Xavier Ford overcomes unbelievable odds
Most 12-year-olds are fast asleep by midnight on a school night.
Not Xavier Ford.
At midnight from ages 12 to 17, his day was just beginning.
Ford, a freshman forward on the basketball team, worked a paper route with his grandfather, a man so hobbled by football injuries and surgeries he could barely walk. He worked Monday through Sunday, 365 days a year to help his family pay for food, rent and heat.
From 1 a.m. until 5 a.m. every day, Ford would roll all the newspapers and pack them and his grandfather – John Ford – into a van. Then they would throw the papers from about 5:30 a.m. until 6 a.m.
Tired, hungry, and with hands covered in newsprint, Ford then had an hour to himself before school.
As soon as the dismissal bell rang, Ford headed to the basketball courts. He loved the time he had in the gym to prepare and to work at his true passion. He did homework until 10 p.m. got a few hours of sleep and started the routine again.
"I had to grow up real fast and grow up early," Ford said. "I worked that paper route because my grandfather injured his back so he couldn't really take care of himself. So I took care of him; I took care of the house; I brought home money for us to get groceries."
Ford learned early not to complain. He couldn't. He had too much to do.
"Some days you get tired of [working] but at the end of the day I had to provide for my family," Ford said. "I programmed myself. I was like a computer. I just got used to working hard and after a while I just did it; it was a job, I just got it done."
The paper route is where Xavier's story begins.
The basketball court is where it becomes extraordinary.
In 2011, Ford, a senior at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs, was named to the PARADE All-American team. He is the first recruit in UB history to make the prestigious list. He averaged almost a double-double with 27.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game last season and helped his team to a 20-5 record.
In a game against local rival Woodland Park on Jan. 29, Ford scored a season-high 41 points. He also grabbed 11 rebounds, had five assists, and recorded an amazing seven steals.
But before all this happened, he did something even more miraculous: he beat the statistics.
Avoiding Gang Life
In 2010, the poverty rate in the U.S. was 15.1 percent, the highest it had been since 1993. Forty-six million people – including Ford – were living in poverty. That's the highest number of poor people in the 52 years that poverty numbers have been published, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the same year, the Institute for Higher Education Policy reported that in 2008, only 37 percent of black students went to college, and only 11 percent of all low-income students graduated from college.
Even more stunning, in 2005, 10 percent of all black males ages 18 to 24 were in state or federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
At age 12, Ford looked set to follow the numbers.
"I was involved with the streets for a little while," Ford said. "I was trying to find myself so I was a gang banger for a little while."
But then, his grandparents, Alma and John Ford, intervened. Alma Ford, petite, good-looking, and strong-as-a-rock, taught him to cook soul food, to respect others and himself. John Ford, once a bull of a man at 6'6,'' but so crippled by injuries that he needed help in and out of a car, taught him that dignity makes a man more than swagger and that real men take responsibility for their families.
They sat their sixth-grade gang-banging grandson down and threatened him. They were tired of the problems he was causing in school. They were tired of worrying. They warned him that if he stayed in a gang he would end up in jail or dead.
They tried to scare sense into him. They even threatened to send him back to his mother.
"I had a long talk with my grandma, my grandparents, and I decided gang banging wasn't going to get me anywhere," Ford said. He also couldn't bear the thought of not being with his grandparents.
Ford lived with his grandparents. His father had 13 children and his mother – Denise Ford – had two besides Ford, and she lived in New Mexico. He might have lived with her, but Alma Ford wouldn't give him up.
"My grandma fell in love with me…and said ‘I'm keeping him,'" Ford said. "She just fell in love with me as a baby and just kept me."
Giving up the gang life was tough, Ford said. But it taught him to concentrate.
His focus became family and basketball.
Ford credits his numerous basketball coaches for shaping him as a person and as a player. But no one, he says, was as important to him as his "uncle Nate." Nathan Brown was the father of Ford's best friend growing up, but was more like an uncle than a coach or mentor.
Brown, who grew up in the projects on the East Coast and made it out, understood Ford like few others.
Sometimes, he said, it was hard to watch Ford, who he affectionately calls "X," struggle.
"There were days that ‘X' didn't have a lot to eat, you know what I'm saying," Brown said. "I was saving money to buy ‘X' a bed because he was sleeping on the floor…‘X' was sleeping on the floor, getting up and going to school, and doing the paper route at night; on little or no sleep on the floor, and on some days with little or nothing to eat. Not like me and you eat."
When he reached his senior year of high school, statistically, Ford had a 10 percent chance of going to college.
That's when Bulls assistant coach Jim Kwitchoff found him.
Taking a Risk
Kwitchoff found Ford through a scouting service the Bulls subscribe to, and he was immediately drawn to Ford's talent and energy on the floor. But, his grades were low.
The word among scouts was that he was going to have to go to a junior college to start his career. Kwitchoff set out to find "the story behind the story."
Ford had a 2.03 grade point average and because of his score on the ACT exam (64), he needed a 2.3 to meet NCAA regulations. So he had to raise his ACT score to an 85 or bring up his GPA.
When Kwitchoff asked Ford why he struggled so much on the ACT, Ford apologized and said, "I fell asleep, coach." Kwitchoff wondered how well anyone could do under the circumstances Ford was facing. So the coach started talking to everyone – uncle Nate, his coaches, the principal at Harrison, the assistant principal, and his guidance counselor. The feedback he received was unanimous.
"Everybody said the same thing: that he's a great kid that's had the world stacked up against him," Kwitchoff said. "He's got the determination. You can see it, you can hear it in his voice, he just needed a chance."
So Kwitchoff gave him one.
"[Ford's] family was struggling to get by so ‘X' never collected one check," Kwitchoff said. "He delivered papers for five years and he never collected a check. It all went to his grandfather to help pay the bills. When you hear things like that, you say ‘ok, this kid will be totally unfazed by the Ohio student section.' He's had bigger obstacles to overcome than students screaming ‘you suck.' He's got all the character traits we're looking for."
Kwitchoff first forced Ford to stop the paper route. He figured things out, so uncle Nate could help out financially, allowing Ford to focus on academics and basketball.
Next, Kwitchoff – a former assistant principal – sat down and blew up Ford's school schedule. He was taking a culinary arts program at the local junior college that was earning him zero credits with the NCAA, and it was taking up the first five class periods on his schedule.
Ford then took the ACT several more times, and brought his score up to a 74. Once he stopped the paper route, his grades went up. In the second semester of his senior year, he got an A and four B's.
Just when everything was going so well, Kwitchoff plugged in the numbers. Ford needed a 2.325 with his 74 ACT score to be NCAA eligible. He ended up with a 2.31. Kwitchoff was the one to tell him.
"He [felt] like he just ran a marathon with 100 pounds on his back and now I'm asking him to run five more miles," Kwitchoff said. "It's funny because for two days he didn't return my calls or texts; he was mad, he was mad at the world."
Ford needed to go to summer school and, like every other challenge in his life, he took it on. He needed a six-week class and he decided to pound it out in three weeks, going six hours a day.
"He needed a B- or to go up one point in the ACT," Kwitchoff said. "When it was all said and done, he got an A- [in the summer class] and went up three points in the ACT. Hallelujah."
Kwitchoff and head coach Reggie Witherspoon found out on June 30 that Ford was a full qualifier and he was in Buffalo by July 4, ready for summer school. He got an A and a B, giving him a 3.3 GPA at UB heading into his freshman year and seven credits in his back pocket before he even started the fall semester.
"It's just an insane success story. Absolutely insane," Kwitchoff said. "It's just going to continue. The sky is the limit for that kid and he is as good as advertised."
Xavier: The Person
Ford is a 6'7'' kid.
He is ranked third in the world in NBA 2K12 and yet he doesn't mind being laughed at.
He loves to joke around with his teammates and freestyle rap. He also enjoys borrowing his friend's camera to make videos that he posts on YouTube.
"I just like to have fun and I'm never too serious," Ford said. "I'm always joking around and dancing and stuff. That goes back to my background. I had to work all day and go to school. I felt like why be serious 23 hours out of the day when you can have fun doing what you're doing."
On the court, Ford is a completely different person: he's "a killer."
In the paint he is a monster. With his athleticism and determination near the basket, he is a nightmare for opposing defenders.
Ford takes practice very seriously. He knows most people see players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant and the glamour of the NBA, and think the game is easy, but he doesn't take his talent for granted. He prepares mentally and physically to play every day.
When most players leave the gym after practice he stays a bit longer to put in some extra work. After all, he's conditioned himself to be a workhorse.
He explained that when a player practices hard, performing in game situations becomes second nature.
Ford wanted to play on the East Coast because he thinks it's where the best players play. Brown thinks Ford made a great choice coming to Buffalo.
Witherspoon also thinks Ford made a great choice, and expects the freshman to contribute this season.
"Xavier is an amazing kid [who] has a lot of energy and is very personable," Witherspoon said. "Every day he is full of energy. He has a unique background and has no sense of entitlement. He's appreciative of everything he gets and he's immensely talented."
Back in Colorado, Ford is a hero to the local youth, and he got a chance to go back home before the semester started. He showed off his team gear and watched as the kids envisioned their own futures.
While most people in his hometown are very supportive, there are still some people that bet against Ford. Brown laughs when he hears such talk. He knows Ford has already made it.
"There is so much money that people are making off kids and nobody is trying to get the love out of a kid," Brown said. "Just love him – that's all ‘X' ever wanted and all ‘X' needs is someone to love him…Reggie has an awesome player…He's a great kid, it makes my eyes water when I think of what he went through and now I'm getting calls from the media asking me questions about him. I'm proud of him…When it's all said and done, I think he's going to be a real special player coming out of there."