A Front-Row Seat with the Sportswriters Who Sat There
Sit down with host Todd Jones and other sportswriters who knew the greatest athletes and coaches, and experienced first-hand some of the biggest sports moments in the past 50 years. They’ll share stories behind the stories -- some they’ve only told to each other.
50th Episode: Bob Ford: “You Got One More Rebound than a Dead Man.”
Bob Ford likes to say if he has 10 good stories to tell sitting around a bar, Charles Barkley is the subject of 7 or 8 of them. Hear a few of his greatest hits from covering Sir Charles, each told with Bob’s wit and dead-on voice imitation. He also shares other memorable moments from his long, distinguished career in Philadelphia that took him around the world and made his columns must-reads. Only Bob could bring us Pete Rose, Doug Moe, Prince Albert, a Finish sports talk radio debate over ski jumping, and wolf urine – yes, wolf urine – all in one episode. You’ll understand why other sportswriters always enjoyed Bob’s company. He’s a real treasure.
Ford was an award-winning writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer for nearly 33 years – the final 18 as a columnist – until his retirement in 2020. He was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary. Bob was a general assignment feature writer, with an emphasis on Olympic sports and long-form narrative from 1994 until his promotion as columnist in 2003. He previously covered the NBA and 76ers as the paper’s beat reporter for six years.
Bob was named Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year seven times by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association. He covered six Olympics, three World Cups, numerous NBA Finals, the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the British Open and other major sporting events. He wrote stories from 14 countries and throughout the U.S. His work was also recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, and the Keystone Press Association. He was twice named a top 10 columnist in the large circulation division of the AP Sports Editors competition, and he also won the 2005 Eclipse Award for outstanding feature writing on thoroughbred racing.
Prior to joining the Inquirer in 1987, Bob worked six years at the Delaware County Daily Times outside of Philadelphia, where he covered the Phillies as a beat reporter for three seasons and later served as columnist. Bob began his journalism career as sports editor of the Easton (Md.) Star-Democrat (1976 to ’81) following his graduation from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. His alma mater’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism honored Bob in 2017 with a “Distinguished Terrapin” award. Ford is a fellow of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism.
Bob is a native of College Park, Md. His wife, Bonnie Ford, was an award-winning sports journalist at ESPN, the Chicago Tribune, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the Detroit News, and the Ann Arbor News. She was a previous guest on Press Box Access: https://evergreenpodcasts.com/... Stories from early in her career were written under her maiden name, Bonnie DeSimone.
Hey Bob, welcome to our tavern, Press Box Access. All beers are on me.
Bob Ford (00:07):
It's not the first bar stool we've shared. I really have enjoyed listening to these podcasts you're doing Todd. I think it's really cool, not just to hear all these people that we both know and talking about the business and we all love the business.
Bob Ford (00:22):
But you're capturing something in time. You're capturing a history of our business and it's really cool. And I applaud your efforts. Seems like a lot of work. I'd never do it.
Todd Jones (00:34):
I think I'm capturing the deterioration of my liver, considering some of the people that I've been running around with for 30 plus years. But that's all good, brain cells and liver cells, that's fine.
Bob Ford (00:50):
Todd Jones (00:51):
And I said, all beers are on me. I actually meant both beers are on me. So, let's start with that and clear the record on that. But I do owe you, Bob, I do owe you many things.
Todd Jones (01:02):
One of the things I owe you is for saving me once at the Winter Olympics. We had covered ski jumping and we were on a bus, and I was, as the Brits say, shattered. And I don't think I could go on anymore. I could not write one more sentence about people on cookie sheets, going down mountains. I just wanted to go to bed and I was so tired.
Todd Jones (01:27):
But you sitting next to me saved me, by launching into Finnish Sports Talk radio, recapping the ski jump that we had just witnessed.
Bob Ford (01:40):
Yeah. “This is Lars mobilizing, first time, long time. Yeah. What is Stenmark doing? I put a 50 kroner on him, and he just fall down like he's drunk. Defends, we only usually drink after the jump, but yeah. Yeah, I'll hang up and listen now.”
Todd Jones (02:06):
It's funny, people say to me, "You were a sports writer for more than 30 years. Do you remember who won that game in November of '94?" And I'm like, "I have no clue what you're talking about, but I can tell you exactly how Bob Ford could impersonate Jimmy Lynam and John Thompson."
Bob Ford (02:27):
Yeah. That used to be a thing in press boxes. If you're around all these guys, especially if you're on beat, if you're just around people every day and there's so much togetherness, you begin to do little routines on them and you do the — like Whicker, you had Whicker on.
Bob Ford (02:40):
Whicker is one of the all-time voice guys. And so, it just got to be a little competition within a competition.
Bob Ford (02:48):
Lynam came up to me one time. He said, "I heard you do me." I won't do him now. And he said, "Stop."
Todd Jones (02:57):
"You can rip me in your column. Just quit impersonating me on press row."
Bob Ford (03:02):
Todd Jones (03:04):
Well Bob, 44 years in the business. And seven-times Pennsylvania sports writer at a year. You're like Ben Franklin in Pennsylvania. Beat reporter, enterprise columnist, most of those years, almost 33 of them in Philadelphia at the Inquirer.
Todd Jones (03:22):
I'm joking around a little bit about not remembering scores and plays, but I don't know, do you find that to be true too, when you think about all those years? What do you recall about being a sports writer, especially before the internet?
Bob Ford (03:37):
Yeah. I've really have never been good. When I was on a baseball beat, and like, you get to August or something and guys would be sitting around and saying, "Oh, you remember in May when they had the runner on third and no outs against the Reds?" And yeah. And I'm like, "I don't remember May, let alone specific games."
Bob Ford (03:55):
So, I've never been somebody who could … give me your five best Rose Bowl memories, I've never been able to do that.
Bob Ford (04:01):
But I remember the parking lots that were bad or you came out late at night and it was awful. I remember the terrible food. I remember being at the Olympics of really bad living conditions.
Bob Ford (04:12):
But despite all that stuff and the work was hard, it doesn't seem like it should be, but it was hard. What I really remember are the people. I remember the men and the women that we worked with and the laughs and fighting like heck against somebody on a beat and trying to beat their brains out and then going out and having some beers afterward, and then getting up 6:00 AM the next day and flying to the next place and doing it over and over again.
Bob Ford (04:37):
I really liked the life and I felt very, very lucky to have found the career. I'm not one of those guys who was eight-years-old, typing up on your little typewriter and passing it out in the 7-Eleven. I wasn't one of those guys.
Bob Ford (04:54):
So, I sort of fell into this by accident. And it was just so lucky. If I had to fix cars for a living, I'd starve. So, I don't know what else I would've done.
Todd Jones (08:47):
Well, a few years in, in 1981, you end up at Delaware County outside of Philly and you start covering the Philadelphia Phillies, the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies: Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, we're talking Hall of Famers.
Bob Ford (09:03):
Todd Jones (09:03):
Except for Pete, of course. Sorry, Pete. But when you think about it, you're a young guy and there was like a murderer’s row of baseball writers in that box. Give me some of the names.
Bob Ford (09:15):
Let's see: Hal Bodley, Jayson Stark, Mark Whicker, Gerry Fraley, Bill Conlin, Rusty Pray, that's not a name that you would probably know. But it was an incredibly good, good staff of people in that press box, baseball writers. And it was a hard place to work.
Bob Ford (09:36):
And the manager when I started was Dallas Green and he was no basket of roses for the new kid walking in either. So, I didn't even know how to buy a plane ticket for God's sake.
Bob Ford (09:47):
But Delaware County Times was a very ambitious suburban daily who wanted to play with the big boys. And all four of our pro beats were home and road. It was all travel and you did everything. And I hit the ground running and survived that. And I did three years on the Phillies and then started writing columns there.
Bob Ford (10:06):
But it was great, great training grounds and Philadelphia's sports writing, it can be harsh and the reputation is harsher than the reality of it. But it was also just an incredible — like you're going to the library every day when you read everybody, "Oh, here's the way they did it. Here's how I could have done it. Here’s how I'll try to do it next time."
Bob Ford (10:28):
And just invaluable for me. By the time I got to the Inquirer, I was 11 or 12 years into the business and I had a fighting chance of making it at that level.
Todd Jones (10:40):
Baseball is not an easy beat anyway, even for veterans. It's a tough clubhouse. It's a tough grind. So many games, so much travel. What did you learn as a young guy about covering baseball?
Bob Ford (10:54):
Well, as Earl Weaver said, it's an everyday thing. You're there every day. It's not practices. It's not shoot arounds. It's not off days. There's a game every day and you got to get there at whatever it is, three o'clock when the clubhouse opens and do your pre-game work and talk to the manager and all that stuff.
Bob Ford (11:12):
And then the greatest training for me was … there's two things. Learning to interview and deal with people and learning to deal with people every day after you write something negative about them. That sort of thing. And keeping a working relationship.
Bob Ford (11:27):
And I would like to say in the early 80s, things were different only from the standpoint that there was this much distance between you and the athletes.
Bob Ford (11:38):
And the real pros always understood that they write the stories, that it's not you writing the story, you just kind of — they dictate it. What happens on the field, what happens on the court. They're writing the story and you're just transcribing it. And the pros understand that. There's obviously some people who don't.
Bob Ford (11:57):
The other thing that taught me was how to write really, really fast. And if you're writing running game stories every night and this carried over to when I got the Sixers beat at the Inquirer. You're writing, running copy, on deadline, every night and you learn to be really fast. You learned to be really organized. You learned all about structure.
Bob Ford (12:15):
And you could take a writing class from now till doomsday and never learn half of what you're going to learn in one year on a baseball beat, writing a running game story every night.
Todd Jones (12:27):
You talked about dealing with people and Dallas Green could be tough and some of the athletes. What did you learn early on? Give us an example of was there an incident, a moment, something you wrote, something that sticks in your memory about, boy, that was a lesson I learned early.
Bob Ford (12:42):
Yeah. One of the things I learned (and speaking of Pete Rose), was that some of the biggest names were the easiest to deal with. I don't know if Pete thought he got a dollar every time his name was in the paper or whatever, but he was like the most approachable guy.
Bob Ford (12:59):
And one of my favorite memories of covering baseball would be Sunday day games where obviously there was no deadline pressure. And after the game and you could go down and spend as much time as you wanted in the clubhouse, Pete would sit at his locker and just dissect the game.
Bob Ford (13:15):
"Alright. In the fourth inning, they were thinking this, so we did this and what we should have done was this and blah, blah, blah." And he would take out his bat and he would show you the marks on the bat. Like he would say, "You see that, that's that slider in the sixth inning that I just missed. And then he would say, "There's the bass hit in the right field. You see, I got that really square."
Bob Ford (13:36):
And after he did that and he went through every time the ball touched the bat during the game, he would take like rubbing alcohol or something and clean the bat off. So, the next day he could do that same postmortem on exactly how his game had gone.
Bob Ford (13:53):
Pete, let's face it, is not the greatest human being in the world, but he was an incredible tactician and student. I never knew anyone that knew the game better.
Todd Jones (14:06):
That's amazing detail.
Bob Ford (14:08):
As far as the moment where I learned something, in 1983, the Phillies fired their manager Pat Corrales, when they were in first place, which is not easy to do, but they were-
Todd Jones (14:19):
Well, wait, what the hell happened there?
Bob Ford (14:21):
Yeah. Well Pat, who's another tough guy, very tough guy and a guy I was very fond of and treated me very well, he had all these old guys. He had Joe Morgan and Tony Perez and Pete Rose and they just weren't performing that well.
Bob Ford (14:38):
So, he started playing young guys. He started putting Len Matuszek at first base, in place of Tony Perez and really sort of platooning the older guys. And I wrote a story that Joe Morgan had gone to the general manager (it was Bill Giles at the time), to tell him that he had to fire Pat Corrales, "You got to get Corrales out of here. He's losing the clubhouse. He doesn't know what he's doing, blah, blah, blah."
Bob Ford (15:05):
And so, the next day in the dugout, Joe Morgan comes up to me, who apparently had a subscription to the Delaware County Times, who knew? And comes up to me and he gets in my face and he says, "That's bullshit, what you wrote, that I went to Bill Giles and said that he had to fire Pat Corrales and I ought to kick your ass."
Bob Ford (15:28):
Now, I had a really good source on the story and the source was Bill Giles. And so, I kind of thought I had it pretty cold.
Todd Jones (15:37):
Yeah, I think so. Yeah.
Bob Ford (15:39):
But Joe just didn't like it being in the paper. And I said something like, "Well Joe, do what you got to do and if you don't want to talk to me again, that's fine." I said, "But, I stand by the story."
Bob Ford (15:52):
So, the other fortunate thing was Joe was the only major leaguer, I think that I was taller than. So, he ended up … oh, he's probably in better shape. So, he ended up not kicking my ass which was good.
Bob Ford (16:04):
But it was a good lesson in, you wouldn't want to be in that position if you hadn't been sure of the story, obviously. And so, that was a good lesson, be right. Being right is really valuable. You can't get around that.
Todd Jones (18:56):
Right, right. '87, you move over to the Philadelphia Inquirer and you move from baseball and columns to covering the NBA. And we're going to talk some Charles Barkley here in a minute.
Todd Jones (19:08):
But I'm really intrigued by the NBA in the 80s, because we have … it's Bird, Magic, later Jordan comes in, it's the decade that really shaped the NBA, saved it really, shaped it. But at the same time, it was just so different. I think about the idea that these teams were traveling on commercial flights, right?
Bob Ford (19:32):
Oh, yeah. The Sixers flew commercial and the way it would work in those days was they didn't always have the first-class cabin. They would buy a contract with the Player’s Association. They had to buy every available first-class seat and then those would be given out by seniority in the league, the oldest veterans and so forth.
Bob Ford (19:56):
So, you would have some 6’11, rookie sitting in 17B in the center seat with his knees up around his ears, next to some insurance salesman from Des Moines talking to him for a three-and-a-half-hour flight.
Bob Ford (20:14):
It was different. And so, we were often on the same flights because NBA also dictated that teams on days they were flying back for back-to-back games, they had to take the first flight out because they would never take a chance on them not getting to — if it was a mechanical or weather or whatever, you had to take the first flight out. Or at least book on the first flight out.
Bob Ford (20:38):
And so, we were often on the same flights together. And I remember later on in my tenure when Doug Moe was the coach and Doug was famously afraid of flying. In fact, I think it might be why he eventually retired. He was almost Madden-like in that he was just terrified of flying.
Bob Ford (20:55):
So, we'd be in the gate area waiting for the plane and the plane would come in and people would start getting off from the plane that just landed. And Doug would go up to go, "How was the flight? Is there any problems you had? Did you have turbulence or anything like that? Or what? How were you doing? What'd you think of the pilot? The pilot seem alright to you? I mean, he sound alright when he came over to …?"
Bob Ford (21:16):
Honest to God, he would quiz everybody. People looked at him like he was crazy. Here's this 6'8 guy, with his eyes on fire asking me how the plane was.
Todd Jones (21:26):
Yeah. Well, he wasn't designing defenses then. He was worried about the flight.
Bob Ford (21:30):
Yeah. No, things were different. And I like you do not enjoy just hashing over things were better then or whatever they were. But it was a sweet spot before sports writing endured death by podium, which is what it's gone through in the last five years where everything's a podium and you really don't get one-on-one interaction. You don't get to know guys.
Bob Ford (21:53):
If you go into an NBA locker room before a game now, it's empty. It's you and the guy with the towels. And back then everyone was in there and you could sit. And it was not uncommon for me to be the only one on the road. And just before a game, for an hour before the game, just sitting around the locker room, just me and those 12 guys just shooting the crap.
Bob Ford (22:14):
And that's how you build up trust. That's how you build up relationships. That's how you know guys are, how they feel they're doing, all that kind of stuff. And I'd love that part of it.
Bob Ford (22:26):
You could do that with Michael Jordan before the game. Michael Jordan would just sit around and shoot the crap for 45 minutes before a game. And it was sensational. And I didn't realize how sensational it was. I sort of took it for granted.
Bob Ford (22:36):
But yeah, that era was amazing. Bird and Doc and Magic and Jordan and Isaiah. It was really, really special. And I felt really lucky to have covered it.
Todd Jones (22:51):
You mentioned how it built trust with the reporters and the athletes and the coaches who saw you all the time. And if they had something to gripe about, they could talk to you about it away from the cameras.
Bob Ford (23:02):
Todd Jones (23:03):
It could also lead to some interesting stories too. Not just ones that you wrote, but some that you've experienced. Anything stick out in terms of your memory of just anecdotal things that happened on the road with teams, because you're just traveling around with them?
Bob Ford (23:19):
This was in Doug Moe's year. And they had four centers on the team and Doug referred to it as 28 feet of shit. But that's neither here nor there.
Bob Ford (23:32):
So, we're in Denver. It's before a game in Denver and it's one of those situations where I was the only one in the locker rooms before a game. And Eddie Lee Wilkins, who was the fourth string of the four centers, came up to me and said, "I want to pop off." And I said, "What are you talking about?" And like, guys around the locker, people going, "Ooh, Eddie going to pop off, Eddie going to pop off." And I said, "Eddie, what are you talking about? Pop off?"
Bob Ford (24:01):
And he says, "Man, I got some things I want to get off my chest about this team." And I said, "Well, listen we're in Denver and I already filed my early notes, and so, I don't need you to pop off right now. As a matter of fact, I can't take you popping off right now.
Bob Ford (24:17):
But we got an off day tomorrow in Houston, practice day in Houston, off day. And if you want to pop off, then that's fine. You could pop off. But I'll, I'll be honest with you Ed, you might want to call Steve Kauffman." It was his agent. I said, "You might want to call Steve and just run by whether or not the fourth string center on this 19 and 50 team ought to want to pop off."
Todd Jones (24:40):
He might be left in Denver.
Bob Ford (24:42):
He said, "Alright, I'll call him, but I'm going to pop off." So, sure enough, we're in Houston the next day and practices were open. You could just sit and watch prac … so, I'm sitting courtside in one of the bench chairs watching practice and practice ends. And some of the guys are coming by me. They're going, "Is Eddie going to pop off? You think Eddie's going to pop off?" And I said, "I don't know."
Bob Ford (25:06):
So, Eddie comes over and he sits down next to me, he says, "Alright, I'm going to pop off now." And I said, "Alright, Eddie." He goes, "Man, this team, we ain't got a chance." He said, "We don't practice. We got no plays, our shoot arounds, we just play horse." He says, "We're not even coached. We're not trying." He says, "This is awful."
Bob Ford (25:34):
And I write it all down and I said, "Alright Eddie, you've popped off." And so, I go to Doug, because you got to give him a chance to-
Todd Jones (25:45):
Give the other side.
Bob Ford (25:46):
Todd Jones (25:47):
Bob Ford (25:48):
So, I said, "Doug your fourth string center has popped off." And Moe says, "Hey, yeah, what did he say? What the guy say?" And I said, "Well, he says, you don't have any plays. You don't practice, your shoot arounds or games of horse and you really don't do any coaching and you guys don't have a chance." And Doug says, "Huh, he's right."
Bob Ford (26:13):
But then he went on to tell me — and it was Doug's first year and he hated his roster, obviously. And he was waiting to get guys he could coach. He was waiting until he got a roster together that he'd liked. He had Michael Adams in Denver. He won 600 games and it wasn't with mirrors, okay.
Todd Jones (26:31):
Bob Ford (26:32):
He could coach, but he was a hands-off Dean Smith motion offense guy, get me guys who know how to play, which he truly did not have on this team. So, sure enough, I write the story, "Wilkins slams Moe" whatever the heck it was. It was an off-day story. I needed an off-day.
Todd Jones (26:51):
You're right, fill some-
Bob Ford (26:53):
And Eddie never played within the next week or so, Doug plays Eddie. Eddie broke — this isn't funny, I'm sorry, Eddie, if you're listening. Eddie broke his ankle. He never played again. I don't know if that's karma or what? But-
Todd Jones (27:08):
That was the end of his career?
Bob Ford (27:11):
As I remember, but I could be fuzzy on that, but I know he got hurt. And that did turn out to be a story, but stuff like that would happen all the time. Just odd stuff with guys.
Bob Ford (27:24):
I remember that same year, Greg Grant, Greg Grant was this little point guard from Trenton State, I believe. He was an African-American guy, but he had those real pale gray eyes and he looked like he was looking through you. It was scary. And he said, "Man, if this was a college team, I'd quit." I said, "Can I put that in the paper?" He said, "Please do."
Todd Jones (27:48):
Please do, make sure you spell my name right on this one.
Bob Ford (27:52):
Todd Jones (27:53):
I like the idea of just coming to you and saying, I want to pop off. That could have been a title of … you could have been a headline of like a weekly note, pop off, time to pop off.
Bob Ford (28:03):
That didn't happen enough. You get to schedule to pop off too. That was the key to that story.
Todd Jones (28:11):
I love that, pop off. Well, speaking of guys who popped off, you were around a guy named Charles Barkley, who we all know now as this big teddy bear of a TV announcer and funny and he always has been funny and a hell of a player, obviously back in his day. But you covered Charles pretty much every day for four years. Where does Charles Barkley rank in memorable athletes that you covered in your career?
Bob Ford (28:36):
Number one, without question. The four years of that I covered Charles every day before they traded him, which flew by like they were 20 years by the way, was just amazing. Number one, as you said, he's become this caricature and people under whatever age think of him as this jovial guy, doing commercials and yuking it up with Shaq on TNT.
Bob Ford (29:04):
He was a force to be reckoned with. He was the shortest guy ever to lead the league in rebounding. He was listed as 6'6, he's 6'4 and a half. And he was in the top 10 rebounding every year and led it one year. And everybody else on the list was 6'10, 6'11.
Bob Ford (29:25):
And he just had this natural brilliance for rebounding that it's almost hard to explain. He just knew where the ball was going to come off. When he was still in college, when he was at Auburn, he was going through a little rebounding slump. And one of the assistant coaches, he went to, he says, "I'm having trouble getting rebounds." And the assistant coach says, "Well, that's because you're boxing out." And Charles says, "Well, aren't you supposed to box out?" And the coach said, "Shit no, just go get the ball."
Bob Ford (29:54):
And so, that suited Charles just fine. And that was because it was less work. So, that was his philosophy for the rest of his life. He just went and got the ball. So, he averaged more rebounds per game over his career, more than a thousand-year career than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Bob Ford (30:08):
This guy was amazing, amazing. And he scored 22 points a game for his career. So, that part of it, people have forgotten, 11-time all-star, 11-time all-NBA.
Bob Ford (30:20):
And there were all the jokes about him being heavy. Coming out of college, he was, before he got into shape, the Crisco kid and round mound of rebound and all that stuff. But he was a cut 250 in his prime, when I was covering him. When he came rattling down the lane with the ball, people got out of the way.
Bob Ford (30:41):
And so, he was a force in that way, but he was just also the most outsized personality I've ever been around. And naturally hilarious. Just an incredible sense of humor. And had a knack for doing very controversial things, sort of because he liked to court controversy.
Bob Ford (31:03):
Dave Coskey, who used to be the PR guy at the Sixers and went on to a really good advertising career. He said that most professional athletes are assholes that want you to think they're good guys. And Charles is a good guy who wants you to think he's an asshole. And that is absolutely a hundred percent correct.
Todd Jones (31:20):
Bob Ford (31:21):
Todd Jones (31:21):
Do you think he thrived on the chaos around? Did it make him a better player? Almost like John McEnroe needed that energy, that chaos.
Bob Ford (31:32):
A little bit. He had a healthy ego, probably still does. And he was the captain of that ship. He wasn't just the captain of the team, he was the captain of the ship and he made sure everybody knew it.
Bob Ford (31:44):
So, when Armen Gilliam came over and Armen was sort of a soft power forward, they were always trying to figure out how to pair guys with Charles. Because a 6'4 and a half power forward, what do you do? What do you do with the other forward? Do you want him to be a stretch guy who can go out and get away from the basket because Charles is there. Do you need a high post center? You got to figure that stuff out.
Bob Ford (32:05):
So, they had a whole bunch of different guys came through, including Armen Gillian. Armen Gillian was this very sensitive guy. And a guy who read books all the time and could play five instruments. But he was not exactly the most tenacious rebounder from Charles's standpoint.
Bob Ford (32:21):
So like, after a game, Charles would be sitting there with the box score and he'd go, "Oh Armen, you were born tonight, you got one more rebound than a dead man." He would do that kind of stuff and keep guys in their place. He and Manute Bol got into a fight. It was like a Japanese monster movie gone awry. It's just unbelievable.
Todd Jones (32:49):
Manute was like 7'6, right?
Bob Ford (32:51):
Manute was in fact 7'6 and Charles, you know those big mesh basketball bags that the teams used to have to carry around with them like 10 balls. Because no arena would have basketballs. So, they have to carry these around. And he stuffed Manute in that bag one time and closed it up. So, it's just like Manute in there. So, like-
Todd Jones (33:15):
Didn't Manute also kill a lion?
Bob Ford (33:17):
The lion was sleeping. Yeah, he did, he did with a spear. Back home, because they didn't do that in Philly, but back home he did that with a spear. But it did come out that the lion was sleeping at the time. Manute didn't mention that.
Todd Jones (33:33):
No, but still, come on.
Bob Ford (33:35):
He put a little air in the balloon. It's like when the Phillies had Charlie Manuel as their manager, he told us one time, "Well, I broke up a no run, no hitter one time." And we went back and looked and it was true. It was in the second inning. So, people don't always mention these things. But yeah, Charles was amazing and he had all these great routines.
Todd Jones (34:01):
Alright, give us your Charles Barkley greatest hits.
Bob Ford (34:06):
He had these wonderful routines he would do and then I'll tell you a couple stories, but like, he would torture the Sixers general manager who at the time when I was covering was Gene Shue, who was an extremely well-regarded coach and player back in his time and a front office guy.
Bob Ford (34:24):
And Gene was sort of this craggy guy. And if you ever look up a picture of him on the internet, he kept this sort of long, modestly cut hair long after he should've. And he colored it, he colored it black. And he had this very craggy face that didn't go with the rest of that look.
Bob Ford (34:44):
And so, Charles called him one of two things. He either called him Young Abe Lincoln or the fifth Beatle. But he said, "Well, I see the fifth Beatle went out and made a trade for us. They called me at home last night. They said, hey, we got Shaq. And I'm jumping around, hey, we got Shaq. And I come to find out I got Charles Shackleford"
Bob Ford (35:10):
Yeah. He had those routines all the time. And people always say Magic Johnson makes the guys around him better. And Charles didn't lift his players up or make anyone better around him. And he would say, "Oh, that must be really tough making James Worthy better. I'd really hate to have to have that job." He was that kind of-
Todd Jones (35:33):
You sound just like him.
Bob Ford (35:35):
Yeah, I haven't been around him for a while either. I used to be able to really, really do him.
Todd Jones (35:39):
Wasn't there a story about Charles and David Moore of the Dallas Morning News?
Bob Ford (35:44):
Oh God, yeah. David Moore, who's still at the Dallas Morning News mostly does the Cowboys now, but back then he did an awful lot of Mavericks. He was an NBA writer and columnist, like an NBA columnist.
Bob Ford (35:59):
So, this is Charles' last year and he was desperately trying to get traded. He didn't think the club was ever going to find a way to build around him. And it had been eight years there and it was time. Everyone had sort of come to the end of the rope.
Bob Ford (36:13):
So, we're in Dallas and we're staying at the Reunion of Hyatt, which is right next to the to the reunion arena. Very easy-
Todd Jones (36:21):
A walking distance. Yeah.
Bob Ford (36:22):
You walk over and you walk back afterwards. And it was one of those times when it was a commercial flight the next day. So, the players weren't chartering out right after the game like they do now.
Bob Ford (36:34):
So, David wrote a column in that morning in the Dallas Morning news and he just destroyed Charles. And it was that, “The Sixers have to move past Charles Barkley. They got to trade this guy. He's nothing but a cancer on the team. He doesn't make anybody around him better,” which everyone always said. “And they're never going to go anywhere. They're never going to win anything as long as they have Charles, they have to get rid of Charles Barkley.”
Bob Ford (37:03):
And it was even stronger than that. It went on for 800 words, just left him bleeding in the gutter. So, the game happens and this is what we were talking about, I have no idea what happened in the game. And we walked back after the game to the Reunion Hyatt, and there was this big open Atrium Lobby Bar where everybody would hang out after the game.
Todd Jones (37:26):
Funny that I remember that bar, but go ahead.
Bob Ford (37:28):
Yeah, I know. So, David who was at the game comes back with me and we're sitting at a table in that bar having a beer. And all the players are milling around and the coaches and a greenfly here or there, normal people. But pretty much it was just our scene.
Bob Ford (37:48):
And Charles, as he would want to do, he would come rambling through and stopping and saying hi to everybody. And he comes up to the table and he says, "Oh, hi Bob, how you doing?" And I said, "Charles, here's a friend of mine, I want to introduce you to." And David starts slinking down in his chair till like his chin is like even with the table-
Todd Jones (38:13):
Because Barkley was known to read everything, right?
Bob Ford (38:15):
Charles did not miss anything. If it had his name in it, he was going to read it. And so, I said, "Yeah, Charles, this is my good friend, David Moore of the Dallas Morning News." And Charles like leans over closer, just sort of like hovering over where David is rapidly disappearing into the Hyatt carpet. And he goes, "David Moore, David Moore of the Dallas Morning News." And he goes, "Man, you helping me get out of town. I'm going to buy you a beer."
Bob Ford (38:52):
And he goes up to the bar and he buys like six bottles of Miller Lite. Charles was not a craft beer drinker. And he brings back six bottles of Miller Lite, puts him on the table, pulls up a chair, and we proceeded to shoot the shit for the next 30 minutes to 45 minutes, which was very typical of Charles. He would do that kind of stuff everywhere. But it was a classic. And David, every time I still see David, he brings that up.
Todd Jones (39:24):
That is tremendous. Oh, man.
Bob Ford (39:29):
Todd Jones (39:30):
What's the story about Charles and the Japanese mattress?
Bob Ford (39:35):
Oh my God, the Japanese mat … you've done your research, haven't you?
Todd Jones (39:39):
Yeah, I do. I don't get paid for this, but I do my research.
Bob Ford (39:43):
Well, wait a minute. Does that mean that that I'm not getting paid?
Todd Jones (39:47):
I told you both beers are on me, both.
Bob Ford (39:50):
Oh, man. Alright. So, as I said, practices were open and they used to practice at St. Joseph's University and you would just sit in the stands, practice was over, the locker room was open, there was no PR guys, there's no podium, there's no nothing. You just walk into the locker room and write your off-day story or gather for your off-day story, for the practice story.
Bob Ford (40:13):
And so, I'm in there one day and Charles comes up to me and he says, "Hey Bob, how much can they fine me if I miss a day of practice?" And I said, "Well, Charles, they can fine you up to $10,000 before you can grieve it to the Players Association, but what is going on?" And he says, "Well, there's this Japanese mattress company that wants me to fly to Tokyo and do a mattress commercial and they're going to pay me a hundred thousand dollars. And the way I look at it, I'll be $90,000 ahead."
Bob Ford (40:59):
And I said, "Charles, it's the middle of the season. You can't fly to Tokyo and back in one day." And he said, "Oh yeah, you can, because they got that International Date Line." And I said, "Listen, it's not a time machine. That's not the way it works. You're not doing this. And not only are you not doing this, you're not telling anyone else about this."
Bob Ford (41:28):
And he said, "Alright, I just thought I'd run it by you." And I have no idea how much he was putting me on or if he was putting me on, but that is all honest to God, truth. And he did … I don't know why the Japanese mattress company couldn't send their crew to Philadelphia with a mattress. We got mattresses in Philadelphia. The mob used to go to them all the time. But it did in fact happen that after the season, he went and pretended to sleep in Tokyo. But he might not have pretended. He might have gone.
Todd Jones (41:59):
Well, I like his math though. He had a point, Bob.
Bob Ford (42:02):
He did have a point about the fine, but he did not have a point about the International Date Line.
Bob Ford (43:39):
So yeah, he was a character. And he's obviously made it into — he's put helium in the balloon now as a TV guy, he's become this bigger than life character. And boy for how many Hall of Fame players who played in the last 30 years are going to make more money after than during. And he has by far made more money after than during his career.
Bob Ford (44:07):
But I think he felt that he was overlooked a little bit as a basketball player, because he never won a ring and I think that ate at him a little. But he came so close with Phoenix MVP that year.
Todd Jones (47:46):
Well, four years of daily coverage of the Sixers with Charles as the core of the team. That had to be like an oversized personality, just taking up all the oxygen in your own world. But I know speaking of world, you were somebody who based in Philadelphia, but you traveled the world.
Bob Ford (48:07):
Todd Jones (48:07):
Your job took you everywhere. 14 countries I think you filed stories from.
Bob Ford (48:13):
Todd Jones (48:13):
I'm surprised they let you in 14, first of all, but 14 countries, six Olympics, three World Cups you do Wimbledon, British Open, Tour de France. When you think about the aspect of your career that involved international sports coverage what comes to mind in terms of how challenging and rewarding and that aspect of your career was?
Bob Ford (48:36):
Yeah. And it was just lucky too that I came along in that real sweet spot where papers were making money hand over fist, double digit every year. And there was sort of this competition among some of the bigger sports editors in the country. The APSE guys, Dave Smith in Dallas and Don Squire in Boston and Dwyer in LA and Solomon in Washington, George Solomon to who can top the next guy?
Bob Ford (49:02):
And so, guys were getting sent all over the place and doing all kind of stuff. And Olympic coverage, if you go back into the 70s, if a big paper sent a person to the Olympics, that was a big deal. We were sending four and five and six people to these big events.
Bob Ford (49:16):
So, it was just very lucky that I came along in that sweet spot. A, when papers had money and B they spent it. And international sports was one way where you could really sort of make a mark doing that.
Bob Ford (49:27):
And Lillehammer was my first Olympics, like yours. And I was the low man on the totem pole in the Knight Ritter Bureau, Knight Ritter Bureau probably had 25 or 30 writers, because when-
Todd Jones (49:38):
Well actually, let me correct the record. I did not go to Lillehammer. They didn't allow me in there.
Bob Ford (49:44):
I thought that was the — where I did the-
Todd Jones (49:46):
No, that was Salt Lake. That was in Salt Lake.
Bob Ford (49:48):
That was Salt Lake. Oh, okay. I'm sorry. And so, I was a little man on the totem pole and I got sent to do things that I would never … it's just not another basketball game story. I got sent to do things that I would never have gotten the chance to do or stories to tell.
Bob Ford (50:05):
As I said, I was complete low man on the totem pole and that was the Nancy and Tonya Olympics. And they didn't let me within a mile of that story. But I was doing the around town off beat features.
Todd Jones (50:17):
Bob Ford (50:18):
And our onsite editor was our assistant deputy sports editor in Philly, a guy named Garry Howard, who went on to be a sports editor in Milwaukee for years and years. Then went to the sporting news and Garry was our deputy sports editor.
Bob Ford (50:32):
We didn't just send five writers to the Olympics from each paper, we sent an onsite editor. So, Garry would come up with all these wacky, unbelievable stories to go do. Garry’s from the Bronx. He would get very worked up. He says, "Bob, there's this story. I know there's a story that there's one old Norwegian somewhere that doesn't even know the Olympics are going on, and he doesn't care about them, even if he did know. And he's out ice fishing. And I want you to go find that guy who doesn't know or care anything about the Olympics. And he's just out there ice fishing and talk to him."
Bob Ford (51:07):
And there is this long, it's either a river or a lake that sort of runs the spine of Norway, almost from Oslo all the way up. And it runs through Lillehammer or runs next to Lillehammer. And it is freaking cold man. And so, I go down there to the lake, river, whatever the hell it is, and the wind is blowing sideways and the snow is kicking all over my face and I'm peering out to the lake and I can't see anything, because the snow's so bad. I've never been so cold in my life.
Bob Ford (51:44):
And I see there's this little cabin just sort of off the lake there, small with yellow light coming out the windows. And I go over and I knock on the door and there's these two Norwegian dudes in there and old dudes. And for a moment I had a glimmer of hope. And they're watching the Olympics, of course they're glued to it. They can't get enough of it. And I introduced myself and they look at me like I'm from Mars, which I might as well have been. And I said, "Listen, is there anybody ice fishing?" And they looked at each other and they looked back at me and they said, "No, it's too cold."
Bob Ford (52:35):
One more Garry Howard's feature, story, story. So, the other great story was he came to me and he had found this story in local publication of some kind, that every year in Lillehammer during the winter with the depths of winter, when we were there at the depths of winter, there's these huge bull moose that come down out of the mountains, they call them ELGs, ELG, the elga. The elga would come down out of the mountains through these ancient paths because there wasn't any damn food.
Bob Ford (53:06):
So, they would come through and walk through the streets of Lillehammer and eat out of dumpsters and I don't know, people might feed them, I don't know what the hell. But the town fathers thought that this would not help the traffic situation in Lillehammer if they had herds of like 1500 pound elga walking around town.
Bob Ford (53:25):
So, they went to the ranger up in the hills, the forest ranger who was in charge of this sort of thing. And he devised this plan and it was a two-pronged plan. And the first prong was by helicopter. They would drop bales of food up in the mountains, so the elga would have something to eat.
Bob Ford (53:47):
And the other thing that they did was these ancient trails where the elga would come down into town and eat out of dumpsters. They would spray those trails with wolf urine, so that as they were coming down, they would say to each other, "Huh wolf, we better go back and eat the bales of hay."
Bob Ford (54:08):
So, then he says, "Bobby, Bobby, you got to go up, you got to go up into the hills and find this park ranger that came up with this. And the key to the story, Bobby, the key to the story, Bobby, is the wolf urine. You got to get everything about the wolf urine." And I said, "Okay, alright Garry, I got it."
Bob Ford (54:24):
So, I'm able to contact this 6'5 taciturn, which is really redundant when you're talking about Norwegian men. 6’5 taciturn, Lars somebody, park ranger. And I make my way up to the top of the goddamn mountain and we're standing outside, it's still snowing sideways. It might even be colder up there than it is down at ground zero.
Bob Ford (54:51):
And so, I'm doing the interview about the freaking elga and the bales of hay and the helicopters. And it's a challenge because helicopter blades have to have a certain altitude or they fall or I don't remember everything about it.
Bob Ford (55:07):
And then I get to the money aspect of the story here. And I said, "Well listen where do you get the wolf urine?" And the guy kind of straightens up and he looks around, he looks left and he looks right and he leans into me and he says, "From the valves."
Todd Jones (55:36):
Bob Ford (55:37):
Yeah. That didn't get played on D1. I could guarantee you that, that was backed by the tire ads.
Todd Jones (55:48):
Well, but that's a great example of the type of things that-
Bob Ford (55:52):
You would never do.
Todd Jones (55:53):
A sports writer could just end up being on some mountains somewhere.
Bob Ford (55:57):
Todd Jones (55:57):
Writing about wolf urine.
Bob Ford (55:58):
And a lot of it was marvelous. A lot of it truly was marvelous. I covered the World Cup final in Berlin, and I was sitting like 30 feet from where Hitler's reviewing stand had been. And that kind of stuff, that kind of history and moment and the places that you are.
Bob Ford (56:17):
I covered a soccer qualifier in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, a hundred thousand people. And just unbelievable, you really get drawn up into things like that, center court in Wimbledon. I was just so lucky. I was just such a lucky, lucky run that I was at a place that would allow me to do that. And I did it, I suppose well enough to keep doing it.
Bob Ford (56:43):
And all the laughs and all the people and my God, at the end of a long day of Olympics, everybody would come back and have different stories to tell. And they were usually funny or at least you could drink them funny. You know what I mean?
Todd Jones (58:59):
Yeah. I like that. Drink them funny.
Bob Ford (57:02):
Bob Ford (58:00):
Yeah. So, Grace Kelly, as you probably know, was a Philadelphian. The Kelly family were rowers, the grandfather.
Todd Jones (58:10):
Bob Ford (58:10):
John was the rower. And Jack the son was a rower, Olympics rower. And her brother was also an Olympian. Grace grew up to be obviously a movie star and married the Prince of Monaco. And had children, one of whom you know, became a bobsledder.
Bob Ford (58:35):
And so, he was my local, I had a local who was a prince of Monaco. And so, I would have to go Albert. And so, I would go and I would interview Albert during the Winter Olympics, and we became friends and call me Al, it was like the Paul Simon song, You Can Call Me Al.
Bob Ford (58:58):
So, we would sit up in the warming shed at the top of the bobsled run. And he would tell me about spending summers at the Jersey Shore and going down with his cousins and I don't know, running the toll booth. I don't know, God knows what Uncle Jack was doing. And his fond memories of Philadelphia. And hey, it was sort of a local story. And if you can work Grace Kelly and the Prince of Monaco and bobsledding into the same story, you might even get to page D 4.
Todd Jones (59:26):
All you were missing was wolf urine.
Bob Ford (59:28):
All he was missing was wolf urine.
Bob Ford (01:00:00):
And I remember one year we're sitting up in the warming shed, and I said, "How's things going Al?" And we went over all the old stories again because they wrote the same thing every four years. And he says, "Well, my father has told me I have to get married." He says, "Or I can't assume, because Rainier was going to step down." Rainier was about 150-years-old by then. And-
Todd Jones (01:00:25):
He was not bobsledding.
Bob Ford (01:00:26):
He was not Bob Sledding. And Albert I'm sure I'm not telling stories out of school, I'll tell you that a crown Prince of Monaco has a lot of dating opportunities. He could be a popular guy. And Albert liked that life. And so, he had been told by his father, however, that he had to settle down and get married. And he was kind of down about it. So, he asked me not to write about that. He says, "Don't put that in the paper."
Todd Jones (01:00:55):
He's not popping off about that.
Bob Ford (01:00:57):
I'm not going to pop off about Pop. That's right. So, that was kind of neat. And I saw him a couple times at IOC meetings and stuff and he would come over and remember my name. And that's kind of neat. Like how often does that kind of stuff ever happen?
Todd Jones (01:01:12):
Bob Ford (01:01:13):
And it was only because I was able to be there.
Todd Jones (01:01:15):
Well, when you think about those are the details that stick in your brain, not the score or who won, sometimes I feel like friends, neighbors or somebody who asking me a question about a game and then they look at me like, how could you not remember that, you wrote about it?
Bob Ford (01:01:31):
Yeah, I know, I know. Exactly.
Todd Jones (01:01:34):
Well, the difference is I was not really writing, I was beating deadline.
Bob Ford (01:01:39):
Yeah. And just trying to fill notebooks. Just trying to, okay I got an early notebook to do how the, how the heck am I going to do this?
Todd Jones (01:01:48):
Bob Ford (01:01:48):
Do you remember Jeff Ruland, the center from Iona, right?
Todd Jones (01:01:53):
Bob Ford (01:01:53):
I called him for a notebook item when Valvano died. You talked about a poignant thing. And Valvano became this sort of sainted figure. And he certainly helped a lot of people and it's been an inspiration for years and years.
Bob Ford (01:02:06):
But Jim Valvano was a hustler and he hustled to get where he was going. And he had Ruland at Iona and Ruland ... the biggest win of Jim Valvano's career was probably not the NCAA championship game. It was probably and you probably remember this, Iona in Madison Square Garden beat Louisville, which was on its way to winning the National Championship.
Todd Jones (01:02:30):
Bob Ford (01:02:30):
And the next year NC State hired Valvano. When they didn't hand out, ACC had coaching jobs like dinner mints. But anyway Valvano got out just ahead of the posse at Iona. And Ruland got left holding the bag. He didn't get to play his senior year. He was DQ-ed, of course he had an agent, which he told me — I'm not disparaging the dead here, but he told me Valvano knew all about, in fact, Valvano was the AD, Valvano was sort of procuring agents for guys, so they would stay at Iona for God's sake.
Todd Jones (01:03:06):
Bob Ford (01:03:07):
But anyway, so Jeff, did not have a pleasant memory, but I thought after all and this is 13, 14 years later when Valvano passed. So, I figured they had made up at some point. So, I called Ruland to get a notebook item, because he was the only Sixers Philly connection really to Valvano, had played for him and played for the Sixers and had recently played for the Sixers.
Bob Ford (01:03:33):
And I called him and I said, "Jeff, it's Bob Ford." He goes, "Hey Bob, how you doing?" He's a New York guy absolutely right off the streets. He said, "Yeah, Bob, how you doing?" And I said, "Valvano died, and I'd like to get a quote from you about it." He says, "Oh yeah, okay. Should have happened sooner."
Speaker 4 (01:03:52):
Bob Ford (01:03:56):
Jim freaking Valvano just died of this horrible ... this is two months after the ESPY awards. Don't give up. Don't ever give up. All that stuff. "Shoulda happened sooner. " And this is sort of like Barkley. I said, "Jeff, I am not putting that in the newspaper on the day after Valvano dies."
Bob Ford (01:04:14):
And he says, "Alright, what should I say?" I said, "You don't even have to say anything about him. Just something like condolences to the family for their loss. Something like that." And he says, "Alright, alright. So, say that." And I said, "No, Jeff," I said, "We're breaking the rules a little bit here, but you have to say it. Okay?” And he says, "Alright, I express my condolences to the family for their loss. How's that?”
Todd Jones (01:04:43):
Bob Ford (01:04:45):
And so, I took out the how's that and I put that in. But yeah, just scuffling just to fill stuff and get stories and you figure out how to do it. And it was a great ride.
Todd Jones (01:04:55):
Well, I think about the camaraderie that existed, we were all like the cartoon with the sheep dog and the wolf. They would compete and try to kill each other, but at the end of the day, you clocked out and then like you said, you drunk some stories funny. And you showed your scars like they did in the movie Jaws. I survived that deadline, or I got sent to that mountain looking for wolf urine. And so, there was a bonding there. I think that it was kind of unique to the era.
Bob Ford (01:05:24):
Yeah. Everybody knew what everyone else was going through. And that community, once you get out in the real world and you're around normal people and they don't understand A, your sense of humor or why you curse so much, or they don't know what running is and they don't know what a bulldog is and they don't know what picas are.
Bob Ford (01:05:47):
But when you were around people and all the men and women that we were around, we all knew what we were going through. I was at a press table in the Olympics at Sydney and there was a German guy sitting across from me. I used to sit out in the bullpen where everybody would mix.
Bob Ford (01:06:04):
And there was a German guy sitting across from me and he's speaking quite vociferously and loudly into his handset telephone, slams it down and I'm kind of just looking across at him and he leans forward, he says, "You would not believe the side bar. My editor Vance." So, there's some universality in this stuff.
Todd Jones (01:06:33):
Well, I'm going to leave you with this. I remember arriving in Sydney after 20 hours of flying, totally different day on the calendar, blacked out, went right to the media bar where you check in and got a couple Victoria bitters and then realized, oh, I'm supposed to file something and my computer just would not work. And my head was exploding.
Todd Jones (01:06:58):
And you walked into this little room in the middle of the night and you fixed my computer for me, you calmly, calmly figured out what I needed to have fixed and accomplished what I needed to have accomplished. And I never forgot that. I always remember that.
Bob Ford (01:07:19):
It was that on button. It was that on button, wasn't it? Yeah.
Todd Jones (01:07:22):
That's what it was. "Turn it on, Todd, you idiot."
Bob Ford (01:07:27):
Well, I'm glad that worked out because I've broken a few too.
Todd Jones (01:07:30):
Yeah. Well, we all have. This is going to break the record for one of my favorite episodes of all time, Bob. So, I really-
Bob Ford (01:07:36):
Well, it's going to be my favorite episode then.
Todd Jones (01:07:39):
Well, yeah right. I really appreciate the time and the stories. You're the type of writer that I really miss on the road, the stories, the great writing and now the household is complete. We previously had your wife Bonnie Ford on the show, the great Bonnie Ford from ESPN and several newspapers, what a great journalist Bonnie is. And so, now Bonnie and Bob have both on the show. Do you have any pets that I can interview? Fish, cats, dogs.
Bob Ford (01:08:08):
We have two cats. And neither one of which cares too much for me, but that's okay.
Bob Ford (01:08:13):
Okay. I understand that.
Bob Ford (01:08:15):
I will say this; they never criticize my writing. You don't have to read the comments from them the next day, like you used to have to when I was writing. That's a great thing about retirement. If you cut the lawn, the next day there's not 15 comments from people saying, "Boy, you were really horseshit cutting that lawn yesterday. And "Hey, Bob Ford should stick to hanging pictures. He really doesn't know anything about cutting the lawn."
Todd Jones (01:08:41):
Well, you certainly knew a lot about writing and a lot about making us all laugh and make for a wonderful career. And Bob, I really appreciate your time and best to you and Bonnie.
Bob Ford (01:08:52):
My pleasure, Todd. This is a great little thing you got.