When sports and politics intersect

Phil Ford, a three-time All-American who attended Rocky Mount High School, backed the gubernatorial candidacy of Roy Cooper, a former prep basketball opponent.
Phil Ford, a three-time All-American who attended Rocky Mount High School, backed the gubernatorial candidacy of Roy Cooper, a former prep basketball opponent.

Sports and politics are the two areas of American public life in which loud advocacy and occasional antagonism are most expected and tolerated – within limits. The highly competitive, emotionally charged worlds infrequently overlap or collide. Except during election season.

We’re accustomed to athletes making commercial endorsements. Less frequently, prominent figures use celebrity to go a step farther, seeking elective office themselves. For instance, NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty sought the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office in 1996. The Republican and former Randolph County commissioner lost to Democrat Elaine Marshall, declaring, “If I had known I wasn’t going to win, I wouldn’t have run.”

This election cycle, several prominent NASCAR figures made political news with their support of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump. NASCAR president and CEO Brian France, along with Hall of Fame drivers Bill Elliott and Ned Jarrett, gathered in late February to endorse the billionaire. Active athletes rarely advertise political preferences, but drivers Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and David Lee Regan joined in declaring Trump their choice.

Days later, timed to coincide with North Carolina primaries unusually early in the political calendar, state Democratic voters received e-mail candidate endorsements from former University of North Carolina basketball stars.

Phil Ford, a three-time All-American who attended Rocky Mount High School, backed the gubernatorial candidacy of Roy Cooper, a former prep basketball opponent. “I thought he was pretty good,” Ford says of his backcourt rival from Northern Nash. “He played hard, I know that. He was one of those worrisome-type guys that was always like a little gnat that bothered you all the time.”

Now he shares views with Cooper. “I very seldom get involved in politics,” says Ford, a 1976 U.S. Olympic team member and 1978 ACC player of the year best known at Chapel Hill for running Dean Smith’s Four Corner delay to excruciating perfection. But he found supporting a fellow product of eastern North Carolina “a natural.”

Cooper won, advancing to a November electoral faceoff with Republican governor Pat McCrory, a former basketball referee.

Basketball endorsements

The primacy of basketball as a state fascination is obvious, particularly at tournament time, notwithstanding the General Assembly’s misguided 2011 action to name stock car racing as North Carolina’s official sport.

Basketball’s popularity is measurably strong. A September 2015 opinion survey of 1,268 registered North Carolina voters by Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling found 52 percent of respondents considered themselves college basketball fans compared with 43 who did not; 25 percent said they were NASCAR fans while 69 percent were not. (The remainder in each case were “not sure.”)

A July 2008 PPP poll of 500 voters revealed only football eclipsed college basketball as the most popular spectator sport in North Carolina. And, when given a choice of which telecast they would watch – one involving the NFL’s pre-Cam Newton Panthers or the ACC’s Tar Heels – the pro team was favored by a mere 29 percent to 28 percent.

Sam Perkins, another three-time All-American at UNC, went to bat for Holly Jones, a candidate for lieutenant governor. Unlike Cooper, Jones lost to Wake’s Linda Coleman in her bid for the Democratic nomination.

Jones, a Buncombe County commissioner, was a team manager for Smith’s basketball program. For several years she served the junior varsity. As a senior in 1984 her primary responsibility was setting up tables covered with an array of balls, T-shirts, programs and other paraphernalia submitted by fans to have players autograph before or after practice. That’s when Jones became acquainted with classmate Perkins, a member of the school’s 1982 NCAA championship squad and a 1984 U.S. Olympian.

The pair reconnected at Smith’s funeral a year ago and stayed in touch via Facebook. Jones shies from crediting her decision to seek higher office to Smith’s influence, yet calls his example of “service to his players and to his family and also to the state” as a “strong determinant” in her decision.

Political assist

Perkins readily agreed to assist Jones’ candidacy. “I played a little bit and Holly served as our manager during her senior year. They were great times,” the retired, 17-year NBA player wrote to potential voters. “She always had more energy than the rest of us … Like all managers, Holly worked behind the scenes to make our team better. As Lt. Governor, she will do the same for North Carolina.”

Ford played “a little bit” as well, finishing his Carolina career in 1978 as arguably the premier point guard in the vaunted program’s history and perhaps the ACC’s best ever at his position. Such stature probably makes it easier for him to acknowledge a moment when Cooper got the best of him on a basketball court.

“He actually blocked one of my shots,” says Ford, a Raleigh resident who attended the NCAA regionals at PNC Arena to see his alma mater play. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard that story. He lets everybody know that.”

Sure enough, the state’s incumbent attorney general is quick to recall high school basketball encounters with the local standout. “When Phil Ford played, we never beat them,” Cooper says, the pain of defeat a faded memory. “Never. It was very frustrating to play Phil Ford. We double-teamed him. We triple-teamed him. We did everything we could to stop him. He was unstoppable.”

In 1975, a year after Ford was graduated from Rocky Mount Senior High, Cooper and his Fighting Knights beat the Gryphons four times in four tries, including a holiday tournament and the state playoffs. Meanwhile, Cooper debated with his father the virtues of recently instituted freshman eligibility in college, arguing in favor of immediate varsity participation. “Well, Phil Ford settled that argument pretty quickly,” he says, noting his prep opponent started for UNC as a freshman and won the most valuable player award at the ’75 ACC tournament.

Blocked shot

Then there’s the moment playing against Ford that Cooper shares with practiced ease, when he got a fleeting taste of besting the best.

“He did drive through several people and he was getting ready to do a scoop shot,” Cooper says. “I don’t know if it was shoulder high or head high; I did not have to go up too high to block it. I did indeed block it.” He shifts to a more precise cadence; you can almost imagine a raised right hand swearing to the veracity of his remarks. “One of my proudest achievements is, on a Friday night in the Rocky Mount High School gym, I, Roy Cooper, blocked Phil Ford’s shot.”

Without breaking verbal stride, Cooper brings the tale to a self-deprecating conclusion. “And then I tell people, which is true, Phil got 52 points that night. But not 54.” He laughs heartily. “And we lost the game. He was a phenomenon. Obviously his career was exemplary. I’m proud that he’s a friend and a supporter in this campaign.”

Yet, because politics, like basketball, is ultimately measured largely by wins and losses, Ford’s imprimatur isn’t without a statistical shadow. He previously supported several unsuccessful Democratic candidates in statewide races. “I’m 0-3,” says Ford. “That’s not a good sign.”

Then again, Ford played on one of six straight Dean Smith teams that stumbled in the Final Four before the ’82 Heels won the NCAA title.