LAIE, Hawaii — Chad Ford lives a dual life.
For three months, he’s one of ESPN’s top NBA draft experts. For the rest of the year, the husband and father of four is a professor who specializes in conflict mediation at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
It’s not easy to balance these two worlds, yet Ford, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, finds a way.
“Very few people on the ESPN side know what I do on the university side, and very few people at the university know what I do at ESPN. I keep them pretty separated,” Ford said. “It’s a juggling act for sure.”
Sporting jeans, sandals and a Star Wars T-shirt with the words “Force for Good,” Ford recently shared with the Deseret News his work and some of the experiences that led him to become BYU-Hawaii’s director of the David O. McKay Center for Cultural Understanding as well as an integral part of ESPN’s NBA draft coverage. The draft will take place in New York on June 23.
Ford’s path to peace building began when he was a student at BYU-Hawaii.
He was a film major at Brigham Young University in Provo before he served an LDS mission in San Bernardino, California, from 1990-92. Upon his return, he transferred for “a semester at the beach,” he said.
But the experience was better than he expected. Ford liked the people, the culture and the smaller class sizes. According to BYU-Hawaii's communications department, the university is the most diverse of the baccalaureate institutions in the United States. This fact fascinated Ford, who grew up in the Midwest, and it allowed him to become friends with students from around the world. He was also impressed by the feeling that everyone was "ohana," the Hawaiian word for family, he said.
“I always thought this place was special because people got along here despite the fact they were from so many difference places and cultures,” Ford said. “There was a lot of harmony here.”
As Ford neared graduation, he attended the 1994 inauguration of BYU-Hawaii’s eighth president, Eric B. Shumway. On that occasion, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reflected on the school’s origins and prophetic destiny as spoken by LDS Church President David O. McKay in 1955: “From this school … will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good toward the establishment of peace internationally.”
Ford initially thought those powerful words were intended for his international friends, but then he realized he was included. It was a spiritually profound turning point in his life.
Ford spent his last semester in Laie trying to figure out how to transition from being a history major to having a career of influencing peace.
“All I knew about history is there is a lot of war and conflict,” Ford said. “I started reading (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) and (Mahatma) Gandhi, peacemakers in the world. I wanted to learn how to do that.”
After graduation, Ford moved to Washington, D.C., to study international law at Georgetown Law School. During his first year, he heard a speech by Dennis Ross, an American diplomat and author who had taken part in the U.S. government’s peace talks with the Middle East. It was another landmark moment for Ford, who approached Ross for career advice following his remarks. Ross directed Ford to find Wallace Warfield, a professor and conflict resolution expert at George Mason University. Warfield, an African-American, had been involved in community peace building during the civil rights movement, Ford said.
Ford skipped his classes the next day and found Warfield, who handed him a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s book “Strength to Love,” which was published in 1963. Ford found a shady tree and read it cover to cover in a matter of hours. He returned to Warfield that afternoon and told the professor, “I’m in. This is what I want to do.”
Ford went on to finish law school and earn a master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University. Along the way, he gained firsthand experience by completing an internship with INCORE, a United Nations initiative on ethnic conflict resolution in Derry, North Ireland, and teaching classes in alternatives to violence at inner-city schools in Washington, D.C., he said.
While in Northern Ireland, Ford recalled, he had a memorable conversation with an LDS branch president in a large but empty LDS chapel. Despite members' conversions, they were culturally Protestant or Catholic, and it was hard for them to worship together. Conflict had taken many away, the branch president told Ford.
"It would be hard to deliver a message about Jesus Christ when people are fighting and killing each other," Ford said. "He told me something that stuck with me: The gospel is the ultimate message that brings peace, but sometimes people aren’t ready to hear that until they are at peace with themselves."
While Ford was earning his graduate degrees in the late 1990s, he was also building a future in sports journalism.
He and a friend, Jason Peery, went to a library to find literature (Ford called it “HTML for Dummies”) to help them learn to code their own website, which they named SportsTalk.com. Their idea was to offer rabid NFL and NBA fans links to every article that mentioned their favorite team, Ford said.
“(The website) looked horrendous,” Ford said. “The internet was the Wild West then, but we had an idea to create a linking service. It’s a common thing now, but at the time, no one was really doing it with sports.”
Their website became a popular destination for sports agents and pro organizations because it provided everything being said about their clients and teams. As a result, Ford and Peery developed relationships with key people in the world of professional sports. Ford and Peery received messages that said things like “We love your stuff” or “They are writing this but it isn’t true,” and they would update the website often each day, Ford said.
The website’s first big scoop came before the 1999 NFL draft, Ford said, when a member of the Indianapolis Colts emailed inside information: “Everybody thinks we are going to take Ricky Williams, but we are going to take Edgerrin James.”
“We wrote that as our first breaking news,” Ford said. “We started doing a lot of that.”
In 2001, as Ford was graduating and trying to figure out his next step in life, the website’s traffic exploded with millions of unique visitors a month. By then it was managed by a staff of five, and not one lived in the same city, Ford said. They were selling advertisements but also incurring huge expenses through their servers. Several companies expressed interest, and the web team decided to sell to ESPN in 2001. The staff and website became “Insider” on ESPN.com.
“That’s how I ended up at ESPN,” Ford said.
Following the transition, the website’s NBA writer quit, and the website struggled to sell subscriptions. Some questioned its survival. To save money, Ford, who has been in an editorial role, stepped in to cover the NBA, and the situation improved, he said.
While covering the NBA was a thrill, it came to dominate Ford’s life. In a competitive business with 24-hour breaking news, especially around trade deadlines and free agency, Ford couldn’t sit through church meetings without constantly monitoring his Blackberry, he said.
“The lifestyle of being a full-time NBA reporter wasn’t healthy for me and my family,” Ford said. “While I loved basketball, there were other things in life that needed my full attention. It was time to make a change.”
In 2005, an opportunity came for Ford to teach peace building at BYU-Hawaii, and he gladly moved into a smaller role at ESPN as the NBA draft expert.
“It’s worked out,” Ford said. “It’s challenging, but it’s worked out.”
Covering the NBA draft
There are two ways to approach the NBA draft, Ford said: You can make yourself the expert and project where guys should go, or you can find out where the scouts think they will go, he said.
“My take has always been that readers will be more interested in what the professional scouts think about guys,” Ford said. “I don’t always agree with them, but a lot of times I do.”
As draft day approaches, Ford might be found reviewing old college games on his DVR (he watches 10-15 games a week after his kids finish their homework in the evening), conversing with NBA scouts or general managers, reviewing gathered information, or updating his mock draft board. The closer the draft, the more content Ford submits to ESPN.com, he said.
Developing relationships with sources around the league is a pivotal part of the process, Ford said. Access to players and teams is often limited even for credentialed reporters, and press conference/group interviews rarely give the depth or insight for a good story. In a media environment where players and coaches are constantly criticized, Ford has found that consistent fairness in reporting has allowed him deeper access with the right people, he said.
“It’s about trying to figure out what a player could do, or how they might succeed if given the right opportunity. … I will point out the weaknesses — they need to be pointed out — but I’m much more interested in figuring out what a player can do,” Ford said. “Ultimately, I’m trying to convey what the NBA teams are going to do, who they like and where guys might go.”
One of Ford’s favorite aspects of working with ESPN is appearing on shows such as “SportsCenter,” “First Take” and “Mike and Mike,” where he can engage in a conversation with someone about a topic, Ford said.
But along with working in the sports world spotlight comes "nasty" criticism, mostly from the anonymous online crowd. When Ford would have chatroom conversations with sports fans, one person would repeatedly write that he wished Ford had died in whatever world disaster had occurred that week, the NBA writer said.
“At first (the criticism) was challenging for me because I take it personally. You have to have thick skin,” Ford said. “People have long memories, and there is a lot of negativity. In person, it’s the opposite.”
Where basketball and peace building cross over for Ford is through PeacePlayers International, a nonprofit organization that uses basketball as a tool to bring opposing parties together, whether its Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. Ford has been involved with PeacePlayers for the past decade. What results from coming together on the basketball court is reminiscent of the racial integration portrayed in the 2000 film “Remember the Titans” and tends to be more effective than getting people to sit down in a room and talk to each other, Ford said.
“These kids have almost never had any interaction with each other because of religious or cultural differences. But you put them on the court together, mix the teams, and they learn to communicate and cooperate. Their stereotypes begin to fall,” Ford said. “I’m able to take my love for conflict resolution and basketball and meld the two together. It’s been amazing … and dear to my heart.”
Ford travels to the Middle East and other places each year but is limited in what he can share about his peace-building work. But James L. Ferrell, a founding and managing partner of Arbinger Training and Consulting, has been a close friend and colleague of Ford's for almost a decade. He said Ford has worked with corporate leaders locked in conflict, married couples on the brink of divorce, and geopolitical leaders wrestling with matters of war and peace. Ford has become a trusted adviser to many high-level leaders around the world because he is so helpful and full of insight, Ferrell said.
“One of the things I admire most in (Ford) is that he is just as committed to helping the needy and unknown as he is the elite. In fact, if he had to choose, he would turn to help those who can least afford it. I know; I’ve seen him make that choice many times,” Ferrell said. “In every moment, he wants to do the right thing by God and by his fellow man. Moment by moment, his main aim is to be helpful. It’s why so many people — me included — trust him so much.”
At peace in Hawaii
Given Ford’s passion for NBA basketball, one might think the topic is often discussed in his classes at BYU-Hawaii. Not true, Ford said.
Once or twice a year, a student will enroll with the idea that pro hoops will be a part of the class, but the student is inevitably disappointed, Ford said.
“I don’t talk about it,” Ford said. “We have so many other interesting things to talk about.”
Star Wars might come up more often. Ford, who at one point had a life-size cutout of Chewbacca in his office, has been a huge fan of the movies since childhood and has found metaphorical elements of conflict resolution in the films, he said.
Take his “Force for Good” T-shirt for example, he said.
“I like the idea of the Force, that there is a good and dark Force, and that light overcomes darkness. … It’s probably had a bigger impact on me than I know,” Ford said.
While the hardest place to be a peace builder is in his own home, Ford said, he is striving to be a “force for good” as director of the David O. McKay Center for Cultural Understanding. Lillian Martino-Bradly, a student in the BYU-Hawaii peace-building program, said Ford is an “incredible” teacher and mentor.
“There are so many students who want to be Chad Ford,” she said. “So many meet with him to talk about life and ask what they can do better. He will sit there for hours and give advice. He really does give everything to what he does, but he’s also an example of what he teaches.”
Friends have tried to lure Ford back to full-time sports journalism or even a job in an NBA front office, but his answer has been “no, thanks,” he said.
“I get to go to work every day and be inspired by these young people who seriously come to this place and want to go back and make a difference in the world,” Ford said. “To be able to work with them, help get them launched on their way, there is really no better gig in the world. It’s hard to beat that — go to work and be inspired every day.”
Ford’s work at BYU-Hawaii is also deeply tied to his LDS faith, he said.
“To me, the gospel is about peace, loving each other. It’s about Jesus’ new commandment to ‘love one another as I have loved you,’” Ford said. “We live in a world where that is really hard for people. … Peace building is at the heart of the gospel, learning how to overcome our differences and see each other the way God sees us.”
Ford said he likes to ponder the image of President McKay standing in a field of taro plants on the north shore of Oahu, at a time when almost no one lived there, making his prophetic statement about the school’s future of influencing peace internationally. It was an audacious remark at the time, Ford said, yet it's happening.
“I think he understood that each of us can have such a powerful impact if we really understand the gospel, and that our gospel is not just discipleship, it's ministering to people,” he said.
Ford said he wept when he heard about the LDS Church’s new initiative to assist refugees.
“I love the sign out front (of BYU-Hawaii), ‘Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve,’” he said. “I feel like most of the students that come here, that is their attitude: What am I getting here in the classroom that will help me benefit my village, my family, and make a difference in the world? It’s a really cool place to be. I don’t know of another university that has quite that unique of a mission.”
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