Rebel With A Cause: Nate Ford And The San Francisco Boys & Girls Club

A leader in the community and on the court, Nate Ford knows that to lead is to serve

One thing you’ll notice when you speak with Nate Ford, Director of Citywide Sports at the San Francisco Boys & Girls Club, is that he’s paying attention. How so? Given the number of kids in and out of the club on Fulton Street, the basketball practices, tutoring sessions, parents, tournaments, and events that he has managed over the years, you might think that he’d have forgotten that game when you hit three straight three-pointers to give the Rebels the lead 20 years ago.

He hasn’t.

“You were on fire that game!” He says to me over the phone.

A tremendous number of Bay Area kids have donned the black and red of the San Francisco Rebels—a program established by Ford when he was less than a year out of high school. Ford was hired as an 18-year-old graduate of George Washington High School, and placed in charge of the gymnasium at the San Francisco Boys & Girls Club on Page Street, in the Haight Ashbury district—immediately, Ford knew that he could have more of an impact than just running pickup games.

We started in 1990—I just had about 10–12 kids, and was starting out at the Boys & Girls Club,” Ford says. “I was hired as the athletics director, and one of my first jobs was just to get something going in the gym. We started playing locally—PAL and CYO leagues—and over time it just grew and grew.”

Ford was a strong basketball player in high school, and at one point planned to play for San Francisco State University after graduating, but when the opportunity with the Boys & Girls Club arose, Ford decided to run with it.

So why the Runnin’ Rebels? “It was 1990! UNLV—that was the ‘it’ team at that time—I think they had won the national championship.”

He explains: “It was just to give the kids something to do—and, like I said, I never imagined it would blow up and become something like this,” Ford explains. (He’s not kidding—Ford’s Rebels now number 20 separate teams for both boys and girls, drawing middle schoolers and high school kids from across the Bay Area.) “We wanted to give them a way to compete with other groups of kids, instead of just beating up on each other—we played in different leagues, we set up scrimmages with other Boys & Girls Clubs around the Bay Area, and the goal was just to keep them active and keep them going.”

“I’ve got kids coming from San Jose, and as far away as Sacramento. It’s really about them — if they can go for the commitment, then we can figure it out.”

Given the performance of Ford’s teams, it didn’t take long for word-of-mouth to spread—Ford, it appeared, had a natural talent for coaching and for management.

“By the third year, we were really known. So then we expanded from one to three teams. Eventually, we started having to have tryouts. Fast-forward to today—we started out with three teams, and now we keep two teams for every age group, starting at nine years old. The last tryouts we had, we ended up having 320 kids show up for about 200 spots.” Beyond the Bay Area, Ford’s teams now regularly compete in national tournaments, from Nevada to Texas to the East Coast. And there is no shortage of highlight-reel material from their exploits across the U.S.

“I’ve got kids coming from San Jose, and as far away as Sacramento,” Ford says. “It’s really about them—if they can go for the commitment, then we can figure it out.”

That’s where the program’s real significance begins to show.

“We do more than just basketball. We do homework sessions; tutoring; there’s a community service component that we do every year (each team is required to to community service projects, and we do them as an organization). So, besides 2.5 [the minimum GPA to be an active player for the Rebels], there’s a parent component where the parents have to volunteer a certain amount of hours, and things like that.” In two sentences, Ford sums up a system that to him is only natural, but that is undeniably a complex and well-thought-out method of community building and of preparing the student-athletes under his program’s guidance for the real world, beyond the gym.

“Because we want to keep the costs so low in terms of charging kids for the program, we thought that the parents might be able to give back by chaperoning on trips, running snack bars, and helping run events.” While originally relying on things like candy sales to raise funds, Ford and the Rebels can now focus on more large-scale projects: “We kind of shoot for big things —we have a crab feed that we do every year, which raises a lot of money. We do shoot-a-thons, we do a rib cookout. Those things require selling tickets, and we can generate a pretty good amount that way.”

All this, and it almost didn’t happen.

Coaching was not on my radar,” Ford says. “It was something that fell in my lap. I was a member of the Boys & Girls Club, and when I graduated I thought I was going to go play for San Francisco State, but I had some injuries there, and it didn’t work out—then this job came up at the gym, just to be there at the gym to make sure no one gets hurt,” he remembers with a laugh. “Coaching was the furthest thing from my mind until I saw these kids—I just thought I should be there to guide them through a game. If we win, we win, if we lose, we lose kind of thing—but they were having fun, trying new things.”

“A lot of coaches approach AAU basketball as a business,” says Ford. “A lot of coaches, that’s their only job, to coach AAU basketball. So their fees go directly to them.”

He continues: “I’ve been blessed—it’s never been about my coaching, it has been about the players that we’ve been lucky enough to get. They make us [Ford and the volunteer coaches that make up the Rebels’ staff] look good. I manage the game—I’m more like a game manager,” he says, laughing again. For him, having built a grass-roots organization from the ground up, the focus has always been on serving the kids—making sure they are presented with the best opportunities to succeed.

“A lot of coaches approach AAU basketball as a business,” says Ford. “A lot of coaches, that’s their only job, to coach AAU basketball.” (Ford’s primary work is in his role as a director with the Boys & Girls Club—the Rebels have always been, of necessity, a side-project for him.) “So their fees go directly to them. I’ve been blessed and fortunate in that I don’t have to charge high prices; I don’t have to charge for gym space, since we have gyms to use thanks to our relationship with the Boys & Girls Club.” 26 years into coaching the Rebels, Ford comes from the old school.

“People have their different agendas—I guess I’m one of the old ones now, who wants to make sure that the kids have a safe and fun environment, and that they’re excelling in more than just basketball. Basketball is a carrot—we’ve tied different things to it, like academic success, and serving their community. That’s why the Rebels organization is more than just basketball—we want to help kids become complete people by the time they are 18, whether they become college athletes, or just great citizens who are ready for life.”

The business side of AAU sports is not limited to the coaches. Shoe companies and other sponsors mean there are big bucks to be had. High pressure programs also foster more aggressive parents, bent on getting their kids scholarships, playing time, anything that it takes to push them to the next level.

Ford (right) on the sidelines (Photo: Judy Chow)

“Everyone wants their kids to be ranked, wants their kids to be college athletes, and thinks their going to get a scholarship. I tell people all the time, I don’t get kids scholarships; I don’t get kids into schools. Kids get themselves those things, by having good grades and going about things the right way. We don’t push the kids for athletic scholarships—we’ve been fortunate and lucky to have a lot of kids who have earned them, but that is not our goal,” Ford explains.

“My volunteers are my rocks. The coaches put in countless hours. They take time off from their jobs to help, to travel with us, to come to practice — and that goes for the academic coaches as well.”

Hence, the community service program that sees the Rebels’ helping to clean up San Francisco’s beaches, visiting convalescent homes, and doing toy drives for homeless children. Hence, the academic program that helps provide one-on-one tutoring for players whose grad point average needs improvement. Hence, the test prep courses for both middle and high schoolers, helping them to elevate their performances on standardized tests and entrance exams. And 95% of the support comes from volunteers.

“It’s much more than just me [running things],” Ford says. “My volunteers are my rocks. The coaches put in countless hours. They take time off from their jobs to help, to travel with us, to come to practice—and that goes for the academic coaches as well. They collect report cards twice a year, one in January and one in May, right before the summer season. My volunteers, my coaches—I couldn’t do this without them.”

Ford’s job with the Boys & Girls Club in San Francisco is to run athletics programs for nine different clubs in the city—the only way he can accomplish all that, and continue to build the Rebels, is by relying on the loyalty and dedication of those volunteers, many of whom are alumni. “Out of the 20 coaches that we have, about 12 of them are former players,” Ford says. Rebels alumni involved in helping the team after graduation have also reached the highest level of sport, including Oakland Raiders’ running back Taiwan Jones—a San Francisco native.

So, why do they do it?

Because they can see the value, the intent, and the success that the Rebels have had on the court and in the community. Because it’s about building much more than a roster. Because it goes well beyond basketball.

And that’s partly why I’m writing this article. I signed up to play with the Rebels when I was in the fifth grade, and was one of the early classes guided by Ford. The experience was everything that being a Boys & Girls Club member is supposed to be—I met, and was lucky enough to call teammates and friends, kids from all over the city, from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, and we traveled, played ball, and worked hard for a common goal together. I can’t begin to imagine my childhood without that experience—without a doubt, it played a significant role in my development into the person I am today.

Which brings me back to that game 20 years ago. It was at a tournament in Fairfield, California, against our arch rivals at that time, the Renegades. And no, I haven’t forgotten it either.

Taking my first 3-point shot versus the Renegades in Fairfield, 1996 (Photo: Ken Kitch)

Basketball is just another opportunity and outlet for kids to express themselves and stay active, and more importantly just stay off the streets and out of trouble,” Ford says.

Basketball is the carrot. Basketball is what brings the Rebels together. But the Rebels are so much more than basketball.

Thank you, Coach Ford.

Photos and words by Bryan Kitch, for SportUp, Between The Lines. For more, follow SportUp on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Also, check out our Twitter list, Mission-Driven Sports, for inspiration and information about the stories that matter to you: Sports, education, community.