Sports Editor

Frank Ford, one of the leaders of the 1983 undefeated Osceola High School basketball team and an idol for the local youngsters of the time who enjoyed dribbling a ball, passed away Friday after a lingering illness.

OHS Frank Ford

Frank Ford averaged nearly 27 points and 20 rebounds a game for the 1983 Kowboys team that went 37-0, won the Class 3A state championship and earned a No. 2 national ranking.

Ford, who helped lead Auburn University to NCAA Tournament berths from 1984-87 — the Tigers have only been back five times since — was 53.

Funeral services will be held at Bible Baptist Church (1500 E. Vine Street, across from Valencia College) on Jan. 5 at 11 a.m.

Friends and coaches who were around Ford here in Kissimmee, as well as those in Auburn, called him the ultimate team player who made those around him better, and was regarded as a better person off the hardwood than he was a player on it.

Tributes came in quick Friday night and into Saturday morning on social media, and the Auburn radio duo of longtime voice Rod Bramblett and Sonny Smith, who coached the Tigers during Ford’s tenure, paid tribute to Ford in their pre-game show. Auburn’s home game Saturday against Murray State included a moment of silence in Ford’s honor.

“He was the leader of an outstanding group,” said Smith, who coached a group in the mid-‘80s that included Ford, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and All-American Chuck Person. “He came to us as a big-time scorer. He got here and we had big-time scorers, so he adjusted his game to them. He made everybody better.”

Bramblett said Ford was a player “who wasn’t terrific at one thing, but he was good at everything. You forget just how good he was.”

They never forgot locally, where the spirit of Ford still lingered in the old Osceola High gymnasium, and then became a part of its new one in 2011 when then-Kowboys coach Steve Mason arranged to retire Ford’s No. 40 and jersey in its rafters.

Steve Mason and Frank Ford

Steve Mason, an Osceola grad, Kowboys fan from a young age and eventually the boys' basketball coach, arranged to retire Frank Ford's No. 40 in 2011 and hang the jersey in the rafters of the Osceola gym.

Mason said it was a moment he’d remember forever, after Ford provided a young Mason, an OHS super-fan as a junior high-schooler in the early ‘80s, another.

“Things were way different at that time. College basketball wasn’t as big a thing and you only got one or two NBA games on TV during the week,” he said. “In Kissimmee kids idolized Frank and Jimmy (McCrimon). That 1983 season was magical; I got Frank’s autograph that year and I still have it.

“Since we’re the ‘Kowboys-with-a-K’ we’re a unique brand, even the youth teams we coach use it. I have older refs come up to me and ask if we need Frank. ‘Yes sir, I sure did.’”

Ford averaged 27 points and nearly 20 rebounds per game his senior season for the 1983 team, coached by Ed Kershner.

“Frank took his ability and put it to 100 percent all the time,” Kershner said. “He had a feel for the game. He was like another coach on the floor.

That team went 37-0, won the Class 3A championship when there were four classes — the Kowboys’ lone state title until they claimed the 2017 Class 9A trophy — was voted the state’s first Mr. Basketball and earned a spot on the MacDonald’s All-American Team. After the season Osceola earned a No. 2 national ranking.

 “The legacy of Frank is that he was a great player, but was even better as a person. Even when he was ill he wanted to talk about and do for other people.”

He made an impact immediately after arriving at Auburn — quite literally. He earned a starting role the first game of his freshman year and never gave it up. He’d start a school-record 127 straight games and averaged 10.8 points per game over his career.

Here’s a telling stat: while Ford is Auburn’s career leader in minutes played, he’s not among the top 10 in field goals attempted or made.

“Even at Auburn, Frank gave himself up for the team,” Kershner said.

Auburn won the 1985 SEC tournament, becoming the first team to do it by winning four games over four days. The 1986 NCAA tournament team reached the Elite Eight in 1986; the Tigers lost to the eventual national champions that year (Louisville) and in 1987 (Indiana), the same Ford earned All-SEC honors.

“He was taking the big shot when everybody else wasn't hitting, and making the big play,” Smith said. “He was as good with the guys off the court as he was on the court."

Back when the NBA Draft went deeper than now, Ford was drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Lakers, who were in the midst of their “Showtime” era with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Frank was nearly “worthy” of joining that roster; he was the last player cut at preseason camp.

“There’s more teams now, and more college basketball exposure, so if he’d played today, I think he would have earned his way into the league,” Kershner said.

After a short stint playing professionally overseas, he came back to coach with Kershner as an assistant and the JV coach before moving on, with Smith, to Virginia Commonwealth as an assistant.

Kershner arrived during Ford’s OHS sophomore year — but others who saw him before then knew something special was in store. Paul McCrimon, Jr., Jimmy McCrimon Sr.’s nephew, played for OHS from 1988-91, but before that got to be around Ford, and his uncle.

“I like to say I got a sneak preview. I got to see those guys play on dirt,” he said. “Frank was a big role model for me. Everybody who picked up a ball around here looked up to the guys on that team.”

A younger generation, not even born yet, even recognizes. Cortez Edwards, a recent OHS player and now a starting guard at Southern Mississippi, expressed his feelings on Facebook last weekend.

“Best show ever in Osceola county,” he said last weekend on social media. “They made me fall in love with basketball.”