Ford Model T.J.


It was a routine play. The Knicks were in San Antonio for their yearly spanking at the hands of the Spurs, but it didn’t matter to me, a lifelong New York sports fan and newly minted Texas resident. The 2011 NBA lockout was over, Linsanity was in full swing, and my wife and I could take in a Knickerbockers game without forking a sizable chunk of our Brooklyn rent money to our overlord, Madison Square Garden proprietor and blues-rocker James Dolan.

Those were the things on my mind as I sipped an enormous Diet Coke, the caffeine and aspartame coursing through my veins. What I didn’t know—what nobody knew— was that we were at T.J. Ford’s final basketball game. Hell, most of us probably didn’t know he was still in the league.

Then it happened, halfway into the second quarter. Baron Davis, then just clinging to the threadbare hope of remaining in the NBA, elbowed Ford in the back during a routine rebound under the basket. It looked normal. But Ford remained motionless, facedown in the paint, his left leg quivering as Spurs trainers rushed to his side. Minutes passed, and Ford, shrouded by a phalanx of concerned men, finally sat up. Propped up by two team trainers under his armpits, he was guided to the locker room, grimacing the entire way but refusing the offer of a wheelchair nonetheless. He’d never take the court again.

He flopped, I remember thinking when Ford first went down. From my vantage (the nosebleeds) it didn’t look like much. The refs didn’t even call a foul. When Ford didn’t get up, my wife asked who the Spur on the ground was. “Wow,” I told her. “I didn’t even know T.J. Ford still played.”

I knew Ford as a whip-quick, balanced point guard—not quite a pure passer but athletic enough to score at will—for Texas in the early 2000s who was reasonably suited for the NBA. Mostly I remembered he was hurt a lot, and I remembered he missed an entire season once.

When I got home—we were headed back north on I-35 midway through the fourth quarter as the Spurs beat the Knicks, 118-105—I did some more digging. Why didn’t I know more about Ford? So I fired up my old friend Safari—remember, this was 2012—and got down to business.

What I found was that Ford was a stone-cold killer inside the Frank Erwin Center. He led Texas to its first Final Four in half a century. He won the 2003 Naismith and Wooden Awards, given to the best college player in the country. He was a lottery pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. Ah, there it is, the 2003 NBA Draft. Ford had the distinction of following LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony—the flashy freshman whose Syracuse team knocked Texas out of the tournament, eventually winning it all— plus Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in 2003, possibly the greatest draft in NBA history despite Darko Miličić going second. It’s no wonder he got lost among all those stars … and poor Darko. God I miss Darko. Sort of.

As it turns out, a hard fall his rookie season almost forced Ford to retire at age 20. He landed so hard on his coccyx driving to the rim against the Timberwolves that he needed surgery to fuse two vertebrae together. This was bad news for a basketball player whose bread and butter was using his quickness to penetrate to the basket, a symptom of which is, well, falling on your ass. That’s right, the coccyx is your butt bone, and as funny as it sounds to fall on it, it was especially dangerous for Ford, who’d been diagnosed with spinal stenosis while playing at Willowridge High School in Houston. Essentially the narrowing of the spinal column, the injury has ended or derailed the pro sports careers of David Wilson, David Wright, and many others not from my favorite New York teams. But I’m not bitter. In December 2007, Hawks center Al Horford slapped Ford in the head as the players went up for a rebound—another everyday basketball play. Ford was carried off in a stretcher.

“You don’t know if you’ll be able to walk again. It’s the unknown that’s scary,” Ford later said. “But at the end of the day I know what I was getting into and the risks I was taking.”

A couple days after the Knicks game, Ford called it quits. “If it’s anybody else, it’s just a regular play,” Ford said on March 12, 2012. “But because of me and my condition, a simple elbow in the back has a different outcome than hitting someone else in the back.”

On Feb. 2, Ford, along with Fred Akers‚ the former Longhorn football coach tasked with following Darrell K Royal and six other Texas athletes, was enshrined in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. It doesn’t bear the Naismith name, and the Waco institution’s focus is considerably more narrow, its prestige nonexistent outside of Texas. But for Ford, it’s a testament to the impact he’s had on basketball within the state, and in his words, a true honor, telling the Waco Tribune-Herald, “It’s just huge, huge for me and my family.” Ford’s ascendance at Texas no doubt helped former coach Rick Barnes’ recruitment of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, for a short period in the mid-2000s transforming Texas men’s basketball into a potential superpower, with new top-tier talent stepping into the Drum every fall. He’ll never buy a Lone Star in this town again, and likely not in Houston either.

Ford’s stat line from that fateful game in March 2012 renders him practically invisible: He came off the bench for five minutes and change, attempted one shot, and scored zero points. Three days after he retired, his contract was lumped into a package and traded to the Warriors as part of a salary dump. Ford didn’t quite get the ending he desired as an aspiring 9-year-old hoopster in Houston, watching his hometown Rockets take back-to-back NBA Finals trophies.

During a tearful acceptance speech on Feb. 2, Ford thanked his mother for the sacrifices she made during his early basketball years. As it turns out, he had no intention of attending UT as a high schooler in Houston. “My mother is the reason I went to the University of Texas,” Ford said. “She saw something we didn’t see.” As thankful as Ford is for his mother’s insistence, Texas fans should be too.


Tags: , , , , , ,


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment