If you were looking for a smooth ride to New Orleans last week, you couldn't have done better than to take a Travis Ford, a subcompact that handles well in traffic and has terrific acceleration. At the Southeast Regional in Charlotte, N.C., Ford, Kentucky's 5'9" point guard, transported the top-seeded Wildcats past Wake Forest and Florida State, scoring 45 points on 75% shooting and exhibiting all sorts of high-performance extras as well. "In our system there's a lot of pressure on the point guard—calling defenses, calling plays, being a leader," says Kentucky assistant coach Billy Donovan. "Travis does all that, and he's the best pure shooter I've ever been around."
Donovan was a mad-bombing point guard known as Billy the Kid when he gave Kentucky coach Rick Pitino his last ride to the Final Four, with Providence in 1987. Earlier this season it was unclear whether Ford, a 23-year-old junior from Madisonville, Ky., could fill the same role for the Wildcats. After he transferred to Kentucky from Missouri in 1990, Ford had to sit out the '90-91 season; then he had surgery on his left knee, which hobbled him for '91-92. At the start of this season, Pitino had no other experienced guard to run his team, but he was concerned that Ford was operating on cruise control. "Travis was a little spoiled, a little pampered, a little overweight," Pitino says. "He had the I syndrome rather than the we syndrome."
So Pitino drove Ford hard, insisting he shed 17 pounds and likening him to Eddie Haskell for the supercilious smirk Ford wore above his chin-strap of stubble. After Ford forswore pizza, trained diligently and dropped to the prescribed 150 pounds—10 below his high school weight—Pitino kindly noted the improvement, remarking that he was "down to one chin." Pitino also began telling Ford he was the best point guard in the land. "With those two years of idleness, Travis needed someone to put demands on him and encourage him," says Ford's father, Eddie, a former high school coach. "It's like a whole new person came out of Travis."
What remained untouched throughout Ford's transformation was his jump shot, the finest seen in Lexington since Louie Dampier's in the '60s. When Travis was five and couldn't get the ball to reach the basket, his father had him lie on his back on the living room floor and throw the ball straight up for hours to learn the proper release and follow-through. At Kentucky, Pitino has a drill that requires a player to spot up from 10 different locations and take a total of 70 three-pointers. Ford rarely misses more than half a dozen, and once in practice he drained 170 straight free throws. In Charlotte, Ford took 13 threes and buried nine, including an unofficial three of three from beyond the NBA stripe. "When I'm out there, my depth perception must be bad, because a lot of them don't seem that far," he says.
Ford transferred to Kentucky because he liked Pitino's foot-stomping passion for excellence. In his own impish, shaggy-headed way, Ford now displays that same passion on the court, chattering nonstop. Still, he has a keen understanding of the game—witness his 10 assists with only three turnovers in Charlotte. After Kentucky's 106-81 rout of Florida State in Saturday's final, Pitino embraced Ford, who was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player. "You're Billy the Kid II now," said Pitino.
The Wildcats' best shooter is the product of years of living-room drills.