It's the first game of the Toronto Raptors' season, and New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd is dribbling the ball down the court, marshalling his charges for an assault on the Raptors' basket. Out of nowhere, his opposing number, T. J. Ford, brazenly rips the ball out of his hands and starts racing down the court. The referee's whistle blows.
Perhaps the ref didn't believe a young upstart like Ford could undress a seven-time all-star as if he were a college rookie; perhaps he was confused by Ford's blinding speed. After considering for a moment, the referee admits there was no foul.
“He predicted the play,” says Ford, “and it turned out his prediction was wrong.”
Ford is used to dealing with inaccurate predictions. When he fell on his tailbone and suffered a spinal contusion in February 2004, some pundits reckoned he would never return to the court, but a year and a half later, he nearly reached a triple-double his first game back. When the six-foot Ford was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Raptors this past summer for six-foot-11 Charlie Villanueva, critics cited the old adage, “Don't trade big for small.”
But if Ford's 11-assist performance dismantling those same Bucks in the Raps' home opener on Nov. 3 is any indication, new adages are needed. Ford has helped build up his teams at every level. It's experience that will be invaluable for the Raptors, who have not reached the playoffs since 2002 and haven't had a proper pass-first point guard in ages.
Sitting under a basket at a team shootaround and fending off stray basketballs shot by the teammates he affectionately trash-talks, Ford recalls, “I went to the University of Texas. The school wasn't known for basketball, and look at the things we created in two years it's now one of the best basketball colleges. The same with Milwaukee [Bucks]: They had a hard time since they traded Ray Allen; we were going there to turn things around to make the playoffs.”
Ford developed perspective on the game while recovering from his injury. “Life is not just about basketball,” he says. The rest “gave me an opportunity to relax, learn a lot of stuff about me.” Recognizing that “anything can happen at any moment,” Ford tries to instil in his teammates the importance of seizing the day, both on and off the court. And he has also started the T. J. Ford Foundation as a way of helping promote the “positive development of young people.”
Thinking about others is the hallmark of a good point guard, which makes the position, as Ford asserts, the hardest to play: “You get in trouble when you put certain people in bad situations.” When asked if he always wanted to be a point guard, however, Ford laughs: “I didn't get to choose!” His relatively small size dictated his position. “I always wanted to be a shooting guard. That's everybody's dream, to be like the Dwayne Wades, the LeBrons, the Michael Jordans.” But with point guard and two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash gaining recognition for his ability to distribute the ball, run the floor and generate excitement, Ford looks forward to making his own mark.
'”That's the respect and the legacy you want to have,” he says. “When I'm done, I want kids to say they want to play just like me.”