CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina basketball legend Phil Ford was looking for a cause for a foundation he wanted to set up when he thought about a kid he’d befriended at one of his basketball camps.
Ford said he felt bad because the boy was obese.
“The ball wouldn’t fit between his legs,” he said.
In the afternoons, Ford would draw plays for the boy and everyone would cheer him on.
“It was kind of touching to see how hard he worked, but he was just so limited in his mobility because of his weight,” he said.
So Ford decided to make childhood obesity research his cause. He Googled “childhood obesity epidemic” and Eliana Perrin, a pediatrician at the N.C. Children’s Hospital and childhood obesity researcher, popped up. He emailed her to meet.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Heck yeah,’” Perrin said. “I rescheduled everything I had.”
Ford, the 1978 NCAA national player of the year, told Perrin he wanted to establish a research center for childhood-obesity prevention at the hospital.
Perrin will run the N.C. Children’s Center for Obesity Research and Prevention at UNC when it is built.
Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
“We have right now in the U.S. a very toxic food environment, where not only are our calorie-dense nutrient-poor foods the norm, they tend to be cheaper than the healthier foods,” Perrin said. “The epidemic of obesity disproportionately affects poor people because it costs more to prepare healthier foods. Sure obesity affects rich people and poor people, but it affects poor people disproportionately.”
North Carolina has the fifth-highest obesity rate in the nation.
Ford hopes to raise $39 million to renovate a building across from the hospital into the research center.
On Thursday, he met with Esther Jones, 72, a former Durham teacher, who has pledged $1.4 million to the hospital when she dies. It will help create a professorship for Perrin, called the Phil Ford Foundation Distinguished Professorship of Pediatrics, and will support the center.
Jones’ family owned land in the Kentington Heights area of Durham that became part of The Streets at Southpoint mall.
She still substitutes and says she recently started noticing more and more kids who were overweight.
“When I see young people eating potato chips and drinking sodas, like it’s water, I need to think about doing something to help someone to learn how to get rid of the fat and the bad (food) that you put into your body,” Jones said. “I am excited.”
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1