Ford grows into league's best rebounder -- and more

Updated: July 8, 2006, 9:49 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

It might not push Warren Buffett out of the headlines, but at least opponents can feel like they're doing their part for charity while helplessly watching Cheryl Ford envelop yet another rebound for the Detroit Shock.

Cheryl Ford
D. Lippitt/Einstein/Getty ImagesDetriot's Cheryl Ford is on pace to break the WNBA's single-season rebounding record, set in 2001 by Yolanda Griffith.

In a season that appears likely to feature either the most compelling MVP race in memory -- or at least the most scattered assortment of second-place votes in history if Lisa Leslie continues playing like she's 24 instead of the 34 she turns on Friday -- Ford is building her own campaign one rebound at a time. And unlike the political world, it's a campaign that gives money instead of spends it.

For every rebound Ford corrals throughout the remainder of the season, she'll donate $3.00 to Rebounds for Research, a charity program connected with Children's Tumor Research. (And for anyone thinking that doesn't sound like much, consider Ford is on pace to haul in nearly 400 rebounds -- which would be a new single-season record -- while earning a salary commensurate with the typical cubical indentured servant).

Ford's generosity is certainly born of something far more commendable than guilt, but with the way she makes life miserable for opponents on the boards, who could blame her if she secretly carried around a heavy conscience?

While rebounding is often associated with images of gritty overachievers doing what it takes to earn playing time and giving writers a chance to use words like "yeoman" and "workmanlike," it's a skill for which greatness, like scoring or passing, demands a certain amount of natural talent.

"Certain players have a nose for the ball in rebounding; it's just the way it has always been in professional basketball," Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said after last week's game against Connecticut. "She's one of those, to begin with. She has great hands, physical strength and relentless desire to go get the rebounds. When she came here, I told her that was her job, that was her task, and she's taken that to a very high level."

BRUNSON EQUALS EFFICIENCY
Even with Ruth Riley and Swin Cash alongside her, Cheryl Ford carries the biggest rebounding burden in the league. She's responsible for 32.8 percent of Detroit's rebounds per game (although slightly less of the Shock's total rebounds because of two missed games). The league's next closest is Lisa Leslie, who represents 26 percent of Los Angeles' rebounding.

But one interesting note from looking at the burden carried by each team's leading rebounder is the relative dominance of Sacramento's Rebekkah Brunson (right). She represents just 19.1 percent of Sacramento's rebounds per game, the fourth-lowest mark of any player leading a team in rebounds per game. But Brunson, in her third season out of Georgetown, is pulling down her rebounds in just 20 minutes a game for John Whisenant's deep team.

Currently 11th in the league in rebounds per game, she's averaging nearly 10 fewer minutes per game than the average of the players ahead of her. Perhaps she's not yet Ford's equal on the glass, but Brunson does have a strong case as the league's most overlooked rebounder.

It's not easy to stand out on the Shock. In addition to Ford, the starting lineup contains three players with multiple All-Star appearances (Deanna Nolan, Katie Smith and Swin Cash) and another who was the WNBA Finals MVP in 2003 (Ruth Riley).

But even if Ford arrived in Detroit as a role player, albeit an immensely gifted one, she's playing that role to such perfection that it's beginning to overshadow her teammates.

Through July 2, Ford is averaging 12.2 rebounds per game, a number that is exactly as impressive as it sounds. Ford could play every minute of the next three games without grabbing a rebound and still rank ahead of Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who is currently second in the league in rebounding and on pace to challenge for a spot among the WNBA all-time single-season leaders.

Even after missing two games earlier this season with an ankle injury, Ford appears to be a lock to break the single-season record of 357 rebounds set by Yolanda Griffith in 2001.

In fact, if you split Ford's rebounding average in half, the two mini-Fords would sit in a three-way tie with Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith for 12th in the league in the category.

Nowhere is Ford's dominance more glaring than on the offensive boards. The Sparks' Leslie currently ranks second in the league with 2.9 offensive rebounds per game. Charlotte's Tangela Smith and Phoenix's Kamila Vodichkova are tied for 20th at 2.0 offensive rebounds per game, highlighting how little separates great from good in the category.

Ford is averaging 4.6 offensive rebounds per game. And considering the Shock average 26.5 field goals per game, it's easy to see how valuable all those second chances are.

"That's my job; that's what I'm here for," Ford said with a shrug. "I know a lot of people would die to be in my position, and rebounds are what I'm here for. So I just play my role and do my job."

Although she rarely gives away 11 inches to an opponent, as she did at times against Connecticut's Margo Dydek, Ford's rebounding acumen doesn't stem from height alone. At 6 feet, 3 inches, Ford is blessed with an almost unmatched blend of quickness and sheer size. Not only is she tough to get around, she'll beat you to the spot you're trying to reach by the time you do get around her.

"It's an instinctive thing that she has," Laimbeer said. "You can't really teach what she does."

But it doesn't hurt to have two coaches in Laimbeer and assistant Rick Mahorn who made names for themselves in part by controlling the boards in the NBA against men like Charles Oakley and Horace Grant. (She's also the daughter of Karl Malone, the NBA's all-time leader in defensive rebounds).

"Rick, he's the one that does our defense, so he tells us don't get pushed under the basket, box out first and don't try to outjump the other player," Ford said. "There's a lot of great rebounders in this league, and a lot of strong players that can push you under the basket, so you've got to box out and go get it."

Largely because of Ford's dominance, the Shock just edge the Sparks in rebound differential (plus-5.50 to L.A.'s plus-5.18) and rank second to the Sun in rebounds per game (37.25). Both are key numbers for a team that ranks 10th in the league with just slightly better than 40 percent accuracy from the floor and must create second-chance looks to be successful.

But while Ford is taking her rebounding dominance to levels never before seen in the WNBA, she's no Dennis Rodman. Already the best rebounder in the league, she's becoming a dominant all-around player.

"Offensive-wise this year, she's becoming a force," Laimbeer said. "That you can teach, and she's taken that to heart this year. She's being double-teamed a lot, because her offensive game is so strong right now, that she's learning and will have to learn some more how to pass out of traps."

A career 43.8 percent shooter entering this season -- an almost inexcusable figure given how many looks she gets close to the basket -- Ford is shooting 50 percent this season, even after a 2-for-10 setback in last week's slugfest against Dydek and the Sun.

Give Ford credit for getting better at finishing shots, but also give her credit for recognizing when discretion is the better part of valor. More Yinka Dare than Laimbeer when it came to assists before this season, Ford is already just six assists shy of her single-season best in the category.

And it's that stat that had her coach in a joking mood after the game against Connecticut.

Ducking his head back into the locker room from an adjoining hallway after being asked about her passing, Laimbeer said in a loud voice that suggested passing was a frequent topic of one-way discussion between coach and player, "Cheryl, he said you had four assists tonight, and you're six away from your single-season record."

"Get away from me!" Ford responded with mock indignation.

Ford might be weary of her coach reminding her about moving the ball when teams double-team her in the post, but it's one of the few options he has left in critiquing her game.

Already the game's best rebounder, Ford is taking steps toward becoming the most valuable player on a team loaded with candidates for that title.

And while winning league MVP honors might remain a long shot, there is nobody better than Ford at claiming possession of things that are up for grabs.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.