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In his first exhibition game, against San Antonio, Ford scored 15 points and handed out eight assists. Later at the hotel coffee shop he introduced himself around, to Spurs and Kings alike. The next night he had 26 points and seven assists against Milwaukee, prompting the Bucks' Marques Johnson to say, "From seeing him on TV I didn't think he could shoot, and I didn't know how well he could see the whole court. Now I'm wondering what he can't do."
The answer seems to be not much. In a regular-season win over New Orleans, he dived after a loose ball and came up with a gashed chin that required three stitches. Back in the game a while later, he went diving chin first into the Jazz bench for another loose ball. The first time the Kings played Denver—the Kings have beaten their divisional rival two out of two—Ford took an inbounds pass with five seconds left, dribbled away four of them, then swished the game winner from the top of the key.
But Ford's value goes far beyond the things he does on the floor. He keeps the team loose, particularly Lacey, whom he rides constantly. The big center loves it. During the Kings' 136-127 loss to Los Angeles, Lacey and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar squared off. "Watch out, Sam, or I'll knock some of that ugly off your face," said Kareem. Later Ford said to Lacey, "Man, Kareem sure knows ugly when he sees it."
"Are you gonna take that from a rookie?" chided Forward Bill Robinzine.
"Of course he is," said Fitzsimmons. "Phil's the only guard in five years who's given Sam the ball."
Lacey has been playing the best basketball of his career. In last Thursday's 108-94 win over visiting Boston, Lacey destroyed Dave Cowens, outrebounding him 13-10, forcing him away from the basket and triggering half a dozen fast breaks. When the Kings were down by a point late in the second period, Cowens grabbed a defensive rebound, whirled and hurled a bullet outlet pass that would have sailed the length of the court. Except that Lacey leaped and batted it straight back over Cowens' head, off the Kings' backboard. Robinzine recovered it and Ford made a three-point play. The Kings never again trailed.
A further measure of the Kings' early success is the strength of their second five, among them two rookie guards—Billy McKinney, the former Northwestern scoring whiz, and Marlon Redmond, a burly 6'6" shooter from San Francisco. Both played their way onto the Kings' roster as free agents, and they are Fitzsimmons' kind of players. "You know why?" asks the coach. "Because they've been pounding the pavement. They're hungry."
In fact all the Kings are hungry, so much so that last Saturday they went to Washington and refused to leave without staying all the way through the dessert. Never mind that the NBA champion Bullets were going for a club-record 10th straight win, or that they had not lost at home since Nov. 10. Down by 17 points in the first quarter, the Kings fought back on the shooting of Birdsong (30 points) and Wedman (nine in the third quarter), the passing of Ford (11 assists) and Lacey (seven), and the defense of Robinzine and Darnell Hillman, and squeezed out their biggest win of the season, 110-109.
"Last year they used to look for ways to lose games," said Fitzsimmons. "This year we keep finding new ways to win."
It has to be the hunger. Everybody connected with the Kings has it. The 10,435 fans who showed up for the Boston game gave the Kings three straight 10,000-plus crowds for the first time in their seven years in Kansas City. The several hundred members of a group of zealots called the Backcourt Boosers (sic), as intoxicated by the new Kings as anyone, can even visualize them rising to the playoffs and beyond.