Chris Ford, Fremont High's standout senior guard, is at his best with a basketball in his hands.
In becoming a three-time All-City selection, Ford has averaged 19 points per game during his prep career.
Since his sophomore season, Ford has been one of the leading scorers in Southern California. Even his coach, Sam Sullivan, once boasted that there was not a shot that Ford did not like.
However, last Saturday night, the 6-foot-2 Ford was found playing post-up defense during a key stretch in Fremont's 78-59 victory over Santa Barbara in the Southern Regional State Division I championship game at the Sports Arena.
With his head pressed against the shoulder of Santa Barbara's 6-8 Erwin Roelofs, Ford did not give an inch. It did not matter that he would score only 14 points--seven below his season average--this was a different player wearing No. 22 for Fremont.
Ford ran down the court with the same smooth stride and made some long jump shots, but it was his defense that helped Fremont neutralize Santa Barbara's height advantage and earn its first trip to the State final.
"It wasn't a problem playing defense like that," said Ford, who will attend UC Santa Barbara next season. "In a big game, you do whatever it takes to win. I just wanted to be out there playing, and it did not matter what role I had to play."
Ford is no longer simply a shooter, having helped lead Fremont to two City 3-A Division titles and a 90-8 record in his career. Defense, rebounding and passing have become parts of his game.
"As a player, Chris has always been confident," Sullivan said. "When he was a 10th grader, I basically gave him the freedom to shoot because of his athletic ability . . . and he did. There was a joke around here at the time that if you passed to Chris, it was like a black hole because the ball never came back."
Ford, who is known for his jumping ability, has always been able to put the ball into the basket. As a ninth grader, he was the leading scorer on his junior high school team that included Crenshaw High's Connecticut-bound guard Kevin Ollie.
At Fremont, Ford averaged 17 points as a sophomore and 19 as a junior. But before this season, Ford realized that he did not have to score in order for Fremont to win. With the emergence of Michael Tate, Robert Moore and Todd Whitehead, Ford is the leader on a team of standouts.
"In 10th grade, I was given the green light to shoot and my role was to score," said Ford, who has a 3.3 grade-point average in the City's Magnet School academic program. "But, in the last two years, we've added some players and I don't have the pressure to score 25 points a game for us to win. I like it a lot better now."
This change has helped bring unprecedented success for Fremont, which has won a City-record 34 games this season against one loss. The Pathfinders have been the City and State's top-ranked team for most of the season, and Saturday will play Alameda St. Joseph's for the State Division I title at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
Ford, who averaged a career-high seven rebounds and three assists this season, approaches every game with a scowl. With a body like a middleweight boxer, his opponents usually take notice.
"I am aware that I have a mean look before games," he said. "I try to tell myself that I have to come out intense and play hard. I don't want anyone I am playing against to think that I'm a nice guy. I want to intimidate them and for them to think of me as hard core."
Oddly enough, this pregame practice became regular after Fremont's trip to a Northern California tournament earlier this season, when the Pathfinders defeated St. Joseph's for the title.
Ford felt that he was smiling too often during the tournament and decided that he needed to change his game expression just as he had altered his playing style.
"I like to stay focused on what I'm doing on the court," Ford said. "In the past, I had to score so I forced up a lot of shots. This year, I'm more of an all-around player. To still label myself as a scorer would be putting myself down a little."
College recruiters saw Ford's potential last season, when he was one of the top recruited players in the area. Ford signed with UC Santa Barbara last November, passing up Nevada Las Vegas and Loyola Marymount.
Ford, who acknowledges that he has to improve his ballhandling skills and passing, wants to end his prep career with a State title. It is something he has dreamed about since his sophomore year.
"We've gone too far and worked too hard to let it go now," Ford said. "The coaches have really put us through a lot these last few years, but it proves that hard work is worth it. We all want to make it a full season by winning City and State."