Richard TerrellThursday, September 16, 2021
Richard Ford grew up in Birmingham and played organized basketball from the time he was a small child. Our conversation with him is below. Below that, added the afternoon of Wednesday, 9-23-21, is a photo gallery from various points and places in his basketball career.
Where was the first place you played for professionally?
Japan, Fukuoka, Japan.
How’s your Japanese?
Every year it gets worse. I lose more the more I don’t use it.
How hard a transition was it moving from the United States to Japan?
It really wasn’t, it really wasn’t hard at all honestly. The food was pretty good, and once they got over the fear of me being so tall and things of that nature, they kind of treat you like a king over there, so it really wasn’t that hard.
How were you recruited to play for the team in Japan?
It was a long process. I ended up playing semi-pro up in Washington then the team folded, and I ended up being homeless out in Portland for probably about two or three months before I found another team. I got onto their team, and there was a guy in Japan who had played in that league previously, and so he called to the commissioner and gave a description of the type of guy they were looking for, and I fit the bill.
That’s how it happened for me. I went from homeless to overseas.
How old were you when you started playing in Japan?
After that, where all did you play professionally?
I went from there and went and played in Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Bolivia.
How’s your Spanish?
Mucho pequito, mucho pequito. Honestly, once it came to foreign languages, I learned more from conversations. You know, versus taking lessons. If I needed something, I’d use hand gestures and listened to what they said, and I’d use it again somewhere else and see what I got. I got a lot of the right things and I also ordered a lot of the wrong stuff.
How long did you play in all these different countries?
About 14 years, but that includes the semi-pros here in the United States and the pros overseas.
What’s your favorite country you played in, basketball aside?
Basketball aside … Japan.
Why is that?
The culture ... the city that I was in, it was Americanized enough that I was able to maneuver around [but] at the same time, it had enough Japanese culture for me to be able to learn how to adjust, how to live, and there was a lot to do in Japan. The Spanish countries that I went to, they were very poor... In El Salvador after about 8, 9 o’clock, you can’t get anything to eat unless you know somebody because it’s a very family-oriented town.
Which country was your favorite as far as the level and style of basketball?
I would probably say Mexico. It was a little bit faster-paced and I was actually able to play my position in Mexico ... I was forced to play the five [center] due to contracts and just the way the team was operated. In Japan, because they offered someone a contract early in the summer and he didn’t accept until maybe two weeks before, we had to report for camp and I had already signed ... I got 'bumped up' position-wise. [So] probably Mexico. I had a lot of fun playing in Mexico, basketball wise. I had a lot of fun until I hurt my knee.
How’d you hurt your knee?
I had a teammate that was getting upset. I want to say he [had] played on their national team and their Olympic team. When you’re a native over there and you're so much larger and so much better than everybody, they really kind of pick on you with the officiating. They don’t give you certain calls they would give everybody else, and he got frustrated in a rival game and he ran over two guys and just so happened to fall on my knee. I ended up tearing my knee up just in some freak accident.
How hard was it to relocate that frequently?
... It’s not really that hard if you're caught up in that moment. [But] now, this is probably, since 2003, this is the most I’ve stayed in Birmingham since I graduated high school. This actually has been harder than moving around from place to place. This a bigger adjustment for me. In high school we traveled from the end of October to February. We weren’t in the city of Birmingham for more than 14 days. We were going all over the Southeast playing different teams in different tournaments, and that helped me transition to college and where we were traveling, and then playing pros was almost like playing at high school again: get home, reset, wash clothes, repack and go again. So, this has been more of an adjustment, staying in one place for such a long time. But I can tell you, it comes with sacrifices. There were certain family events that I missed. I missed certain things with my son that I wasn’t here for. It’s not always as joyous as its cracked up to be, like everybody thinks you're overseas, you're having a good time and you're partying -- that’s what they see on the internet. They don’t see those Christmas breaks when you're by yourself, those Thanksgiving breaks when, not to say that you don’t have anything to eat, but you're not eating traditional food. You know you go to places where they’re not celebrating it the way you're used to celebrating it -- it's not always a joyous occasion if you go over there and actually experience it.
Why did you decide Altamont is where you wanted to be, and why have you stayed here after you were hired initially?
The culture. I’m someone who’s not really with fitting in. I’m okay with being off to myself and being one on one. And as I look through the history of Altamont, I don’t think there has been a basketball team that has hung a state championship in history, so that motivates me on the daily to be that coach who brings the first state championship here. You can go to a program where they have established themselves and that’s what they’re used to doing, like the Mountain Brooks, and the Hoovers -- you’re one of many, you’re doing the same thing as the guy right before you. You might have changed up a thing or two, but you are basically just filling a piece in that whole machine. To come up here and to have the potential to build a whole machine up here, that’s motivational ... I can’t see a better place for me to be than here.
Do you have any school-newspaper-appropriate stories from your time overseas?
[Laughter...] I liked the way you phrased that, school newspaper appropriate stories... Do you want to know about fans, or do you want to know about different crowd experiences? I’ve seen quite a bit of everything, from people popping fireworks under pots and pans right on the court while you’re shooting a free-throw [to] food thrown on me. I’ve had water thrown on me, I’ve had batteries thrown at me...
You mentioned playing in all these countries in South and Central America, which can be pretty rural places. Do you have any stories about just being out there and traveling?
So, my last stint in Bolivia, I think this kind of pushed me towards retirement and coming home. We were taking 12-to-14-hour trips on public buses. You're getting on and you might see a woman breastfeeding her child. She’s sitting right next to you and you're trying to get prepared for a basketball game, which is a little different from just traveling with the team or flying. My first stint there, we were flying the majority of the time, and you might get on a bus for like two hours maybe, but you're traveling for like 12 hours, can’t really talk to anybody. There’s no Internet -- whatever you can see around you is what you’ve got. You can download a movie, but once the battery's dead, the battery's dead. I don’t want to say that’s my worst experience, but as far as traveling, that’s what sticks out to me. You’re going up and around mountains and going super fast and you look over and you’re looking down and [the driver] isn’t using the breaks at all. That can be a tad bit scary. I actually do have a story about just that...
I was sleeping on the very very back of the bus (this was just a team bus). I was lying flat and I had made suggestions to the coach and the owner of the team -- I personally didn’t want to ride with [the driver] and I felt he went too fast. We went over a particular bump and, I kid you not, from laying flat, my head, neck, and back all hit the top of the bus and you can only imagine how hard that bump had to have been hit. The things I told that bus driver I could not say in this newspaper. And that’s something I will never ever forget, because that was one time I really had to stand on my word ... They’re out here laughing and I was dead serious: you could send me home but I’m not riding on this bus with this guy. Now that I look back on it, it was kind of funny, but at the time, there was nothing funny about it.
So you mentioned that Mexico was your favorite place for basketball and that Japan was your favorite place to live. What was your favorite place for both, overall?
Overall, I’d probably say Bolivia, and that’s only because when I was in Japan, that was my first job and I’m really walking a tight line and I don’t know what it’s like to really be a pro, the do’s and don’ts and all of that was new to me. By the time I got to Bolivia, I was more seasoned, so I knew, 'hey I could do this, I could do that, I could go here.' I could be associated with these people and it wouldn’t be a problem, whereas in Japan I was really walking on eggshells, and you didn’t want certain things to get back to the fans or the boosters that would be at certain places. [For example,] I got confronted in Japan about what I was eating. I didn’t even know that this one guy was a sponsor, saying that I was eating unhealthy things during the season. Like, why are you worried about what I’m eating as long as I’m performing? These things kinda' kept me up at night because I didn’t want to get sent home. This was my first job and I thought it’d be kind of embarrassing getting sent home. So I’d probably have to say Bolivia, because I was able to live the whole entire professional experience over there. I really got out and saw some things ... on my own in Bolivia, and I wasn’t worried about who was saying what, as long as when it was time to play, I went and did my job. I could’ve cared less what anybody had to say. My stats were there and they were going to speak for themselves as long as I was going out and performing.
When you said 'stories' earlier, so much stuff went through my head, like playing with [Mahmoud] Abdul-Rauf from LSU and him actually being the guy I had to guard, and being able to matchup with someone who I’ve been seeing on TV, and now he’s my match-up. What more could a kid ask for? This guy's in the next best thing to the NBA -- this guy is somebody and has made a name for himself, and they’re putting it on me to stop him, and I enjoyed that challenge.
When we played in El Salvador, the whole city shut down. I remember getting to a game and looking up in the sky. Our colors were Blue and Black, and there was a whole cloud of blue above our stadium ... What a lot of people don’t understand about El Salvador is we played a lot of games outside. On concrete. Yeah, this isn’t the hardwoods. There was nothing pretty about what was going on over there ... When you actually dove for a loose ball you were actually diving on the same stuff that’s in the parking lot. It means a little bit more ... I think that’s why I have such a passion for the game. If I’m willing to dive on the floor, on concrete, I don’t really expect any excuses diving on the hardwood. Wow, you’re taking me way back.
Oh, I’ve got another one. How do you think you’d feel if [the coaches] told you that if you lose tonight, you’re going home and you're like the third or fourth option on this team ... I remember this well: I call him the mayor of this little city, because anything he wanted he got ... We had lost like the first three games of the season, and we’re on our way home, and this veteran told us, 'I just got off the phone with management,' and he pointed at us and said, 'if we lose this next [game, you] can pack your bags and go home.' I’m young at the time, I don’t know how to take that ... I’m just starting to get into this thing and needless to say, I didn’t sleep at all that night. I literally brought him in the huddle and said, 'I’m shooting every ball I touch tonight, I’m sorry. I’ve been playing team basketball for three games and now my job is on the line.' Long story short, I had about 24 points and we lost. So the ride home was super-quiet and we got to where we were going, and he tells everybody to get out of the car but me. I said man, he’s getting ready to fire me one-on-one ... He told me management said '[that] if we lose tonight, you're going home,' but [after my performance] they said, 'you showed enough to stay here. Everybody else will be gone within the next 48 hours.' I went from not sleeping at all to sleeping like a baby after that...
That’s one of those situations that I always refer back to about playing under pressure. When your back's against the wall and this is all you’ve got ,what do you really have? ... I really answered the call to myself personally, even though I wasn’t being counted on at that time ... When it was time to be counted on, I had to show myself or remind myself that you’re a ball player, you can play too. And after that my whole experience opened up.
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