Kisha Ford: A Garden Homecoming – 6/16/00

“I love her more than anything. And she’s definitely like my little sister. I was kinda feeling like a big sister today when I saw her. “Oh my, you’ve grown up, you look so cute.” It was like, “You shouldn’t be doing that! You shouldn’t be growing up, you should stay a baby.” But she really looks good, and I’m proud of her. She’s happy, and that’s what’s important,” Teresa Weatherspoon, speaking of ex-teammate Kisha Ford’s return to Madison Square Garden.

There’s no getting around it: in the business of sports, players leave.

If they’re lucky, it’s by choice. They move to a new team where they have new opportunities. If they’re not lucky, it’s because they’ve been waived, and they enter a professional limbo.

The process of leaving can be wrenching to both players and fans. But the reality of imminent separation doesn’t lessen the bonds formed between teammates and their supporters. And the bond between those who played in the WNBA’s inaugural season and those who watched them was especially strong.

For both players and fans, losing a player to the expansion draft was like losing a family member. So, with all the comings and goings of this Liberty season, it was heartening to have Kisha Ford, one of the “original” Liberty players, return to the Garden, even if it was in an opponent’s uniform.

But there was also something heartbreaking about watching her at the beginning of the game. While her Miami teammates huddled with their coach, Ford stood, silhouetted in the lights, watching her as her former teammates were introduced to the cheering Garden crowd.

In 1997 Ford, a 5’10” guard out of Georgia Tech, was drafted by the New York Liberty and became part of history as a member of the first WNBA season. The only true rookie on the Liberty, she played two years with the team before being taken by the Orlando Miracle in the 1999 draft. Ford was waived by the Miracle mid-season, but she returned to basketball this year as a free agent with the expansion Miami Sol. This Sunday evening marked Ford’s first visit to Madison Square Garden since being drafted by the Miracle. Shouts of “Kisha!” greeted her every lay-up during warm-ups and warm applause accompanied her first appearance on the court. Even Maddie, the New York Liberty mascot, offered Ford a “Welcome home” hug.

Reflecting on her time with the Liberty Ford remembers a close knit family. But, while the veterans took very good care of her, but they also challenged her professionally. “It was a pretty great experience, playing with the veterans, Kym (Hampton) and Spoon, Sue Wicks, Trina Trice. I was a true rookie, in the sense that I did not have any overseas professional experience. You go in to practice with T-Spoon and Vickie Johnson, who I believe are two of the best defenders in this league, you have a big challenge. That’s who I played against every day. I had to get better, even if I wasn’t ready to, just to defend against those two people. And Sophia Witherspoon, who should be an all-star soon, in her own right. I had a good group of people around me. Very supportive, from my head coaches, who I love very much still, to my teammates.”

Her inaugural season with the Liberty was full of highlights, from the “First Tip” against the Los Angeles Sparks to the first WNBA Championship game against the Houston Comets. But she also remembers how moved the veterans were at participating in the WNBA, and recognized how important the birth of the league was to them. Ford understood that these women had been playing abroad for years, and were finally be able to play at home, in front of their friends and families. “The first time we walked out on our own court in Madison Square Garden, Sue Wicks kissed the floor,” remembers Ford. “It was that special to some of the players.”

Her second season with the Liberty provided another memorable moment. As the season was winding down, New York Times photographer Michelle V. Agins had been following the Liberty during their final, grueling road trip. On August 16,1998, the NY Times Sunday magazine article about the WNBA, “A Sport You Can Love” was published. The cover of the magazine featured Ford, driving to the basket. Her face lights up at the memory.

“I remember we had a big party out at Michelle’s place and they had the big poster up there, the front cover. They called and told me I was on it. That meant a lot. To have people in the community recognize you as a player on that team. You’re not just looking at Rebecca Lobo or T-Spoon, which were obviously the most popular players. And Sue Wicks. You’re also looking at the sixth man, coming off the bench. Being able to be on the front cover of the New York Times was really important for me.”

Her last memory of playing in the Garden that season was not such a pleasant one. She almost grimaces at the memory. “The last game would have been against Cleveland. We lost the in (’98) Eastern Conference Championship game. If we’d had won that we’d have won the Conference. So, yeah I remember. Oh, I remember.”

The end of the ’98 season brought on the WNBA’s first growing pains-an expansion draft to stock the league’s four new teams. Many fans in New York were upset to see Ford picked up by the Orlando, though some consoled themselves with the hope that this would give her the opportunity to be a starter. Ford herself was happy about the move to Orlando and looked forward to the change.

“Carol (Blazejowski, Liberty VP & General Manager) called as soon as she found out. I was over playing in Sweden. She called, and I thanked her for giving me an opportunity to play here. I was glad to leave in a sense that I needed to grow up. I loved my teammates, and I loved playing her, but I was the baby here. I was the rookie, and even my second year I was still the baby. I needed to go out and experience something new. And learn to develop relationships with different people and to become a different player, because I was just a defensive player here. So I think I needed something different.”

But the move to Orlando didn’t work out as she’d hoped, and by the middle of the 1999 season, Ford had been waived. The memory is still a painful. “Three weeks before (I was waived), I talked to (Orlando coach) Carolyn Peck and she felt like I was a good pick up for the team. She was happy with me as a player and I did good things for the team. And July 12th, they told me after the game, right before all-star break, that ‘We’re releasing you.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ and got up and left. And that’s all I said, because I was pretty emotional, and I would have been too emotional to handle it professionally, like I would have wanted to. I did speak to her at the end of the season, so we have a working relationship. It’s just — when you don’t fit into someone’s system, you just don’t fit.”

In spite of the hurt and disappointment, Ford looks back on that time positively as a “year of growth.”

“I had to look at am I just ‘Kisha Ford, number 5, WNBA,’ or am I ‘Kisha Ford’ and that’s all I need. And I really had to figure out, could I live without basketball? And I realized last year that I could. I still have the love for the game, but I don’t have to have to play 10 years overseas, or 10 years in this league to say that I’m successful. And I think that was a biggest thing for me. I had an opportunity to go overseas in the off season (and play) and I went to work (instead). And I said, ‘I want to work because I want my resume not to be just about basketball. I want it to say more.’ And that helped me. That entire year, that off-season helped me grow up, professionally.”

The time away from basketball seemed to renew her drive and determination. “Coming into this year, I just wanted to play. I didn’t care where I ended up. I wanted to play. I went down to the local tryout in Miami. They called me back that Sunday night late. Marynell Meadors (Director of Scouting) called me at midnight and she said, “Can you be here tomorrow.” And I said, “I’ll pack my car up and I’ll be there.”

She made the team, but pride and satisfaction of having survived training camp was tempered by the frustration of injuries kept her off the court. “The broken finger, the dislocated finger, the back –they were all injuries that kept me out for games. And I prayed, ‘Let me just get an opportunity to prove myself.’ Her first game off of the injured list she scored 8 points off the bench. In her second game against Detroit she was a key factor in securing the Sol their first franchise win, scoring 14 points.

“After that game I honestly said, ‘You know, people were telling me that I was good, and now I can really believe that. Before, I was good in the New York system, and I felt like I was a really good player, but I was in that system. I was the sixth man. I came into give the team a spark defensively. ‘Shut her down,’ That’s what I did. And last year, it was like, ‘Well, maybe I’m not that good.’ You start to question everything about yourself, so it feels good. To actually get out there and play, and to prove that I can play against the people in this league who are obviously the best in the world.”

Asked about her feelings on returning to Madison Garden, Ford smiled. “The excitement of being here didn’t really start to flow in till we were driving (from the airport). We flew in to LaGuardia, and in the off season I used to live out there in Jackson Heights. And I’m telling Amanda (Ludwig, Director of Public Relations) ‘Look, over there! That’s where I lived! That’s where I lived!’ The excitement of being back just flooded in when I got here. I have people, friendships that I made here, and they’ll be at the game. And it’ll be nice to see the other girls on the team. It will be special. Madison Square Garden is in my opinion the best place if you play basketball. If you’ve had an opportunity to play there, then you’ve seen basketball.”

Clearly, Teresa Weatherspoon’s “little sister” has grown up, both on and off the court. (Orlando) “didn’t work out…the way I would have liked it to,” she says, “but I think the way it happened was the best thing for me as a person. Not just as a basketball player, but as a person, because I was not happy there.”

This growth and self-confidence is echoed in her thoughtfulness about plans for life after basketball. Born in Baltimore, Ford wants to return there and start a community center for kids. “I just think I’d rather help kids. With their love of basketball, but also give them the role to work in school.” A center can offer children “somewhere that they can just focus on their schoolwork and the things they need to do to get out of the inner city. You don’t think you can if you’re there, and people just don’t understand. But if you’re there, a lot of people just don’t think they can. And I think that if you have people who say, ‘Hey, look, I was there. I grew up in the inner city. I know what it’s like. You see drugs on the corner. I’ve been there. But can you go higher?'”

Like proud parents, we at the Garden expect to watch Kisha to do just that.

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