NEW YORK – Cheryl Ford has one goal in mind as she returns to the WNBA after a three-year absence: winning another championship.
The 6-foot-3 forward won three titles in seven seasons with the Detroit Shock, but has not played in the league since 2009 — the franchise's final year in Detroit before being sold and moved to Tulsa. Now, Ford says she's coming back to the perfect situation in New York, surrounded by familiar faces from her Detroit days in coach Bill Laimbeer and some former teammates.
"This situation is definitely easier for me because we're all familiar with each other," Ford told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Turkey, where she's playing for Canik Belediyesi.
Laimbeer left the Shock early in the 2009 season to pursue coaching opportunities in the NBA and was hired by the Liberty last October. When he went overseas to visit New York star Cappie Pondexter, who is playing for Fenerbahce in the Turkish League, he also met with Ford.
So what did Laimbeer say to his former star, the 2003 Rookie of the Year who was selected No. 3 overall out of Louisiana Tech?
"Just (that) he wanted me and wanted to know what I felt about coming back and playing," Ford said, "And of course, playing for him. Just saying that he came back to win and I said if I chose to come back to play that's exactly what I would be coming back for is to win."
Ford, who signed with the Liberty earlier this month, called her familiarity with the coach a big factor in her decision to come back. Also, she will be reunited with Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton, who have already played in New York for a couple of seasons, and Katie Smith, who is also joining the team this year. The Liberty also acquired the rights to Deanna Nolan from Tulsa, but it's unsure if she'll play with them this year.
"I definitely think it makes me comfortable going into it knowing that we're familiar with each other," said Ford, who added that a different situation would have made her feel like she did as a rookie 10 years ago.
"I think I would have been nervous like my first day in training camp when I got dressed in Detroit. I think I would've went back to that time. But now like I said, (Laimbeer) knows me, he knows what to expect from me. I know him, I know what to expect from him, I know what he wants. So I think this situation is definitely easier for me."
New York, still seeking the franchise's first title, played in four WNBA Finals in the league's first six years but hasn't been back to the championship round since losing to Los Angeles in 2002. Laimbeer guided the Shock to titles in 2003, '06 and '08.
The Liberty added to the Detroit reunion this week, hiring Barbara Farris and Taj McWilliams-Franklin as assistant coaches. Both previously played on championship teams under Laimbeer — Farris in 2003 and McWilliams-Franklin in 2008.
After averaging 32 regular-season games in her first four seasons in Detroit, Ford totaled just 68 in her last three while she endured cartilage damage in her left knee in 2007 and a torn ACL in her right knee in 2008. With lingering issues in both knees preventing her from playing in 2010, the Shock released her before the team's first season in Tulsa.
Now, after playing in Europe the last three winters, Ford finally feels like the player who has averaged 10.8 points and 9.7 rebounds over 196 games in her WNBA career. For Canik, she's putting up 15.8 points and 14.4 rebounds in nearly 33 minutes per game.
"I know my knees will never be the same," she said. "The first two years coming back off the injuries I was just trying to get back into the swing of things. This year I feel I'm back to my old self.
That's something the Liberty are likely counting on, with rebounding one of their weak points in recent years. New York has also not had a player average more than 6.9 rebounds since Elena Baranova in 2005.
Ford doesn't have any concerns about her knees holding up to the rigors of playing in the WNBA in the summer on the heels of a winter season in Europe. With her team out of playoff contention, Ford's last game in Turkey will be March 31, and then she'll be heading back to the U.S.
"I have a month off between here and training camp so I have a little time to rest," she said. "I'm just going to come home and take a little time off and then just continue to work out and be ready for camp."
The Liberty open training camp May 6 and visit Connecticut in the season opener May 25. New York's home opener is May 31 against Tulsa.
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