By Carter Chapley:
Early in my first season covering Billiken Basketball for the University News, a routine began during the pre-practice media scrums that made me very nervous about being there in the first place. A smattering of reporters would gather on the edges of the court and wait an indeterminate amount of time for Coach Travis Ford or any players to come out and give a brief interview. Sometimes, while waiting and part of that routine, someone would grab a loose basketball off the rack, step up to the free-throw line, and make their best attempt. I was too nervous to even think about that.
That season, The Bills were off to a hot start, but the sneaking tradition of poor free-throw shooting was leaking into the early season narrative. “Alright Chaps, if you’re going to write about how we can’t hit free throws you gotta prove it yourself,” came hollering out of the tunnel nearest to the locker rooms. The voice belonged to the Director of Basketball Operations, Ford Stuen. “Come on, I need two” was his bellowed follow up.
If I remember correctly, I missed both, he gave me some sort of wisdom on keeping my elbows in (or something of that nature), and I went on to make one of the following two. Progress.
At the time, I was so nervous about being in the building, let alone talking to anyone, that having Ford come over to me, know my name, and just cut it up with me about hoops was so…relieving. I started to breathe easier, feel comfortable asking questions, and far enough down the line, be in the place where I am today.
I can’t imagine that Ford knew he was doing me a favor or how much he was helping me at the time. That’s just who Coach Stuen was. I learned soon after that he welcomed all comers with open arms. He believed in leading with kindness and building relationships. Challenging me to a free throw challenge and joking around with some student journalist wasn’t something he tried to do; that was like blinking. It’s just something he does.
After that day in Chaifetz Arena, Ford Stuen became my personal basketball coach and instructor. I would take notes of things I saw in games and ask him about them at practices. “Hey coach, if you’ve got a second, I saw you guys did this on Saturday. How does that work? Just let me know if I’m harassing you at any point.” And he never would pass on the opportunity to talk hoops with me and teach me something I was not seeing or show me why they loved a particular set or scheme. Most of the time, I wouldn’t have to say much. He would just get rolling on a topic and take me through the entire Xs and Os of a play they had run or walk me through a scouting report for an upcoming game. It isn’t unfair to say he taught me the game of basketball for free out of the goodness of his heart.
It wasn’t long after that did I discover his passion for shoes. He helped me find a pair of basketball sneakers that suited my outrageously wide feet and high arches: a pair of green Mamba Instincts. We butted heads on preferred coffee orders, mainly him chastising me on my coveted black hot coffee compared to his bougie iced variety. We talked about his passion for art, design, and, most importantly, fashion. He believed that wearing something good-looking helped you feel (and play) well. We talked about how hard it is to be away from family, especially with him traveling all over the country and world regularly, but how relieving it is to have partners and families who ‘get it’.
Ford was a friend that I valued and cherished his life in mine, and now even more so in his death. He offered me kindness, advice, and friendship that I don’t think I deserved. Even in his last months, when he was heading into the hospital for the first times (unbeknownst to me), I texted him about the upcoming NIT game vs. Mississippi State, and he gave me a complete, thoughtful response, only for me to learn later in that text chain that he wasn’t feeling well and was in the hospital undergoing tests.
To say I couldn’t believe it would be an understatement. Ford found a way to get back to me despite being so unwell he was in the hospital. He treated me and everyone else in his life with an uncommon amount of generosity. I recognize now, that in our time together, my genuine greatest regret in his passing is truly waking me up to realize how he inspired me to behave more like him. A hindsight I wish I has shared.
As a basketball mind, it couldn’t be more apparent to everyone in the Billiken atmosphere that Ford Stuen was on a path that would lead him to stardom. He was first in the building every day and the first to volunteer his time. He respected the job he had and was always seeking to outwork his own expectations. Once after being promoted from director of basketball operations to assistant coach, he confided in me that he felt he had to work harder than anyone else in his position to prove he was worthy and fight the potential stigma of simply being Travis Ford’s nephew and earning the job through nepotism. A goal I feel he accomplished beautifully, for in his entire tenure as a professional in the SLU program, no one could doubt his abilities, work ethic, or deservingness to be in that position.
More than anything, Stuen really understood college hoops and why the fans loved it and wanted to be in service to those fans. He volunteered his time to me and others without hesitation. He wanted to see his team getting media and public attention and constantly pitching ideas on how to promote them more.
He wanted the team to look amazing in the gear they got because he felt players would not only play better, but the profile of the whole program would rise if the team won games while looking excellent. For that reason, he would play a central role in designing and ordering the apparel the team would go with on a year-to-year basis.
All of this is to say, Ford Stuen is a unique gem in the grand scope of things. He thought of things in non-conventional ways compared to the establishment. He was often playing mental 5D chess in terms of how he coached and how he saw college basketball and athletics as a whole. It is my hope that the program is inspired by Coach Stuen in his passing and adopts how he saw the world more. It would be truly heartbreaking to see his passion and vision disappear with him.
I feel lucky that I could call Ford a friend, and despite only getting him for a short time, I was fortunate to get to share in his aura. While I was certainly not his best friend, or his closest confidant or anything of that nature. He made you feel like it often, and I will be grateful and reverent for that opportunity.