangement, Malone returned to Louisiana, hoping to connect with his daughter and her twin brother. Ford recalled their first meeting to the Detroit Free Press, “We were crying. We just asked why. That’s all. We just wanted to know why. What took you so long?” Whatever the answer was, it has remained private. “There were a lot of lost years for a lot of reasons,” Malone told Sports Illustrated. “You wish you could make up those years, but you can’t, so you go on.” Ford and her brother began visiting Malone and his family at their ranch in Utah and slowly developed a family bond. “We have a great relationship,” Ford told USA Today in 2003. “It’s a dad-daughter relationship.” It is also a basketball relationship. Malone became a courtside regular at Ford’s games, especially when she became a star player at Louisiana Tech—Malone’s alma mater. He would regularly charter planes to catch her game. “It’s no big deal, I just want to watch her play,” Malone told The Salt Lake Tribune. Ford didn’t mind at all. “I love it when he comes to my games,” she told Sports Illustrated. “I get butterflies knowing he’s in the stands.”
Malone and the rest of the world had a lot to watch at Louisiana Tech. Ford made her presence known on the courts as early as her freshman year when she played in all 34 games of the season. During the 1999 State Farm Holiday Classic, she led the Lady Techsters to a victory, scoring a career-high 19 points and earning tournament honors in the process. In her sophomore year, she scored 18 points in her first game of the season. From there she only got better. During both her junior and senior years she was named Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Player of the Year. She made her mark as a rebounder—a player who intercepts the ball after an unsuccessful shot attempt—ranking number one in rebounds in WAC both years and breaking several WAC rebounding records. In her senior year she helped propel the Lady Techsters to the finals of the WAC championship tournament. Though Louisiana Tech lost, Ford was named tournament MVP. She was also named State Player of the Year by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. By the time she graduated she had played in four NCAA tournaments and had been named to several all-star teams.
Reflecting on Ford’s success, Louisiana Tech coach Kurt Budke told The Salt Lake Tribune, “[Ford] has come a long way since her freshman year because of her hard work and dedication. Her best days are still ahead of her.” He couldn’t have been more right. Following graduation from Louisiana Tech with a degree in health and physical education, Ford participated in the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) 2003 draft. She was picked third, landing a spot as forward for the Detroit Shock. Ford was stunned and later told the WNBA Web site, “I didn’t know I was that good.” Shock Coach Bill Laimbeer had had no doubt.
The Shock had limped to last place during the 2002 season and were desperately in need of a makeover. Laimbeer—former center of the NBA Detroit Pistons—was brought in to revive the team. Drafting Ford was one of the ways he intended to do it. Ford wasn’t so sure. “I didn’t think I could play at this level at first,” Ford told ESPN. “But when I got here and got adjusted from the college game to the pro level, I saw the same players I competed against at [the college level]. That is when I knew I could play here and that became my goal.’” Wearing Shock jersey number 35, Ford wasted no time working on that goal. In June of 2003 Laimbeer told the Detroit Free Press, “She’s only played three games and her talent has shown already.”
Two months later he told ESPN, “She is already stronger than most players she plays against, especially when she is matched up against a power forward. She just dominates physically and she has large hands that help her be a great natural rebounder.” By the end of the season, Ford had achieved an impressive doubledouble average—10.8 points per game, 10.4 rebounds per game. She was one of only three WNBA players to do so, and the only rookie.
The Shock became the Cinderella story of the WNBA, going from a record 23 losses in 2002 to a record 25 wins in 2003. The streak landed the team a spot in the WNBA championship run. In the final game against two-time champs the Los Angeles Sparks, the Shock found themselves trailing 73-70 with less than four minutes left to play. After her teammates nudged the Shock up a few points, Ford landed four free throws, helping seal the Shock’s win. Of the 22,000 fans watching her, one kept his eyes covered—her father. “In the last game of my college career, I missed some big free throws against LSU and it cost us the game,” Ford said on the CBS Sportsline Web site. “That’s why he couldn’t watch.” She added, “I told him, ‘I’ve got a [championship] ring, now it’s your turn.’”
Ford’s stellar debut as a pro player didn’t end with the WNBA title. She was the only rookie to be named to the WNBA all-star team. “It’s pretty exciting,” she told USA Today, before adding in typical humble fashion, “I didn’t even expect to start coming into this season, so it’s a great feeling to be here.” Ford also landed league honors as WNBA Rookie of the Year.
Despite her skill, her awards, and her records, Ford the player tended to get overshadowed by Ford the daughter of Karl Malone. “The questions about her dad are relentless and the sad part is it doesn’t go away,” Laimbeer told ESPN. “OK, it was a story, move on. She was raised by her mother and by her perspective she wants to become her own basketball player and just known as Cheryl Ford.” Malone who transferred to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2003, wanted to see the questions stop too. “She’s doing it herself. She’s really making a mark on her own,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. And Ford wanted to make sure that her mother didn’t get lost in all the media frenzy over her famous dad. “She doesn’t get all the credit she deserves,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “She’s the one who was there for us by herself.” Bonita Ford is also the one who drove cross-country to Detroit when Ford became homesick. After a week of homemade meals and catching up, Bonita returned back to Louisiana and started driving her school bus again.
Meanwhile, Ford continued to carve out her own niche in the annals of basketball. She launched into her second year with the Shock more talented than ever. She also joined the 2004 USA Senior National Team for a three-game sweep over the Cuban National Team. As of April 2004 she was also in the running for a spot on the 2004 USA Olympic team. When asked what she would do if she won an Olympic medal, she told the WNBA Web site, “I would have it framed and give it to my mom because I think she deserves it for all of her hard work.”
Detroit Free Press, June 17, 2003.
The Salt Lake Tribune, March 12, 2003.
Sports Illustrated, January 28, 2002.
“Cheryl Ford,” USA Basketball, www.usabasketball.com/bloswomen/cheryl_ford_bio (April 7, 2004).
“Ford Caught in Dad’s Shadow,” ESPN, http://espn.go.com/wnba/s/2003/0809/1593052.html (April 7, 2004).
“Ford Follows in Dad’s All-Star Steps,” USA Today, www.usatoday.com/sports/basketball/wnba/shock/2003-07-12-ford-all-star_x.htm (April 7, 2004).
“Shock Complete Worst-to-First Fairy Tale with Championship,” CBS Sportsline, http://cbs.sportslinecom/wnba/gamecenter/recap/[email protected] (April 7, 2004).
“Twenty Questions with Cheryl Ford,” WNBA, www.wnba.com/features/20questions_ford.html (April 7, 2004).
“Q&A with Cheryl Ford, Detroit Shock,” WNBA, www.wnba.com/draft2003/quotes_cheryl_ford.html (April 7, 2004).
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