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Fran Blinebury

T.J. Ford's latest bout with injuries has him dealing with a torn left hamstring.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

In a career stacked with obstacles, Ford keeps pushing

Posted Jan 13 2012 10:05AM

Next summer when the TV cameras zoom in down to the track at the London Olympics, would it really be so surprising to see T.J. Ford settling into the blocks waiting to hear the starter's gun?

After all, it seems like Ford's been trying to clear hurdles ever since he arrived in the NBA eight years ago. Here comes the latest roadblock, a torn left hamstring that will put him on the sidelines for 4-6 weeks.

For the Spurs, it's a setback they definitely don't need at a time when Manu Ginobili's broken hand has already left a gaping hole in their backcourt and it once more knocks Ford off the rails at a time when he was beginning to think his fortune was turning.

A week ago, Ford was riding high with a stretch off the bench where he averaged 8.3 points and 6.6 assists in 20 minutes a night of three straight wins. There were possessions when he came down the floor and ran the offense just the way coach Gregg Popovich drew it up in the huddle, making the right decisions and making the right passes that result in two points. And there were possessions like the one when Matt Bonner found himself trapped in a double-team and heaved him the ball out beyond the 3-point arc just as the shot clock was about the expire. So Ford let it fly and hit nothing but the bottom of the net.

"On that shot," he said laughing, "I didn't give a you-know-what. I threw it up and it went in. There's nothing you can do in practice to help make that shot. That was the basketball gods."

It would seem the least the basketball gods could do after the way they have tested his patience and his determination and his willingness to do whatever it takes to show that he belongs.

"You come into the league as a high draft choice (No. 8 overall in 2003) and you go through the ups and downs that I have in my career and you do get to a point where you want to prove something," Ford said. "You are not playing for what other people think about you, but you always are aware and you want to make a statement that everything that was once thought of you at one time wasn't wrong."

His ability to shoot the ball was always in question even when he was running the show and winning games at the University of Texas. But nobody ever wondered about the raw speed and the ability of the barely 6-footer to survive among the big bodies while driving through the paint.

Then came Feb. 24, 2004 in his rookie NBA season when a collision with Minnesota's Mark Madsen was so jarring that it left Ford with a bruised spinal cord that eventually required surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck. It was previously known that he'd had spinal stenosis, a congenital condition that is a narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal cord.

Ford sat out the entire 2004-05 season, rehabbed in Houston with John Lucas and made his return to the Bucks at a time when they were moving away from a faster paced game and was traded to Toronto in 2006. When he was taken down by Atlanta's Al Horford on what was ruled a flagrant two foul in December of 2007, it began another rehab process and began the path out of Canada as Jose Calderon took over the starter's role. Three seasons with the Pacers produced the top scoring season of his career in 2008-09, but a steadily deteriorating relationship with coach Jim O'Brien made him a marginal part-time player the past two seasons.

The fun was gone from the game.

"Of course, that's natural," Ford said. "First, when you can't play because of physical problems and then when you don't play because of things that are out of your control, you lose that joy the game always gave you. The people back home in Texas aren't following you that close. They don't know everything that is going on. What they see is you aren't playing. What you want is just a chance to play again."

Ford got it from the no-nonsense Popovich, who pulled no punches in a sit-down conversation.

"I knew I was in the right place from Day One," he said. "Coach Pop had a face-to-face conversation where he told me what he expected. He told me what he thought of me. He told me the good and the bad."

That's Pop's way. He brings in free agents and breaks them down, then he sets about building them back up, if they'll buy into the system and to his teaching.

The Spurs were not buying into the notion that they were getting a high draft pick in Ford. But they had traded away Tony Parker's backup George Hill last summer and didn't think rookie Cory Joseph was ready to step into the slot. And with Ford, well, there wasn't much to lose.

He had signed with KK Zagreb of Croatia during the lockout, played in just one game and returned to sign with the Spurs.

"It wasn't about coming home to Texas," he said. "It was about Coach Pop and the way he talked to me. Direct. No pulling punches.

"You have to have tough skin to survive in this league and I always thought that I had that to handle the adversity I've faced in my career. But I'm human. I had my doubts. What I think I needed at this point is somebody to make me face them and then get through them.

"I don't know what's going to happen this season. I don't know how it will play out."

A driving layup on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, an odd landing and a hamstring tear.

Another hurdle for T.J. Ford.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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