Who would ever have thought that Phil Ford, a true icon of Tar Heel college basketball and the 1978 player of the year, would one day show up at North Davidson's Pete Jones Gymnasium?
It happened. That day was Thursday.
Ford, now 63, was acting as the nominal "coach" of a collection of college all-stars, mostly from the Atlantic Coast Conference, on the first date of their eight-site barnstorming tour though North Carolina.
Players like North Carolina's Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson, Wake Forest's Anthony Bilas, and N.C. State's Torin Dorn and UNC Greensboro's Francis Alonso delighted the nearly-packed gymnasium with a jaw-dropping assortment of mid-court 3-pointers and slam dunks while taking on a Davidson County team of prep all-stars in an exhibition game where the score never mattered.
Prior to the exhibition, I had a chance to ask Ford – who served as an assistant coach to Dean Smith and then Bill Guthridge at UNC from 1988 to 2000 – if he ever considered head coaching at the collegiate level.
"As an old coach once said, you never say never," said Ford. "I have to say, I enjoy what I'm doing now. I'm on the speaker's tour and I work with a lot of non-profits. I also give individual lessons. I'm really having a lot of fun.
"This is my seventh year with the barnstorming tour," said Ford. "It's
not really coaching. I'm just trying to make sure that nobody gets hurt.
"But you know, you never say never."
I couldn't resist telling Ford that I actually "met" him for the first time more than 40 years ago. I was a newly-minted journalist fresh from Pennsylvania, where my beat was exclusively borough council meetings mixed in with a dash of prep sports.
But on this particular night, now in North Carolina and working as a sports writer for The Dispatch, I was covering the UNC-Clemson game that was being played on a neutral site at the Greensboro Coliseum.
"I remember that game," said Ford, beaming. "That's where coach Smith got ejected with two technical fouls."
Wow. Absolutely correct. Good memory.
Then I told him of our meeting. I was sitting on press row, perhaps covering my first ACC basketball game ever. Suddenly, there was a loose ball, bouncing out of bounds and in my direction. Right behind the rogue ball was a looming Phil Ford in his classic hell-for-leather attempt to save it.
Ford eventually ended up leaping into press row, between me and another writer. To this day, I stake my claim to fame that Ford jumped over me (a slightly exaggerated claim, I confess) on press row. Ford was almost as famous for chasing down loose balls into the stands as he was running the Four Corners.
He gave a hearty laugh to my memory, which made me feel pretty good.
Here we were, two greybeards from a different era, sharing our past.
Glory days. Sweet.