Every time he stepped on the basketball court, T.J. Ford felt some kind of pain.
He spent the bulk of his career battling spinal stenosis, a condition that narrows the spinal canal and can represent itself in a multitude of symptoms, from back pain to complete paralysis. He was diagnosed with the condition shortly before enrolling at the University of Texas.
It eventually took its toll — he retired from playing in 2012 following a long battle with injuries both related and unrelated to the condition after two years at Texas and eight seasons in the NBA.
And yet, he still left the game as one of the greatest players to ever come out of the state at Texas, first as a highly-touted high school prospect, then as a college superstar and an eventual first-round NBA Draft pick.
For his efforts, Ford is part of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame 2016 induction class.
“It’s just huge, huge for me and my family,” Ford said. “It’s just something that’s kind of hard to put words to. I’m very grateful, very blessed to be honored in the 2016 class because they are elite athletes.”
Coming out of Houston, the speedy 6-foot point guard entertained his high school audiences, losing just one game between his junior and senior seasons. His accolades were enough to attract the University of Texas, where he became one of the most dominant point guards in the country. As a sophomore, he won the John Wooden and Naismith College Player of the Year trophies to place him among the greatest to grace the court in a Longhorns uniform.
The eighth overall pick of a historically loaded 2003 NBA Draft, Ford began his professional career with Milwaukee Bucks before stints with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. He retired averaging 11.2 points and 5.8 assists per game, still managing to play more than 400 games despite a condition that tested his rseverance every time he laced up his shoes.
“You just learn how to manage it and how to get through it,” Ford said. “You have some good days, you have some bad days. But overall, the competitiveness and competing at a high level — at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that really matters. Getting out there, competing and doing whatever it takes to help your team get wins and reach the next level.”
Lone Star pioneer
It wasn’t as if Texas basketball didn’t have history before Ford committed to the Longhorns.
Before his arrival, Texas’ last notable run in the NCAA tournament was a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1997. That was a step further than three straight second-round exits in the three years before it.
But the program was left with a cloudy future a year later, when head coach Tom Penders resigned following an academic scandal. That prompted the arrival of Rick Barnes, who had spent the previous four seasons at Clemson.
Barnes won a Big 12 title in his first year as head coach and led the Longhorns back to the NCAA tournament in his first three seasons, but never past the second round.
He didn’t have to recruit too far outside of Austin to a player dynamic enough to change that.
Two and a half hours away in Houston, Ford wasn’t losing often in high school games at Houston Willowridge. Playing alongside fellow McDonald’s All-American Daniel Ewing, he was 75-1 over his junior and senior seasons, winning 62 games in a row at one point and grabbing back-to-back state championships.
“He played the game with so much zeal — he loved it,” said Barnes, who is now the head coach at Tennessee. “He made everybody feel good, but after the game, I remember he would come out of the locker room, even in high school, and all the little kids — all of them — wanted to be around him. People just had an urge to gravitate to him. Once you got around him every day, you enjoyed him, because of who he was and his personality.”
Ewing left the state for college, committing to Duke and eventually being drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s still active today after nearly a decade in Europe.
Ford chose Barnes, and was on his way to Texas in time for the 2001-02 season.
“Just the way he talked to me, the way we communicated,” Ford said. “He had a vision for me, and I think that was the biggest thing. He had a vision that I’m actually still living to this day, 15 years later. Everything he told me that he saw for me is still in existence today.”
Ford didn’t need much time getting acclimated to the college level. He led the nation with 8.3 assists per game, becoming the first freshman to accomplish the feat. He also led the Big 12 in steals per outing.
With Texas entering the NCAA tournament as a No 6 seed, Ford erupted for 20 points and dished out seven assists in a 70-57 first-round win over Boston College. He scored another 11 with seven helpers in the second round, as the Longhorns held off a late rally by Mississippi State, 68-64 to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1997.
Ford only got better his sophomore year, averaging 15 points while ranking third in the nation with 7.7 assists per game. Texas finished 26-7 overall and second in the Big 12.
“As fast as he was with his hands and his feet, he was equally as quick with his mind,” Barnes said. “He saw the game, he saw his teammates, he understood his teammates, and he knew how to bring it all together. But he knew how to change pace, knew how to utilize his speed. He wasn’t just full throttle ahead — he had great pace and he knew how to use his speed to make everybody better.”
Playing the role of court quarterback with poise, he led Texas’ rampage through the 2003 tournament bracket. As a top seed, the Longhorns made short work of UNC-Asheville in the first round, then defeated Purdue in the second round as Ford scored 21 points with eight assists.
Then things got tricky in the Sweet Sixteen. He was held to 13 points against fifth-seeded Connecticut, but Texas managed to squeak by, 82-78. That pitted the Longhorns against No. 7 seed Michigan State, and Ford shined again with a double-double featuring 19 points and 10 assists.
That punched Texas’ ticket to the Final Four for the first time since 1947. It also proved to be the end of the tournament run, as the Longhorns were dispatched by a Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse squad, 95-84. Ford notched another double-double with 12 points and 13 assists.
At that point, there was little left for Ford to demonstrate at the college level. It was time to make the jump to the pros, two years after joining Barnes to lead a movement that reignited a passion for college basketball in the Lone Star State.
“We talked about it prior to me coming to the University of Texas, being able to set goals and accomplish what nobody else saw,” Ford said. “I think that not only changed the University of Texas but also changed the entire state and how people view the entire state of Texas in terms of basketball.”
Ford was one of the many star-studded hopefuls waiting for their names to be called at the 2003 NBA Draft.
Syracuse standout Carmelo Anthony, who helped oust Texas in the Final Four earlier in the year, was expected to go high. As was Chris Bosh, a center out of Georgia Tech, and Dwyane Wade, a sharpshooter from Marquette.
Of course, they were all chasing down a high school prodigy from Akron, Ohio named LeBron James.
“I think all of us did the best we could at workout to go as high we could,” Ford said.
James was ultimately taken first overall, and has done more than enough to prove that he was worth the gamble at No. 1. Anthony went third. Then Bosh. Then Wade.
Ford was finally taken at No. 8 by the Milwaukee Bucks — a slight fall from original projections after his spinal stenosis raised some concern among NBA scouts. Regardless, he knew he wasn’t going to wait long to her his name get called.
“For me, it was a little different, because I knew I was going to be a top-10 pick, originally at top-5 pick until I got injured right before the draft with my neck condition,” Ford said.
Ford played 55 games his rookie season, averaging 7.1 points while leading the Bucks with 6.5 assists per game. But he was sidelined for the last quarter of the year after he suffered a contusion on his tailbone when he fell awkwardly on a foul against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Spinal stenosis didn’t help with the recovery. He ended up missing the entire 2004-05 season, but returned to action the following year to average 12.2 points and 6.6 assists in 72 games.
Canada and back
Ford was traded to the Toronto Raptors for the 2006-07 season after the Bucks rebuilt their roster under a new coaching staff. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, as he played his most promising professional basketball to date, notching 14 points and a career-high 7.9 assists per game.
More importantly, he was healthy. And his Raptors were headed to the postseason for the first time in five seasons.
“It felt like home,” Ford said. “It’s a great organization. Any time you can win your division, which is the only time I did it, it’s amazing. And to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, which wasn’t something I had experienced prior to that.”
Then the injury bug struck once again.
In a game between the Raptors and the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 11, 2007, Ford was severely injured after being smacked in the head by Al Horford as he went up for a layup following a turnover. He fell violently to the floor and was carried off on a stretcher.
“It’s scary because you don’t know if you’re actually going to be able to move again,” Ford said. “You don’t know if you’ll be able to walk again. It’s the unknown that’s scary. But at the end of the day I know what I was getting into and the risks I was taking.”
Ford was traded to the Indiana Pacers the following season, where he averaged a career-best 14.9 points per game but only started 49 of 74 games. It proved to best the last year he played more than 47 games in a single campaign, as his spinal condition pestered him over the next two seasons in Indiana.
After a stint in Europe during the 2011 NBA lockout, Ford played 14 games with the San Antonio Spurs during the 2011-12 season before announcing his retirement.
“I was willing to live with the outcome, no matter how it ended,” Ford said. “I played through it and I was fearless. After the incident at Atlanta, I think that became more of a fear. That’s why I decided to go ahead and just retire.”
From student to teacher
Ford began his own basketball academy upon turning pro in 2003, with just over 20 youth players participating during its humble beginnings.
Today, the academy has more than 100 members and is continuing to grow.
“It keeps me close to the game,” Ford said. “It allows me to teach the younger generation. We hear a lot of complaints about kids’ mental aspects, knowledge of the game and skill sets not up to the par with the college level. I’m trying to make a difference at the level that matters the most, and that’s the youth.”
The academy has quite the star-studded alumni base, including LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Lowry.
One of the current participants is special to Ford. It’s his nine-year-old son.
“He has a long way to go — we’re just having fun with it,” Ford said. “We’re not trying to put any pressure on him. We’re definitely going to give him all the tools he needs to be successful. That’s just not just him – that’s every kid in our program.”
Ford’s legacy remains hanging in the rafters of the Frank Erwin Center in Austin. As the program’s all-time assist leader, he was the first Longhorn to have his number retired when his No. 11 was taken out of circulation in 2004.
While his spinal stenosis might have limited his true potential as a professional and forced a premature exit from the game, Ford’s abilities as a passer and adept of the point guard position won’t soon be forgotten, especially in the state of Texas.
“It was unbelievable, just a dream, just making it that far with knowing my health issues and having a nine-year career,” Ford said. “I’m very grateful for that. I didn’t realize I would play that long, but to play against the best in the world every night, that’s what you dream to do.”
Hall of Fame series
This is the fifth in a series of profiles on the 2016 inductees to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. The rest of the class includes former NFL lineman Ken Gray, former Yankees and Astros pitcher Andy Pettitte, former Dallas Cowboys all-pro lineman Larry Allen, former negro league pitcher Joe Williams, rodeo world champion Trevor Brazile, former Texas football coach Fred Akers, former Texas A&M and Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Jacob Green. The induction banquet will be held Feb. 2 at the Ferrell Center.