Bond between Wagner players has team on verge of NCAA Tournament

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They are the engine to the area’s best local college basketball story, close friends who describe each other as brothers, a pair of junior college transfers who have turned Wagner from a preseason afterthought to favorites to reach the NCAA Tournament from the Northeast Conference.

There is the quiet, unassuming and easygoing Alex Morales, the NEC Player of the Year. And there is the outspoken and energetic Elijah Ford, an All-NEC first team selection, a player who has doubled his scoring output from a year ago, who named the team’s group chat “Jewelry Year” to motivate the overlooked Seahawks months ago. Wagner’s quest for jewelry begins Saturday when the Seahawks play host to Mount St. Mary’s (2 p.m., ESPN3) in the NEC semifinals.

Wagner’s impressive season, from being picked eighth in the preseason to winning the regular-season crown with a 13-6 (13-5 NEC) record, wouldn’t have been possible without the deep bond the seniors, both New Jersey natives, forged with one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March when the pandemic hit locally, Ford had nowhere to stay and Morales’ family took him in.

“Our chemistry grew like crazy,” said the 6-foot-5 Ford, the NEC’s No. 2 scorer at 18.1 points per game.

Ford had a difficult upbringing. His mother passed away from a heart attack when he was 4 years old and his father wasn’t in the picture. He was raised by his grandparents and most recently lived in a crowded home in Newark with several brothers and his grandfather.

When the season ended abruptly, Ford didn’t know where he was going to stay.

“I needed a place to sleep and I just didn’t have that over there,” he recalled. Ford was vague, saying he didn’t want to be in “that environment.”

And so he told Morales about his living situation and asked to stay with him. His close friend didn’t hesitate, telling him to get his stuff together and meet him at the car.

“I knew he was my brother in a sense. That just solidified it,” Ford said. “I told him that night, ‘Thank you for this.’”

Morales, a versatile 6-foot-6 guard averaging 17.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, only had known Ford for six months at the time, but he felt a strong bond with him. They had known of one another growing up in New Jersey, but had never met. They came to Wagner after junior college and had similar ups and downs in their first year of Division I basketball as the Seahawks lost their most games in a decade (21).

It was a trying year for Morales, despite putting up solid numbers. He missed his son, Kaiden, whom he saw infrequently. One night, on the anniversary of his beloved grandmother Joan Dixon’s passing, he couldn’t sleep. He texted Ford at 3 a.m. His friend met him outside immediately and they talked until the sun came up. Tired the next day, Ford was late arriving at practice and had to do extra running.

When Morales went to apologize to him afterward, Ford wouldn’t allow it.

“I’d do it again,” he told him.

The second Ford walked through the door of Morales’ Paterson, N.J., home, he was treated like family. Morales’ mother, Yashanda Carter, welcomed him. She was used to playing the host. Her husband, Alexander Morales, had coached her two sons, Alex and Altariq, in basketball growing up, and friends frequently stayed over.

Wagner's Elijah Ford goes up for a jump shot against Seton Hall on Dec. 8, 2020.
Wagner’s Elijah Ford goes up for a jump shot against Seton Hall on Dec. 8, 2020.
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During their first year together at Wagner, the family had started to get to know Ford, so he wasn’t a stranger. Carter said he fit. Ford encouraged her to try to get her Masters degree and became her taste-tester for meals. Carter provided him with stability and structure at a difficult time, and refers to him as another son. On Senior Day, Carter and her family made a video for him.

“There was a completely different level of focus and seriousness about him [this year],” coach Bashir Mason said.

Morales and Ford spent all their time together during the pandemic. They worked out and played video games. Each made sure the other didn’t miss classes or fall behind in schoolwork. They stayed in touch with their teammates and even ran the defensive and offensive sets Wagner employs during games of NBA2K. The chemistry began to build then, with so many returning players.

Wagner's Alex Morales, with his mother Yashanda Carter
Wagner’s Alex Morales, with his mother Yashanda Carter
Wagner athletics

With Morales and Ford, though, it is different. Morales will coach Ford, frequently giving him advice before Mason will. Ford is more like Morales’ hype man, instilling confidence in him.

“Without a doubt, one million percent, [they help each other],” Mason said. “In that regard, COVID was good to us, our program and good for Elijah. Just the fact that those guys really got to know each other personally and then became brothers, they brought that back to campus. You’ve seen those relationships spread to the other guys.”

Their journey together may not end when this season is complete. Both could return to Wagner next year, since the NCAA is granting athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the virus. But right now, their focus is on the present.

Morales, Ford and Carter would often sit together during the spring and summer discussing the future, talking about next year, when they would be back on the court at Wagner, what they imagined happening. Everything so far has been as they hoped. The only problem is, Carter has had to follow from a distance because of the virus.

“Don’t start,” she said with a laugh when asked what it’s been like to watch their development. “[You’re going to make] me cry.”

Two more wins, and tears of joy will be flowing. Wagner hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2003. Ford and Morales can cap this whirlwind year with the highest of highs.

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