Will it be T.J. Ford, whose comeback from spinal surgery has made the Bucks a dangerous team that can run with anyone ....
Combine Allen Iverson's speed with Steve Nash's brain and you have T.J. Ford, a heart-stopper in more ways than one. Milwaukee Bucks opponents aren't merely terrified of the intrepid 5'10", 165-pound point guard, they are terrified for him every time he launches his wee self into the mosh pit of the lane. "Are you O.K.?" Heat point guard Jason Williams asked earlier this month after Miami center Alonzo Mourning had decked Ford with an elbow to his nose. If Williams's concern seemed unusual--whose face hasn't been altered by a Zo elbow?--it was only because he was aware of Ford's extensive history of not getting back up off the floor. Says Golden State Warriors guard Derek Fisher, "I've had two right-foot injuries, and each time I know how protective I've been of my injured area. So I would think that [with his injury history] T.J. would be a little skeptical about going to the basket or trying to finish plays around the rim. But he has no fear." � How can that be? It has been only 21 months since paramedics wheeled Ford off the court on a stretcher after a seemingly harmless collision with Minnesota Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen left him momentarily paralyzed. For the fourth time since high school Ford had lost the feeling in his arms and legs, and as he prepared to undergo spinal surgery that May, the 21-year-old rookie wondered if he would play again. Now Ford is not only back on the court, but he has also gone from endangered to highly dangerous. In the season's first three weeks he won an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, fueled two improbable fourth-quarter comebacks and gave the previously moribund Bucks a sizzle much like the one Steve Nash brought to the Phoenix Suns a year ago. After finishing 30-52 in 2004-05, Milwaukee was off to a 5-3 start at week's end--and all of their wins had come against teams with winning records--while averaging 99.4 points, the fifth-highest in the league. Ford was averaging 13.6 points and 9.3 assists, second to Nash's 11.2. "He's impossible to defend because he's so quick," Portland Trail Blazers general manager John Nash says. "He creates havoc."
Ford's speed can be as lethal a weapon as Shaq's size and Kobe Bryant's athleticism. Unlike Iverson, however, who mostly creates opportunities for himself, Ford's first instinct is to set up his teammates. And like Steve Nash, Ford benefits from having a wide array of offensive options. Big men Jamaal Magloire and Andrew Bogut are effective interior scorers, while Michael Redd and Bobby Simmons are deadly from the wing. Because it's virtually impossible for a single defender to guard Ford off the drive, sharpshooters--most notably Redd, who's averaging 25.4 points--are getting abundant open looks. On the fast break he is even more devastating, brilliantly exploiting Milwaukee's balanced lineup of athletes and long-range bombers; through Sunday, the Bucks were averaging 15.1 points on the fast break, up from 10.3 points last season.
Ford wasted no time this season showing that he had recovered fully. On opening night in Philadelphia he had a near triple double (16 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds) in the Bucks' 117-108 overtime victory. Trailing by three in the final seconds of regulation, Ford zipped past Iverson, then dribbled outside to bait the defense before finding Redd, who hit an open three to cap a six-point comeback in the final 1:07. "He's definitely a game-changer," says Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. "Two years ago, when we were very quick on the front line, we were able to contain most people on pick-and-rolls. He and Iverson were the only two guys we couldn't rein in, so it doesn't surprise me that people are having trouble reining him in now."
A three-inch scar runs along the back of Ford's neck. "I know what it feels like to almost play my last game," he says. "No one knows how long we're going to live. You live every day to the best of your ability and enjoy your life because once it's over, it's over."
Although Ford is back to full speed, questions about his health won't go away. He suffers from spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can put pressure on the nerve and spinal cord, and cause tingling and numbness in the arms and legs. Milwaukee general manager Larry Harris says the team was aware of Ford's condition when it drafted him No. 8 in 2003 and knew of three episodes in which Ford had suffered a loss of feelings in his extremities. The third of these incidents took place in April 2003, after Ford had led Texas to the Final Four. He was driving to the basket during a pickup game at the campus rec center when he tripped headfirst into the thigh of teammate Royal Ivey and fell to the ground. "I can't move!" Ford cried, lying flat on his back.
"He kept saying he couldn't feel his legs, his fingers, anything," says Ivey, now a backup guard for the Atlanta Hawks. "He was scared."
Ford regained the feeling he had lost within 20 minutes; within a month he was playing again. His recovery from the collision in February 2004 with the 6'9", 236-pound Madsen, in the 55th game of a promising rookie season, was far slower. That May, Ford underwent surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck, where the narrowing of his spinal column was the most severe. The operation stabilized that particularly vulnerable area, and Ford and the Bucks have been told by their medical advisers that he is at no greater risk of paralysis than any other player. "I told him, 'You got blessed,'" says former NBA point guard and coach John Lucas, a family friend who spent four months last summer in Houston training Ford. "Because of his injury, he got time to improve his basketball skills and see life from a different perspective--to see that he can live with or without basketball. He wound up light years ahead of where he would have been otherwise."
With guidance from Lucas, Ford learned to run more upright--"He was rounding his shoulders to protect his back," Lucas says--and to look before he leaps into the paint. "I used to jump into anybody; I didn't care how I did it," says Ford. "Now I know how to protect myself before I fall, and when I fall. I'm still going to jump into people, but I may not jump as high as I used to, and I always make sure I'm not off-balance." Lucas also made Ford shoot more than 50,000 jumpers and countless runners eight to 10 feet from the basket. "I call that the ' Steve Nash drill,'" Lucas says.