Refurbished Ford Adds Another Gear

Armed only with Internet access, a telephone, League Pass and a remote control, keeping a finger on the pulse of all 30 teams from Milwaukee isn’t easy, especially with a travel budget identical to the number worn on the backs of Olden Polynice, Benoit Benjamin and Greg Ostertag.

Ford looks like anything but a player who missed nearly two years of action.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
So the job gets substantially easier when the NBA’s best story is taking place just down the road. T. J. Ford returned to competitive basketball last Tuesday, more than 20 months after his rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks was cut short by a spinal cord bruise that could have ended his career and left him paralyzed.

That Ford came back at all makes the Most Improved Player (too bad there is not Comeback Player of the Year award) race about less suspenseful than an infomercial. That Ford was the probably the best player on the floor in wins at Philadelphia and New Jersey hits the probability scale somewhere between the Bobcats winning the NBA title and an alien landing.

The 165-lb dynamo, generously listed at 6’0”, neutralized Allen Iverson and Jason Kidd and rallied the Bucks from double digits in back-to-back road wins. For good measure, he helped the Bucks overcome a nine-point fourth quarter deficit in Saturday’s home opener against Miami, a 105-100 win that improved the Bucks to 3-0 for the first time since the 2001-02 season.

Ford’s leadership is better. His shooting is better. He might even be quicker. His patience on the final play of regulation in Philadelphia allowed him to dribble through traffic for what seemed like an eternity before delivering a dart to Michael Redd, who drained a three to force overtime.

His confidence is sky high despite almost two years between meaningful games, time he spent improving his conditioning and studying the game in Houston under the tutelage of former NBA point guard John Lucas, a long-time family friend.

Lucas had to prepare Ford mentally and physically for his return. The two still talk daily, and Ford said his mentor has a trip to Milwaukee in his not-too-distant plans.

Incredibly, Ford has trained his mind to play without fear, despite reaching speeds that prompted teammate Toni Kukoc to call him “by far the fastest player I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.”

“If I didn’t play that way, I wouldn’t be able to play at this level,” said Ford, who has repeatedly hit the deck and driven to the basket with the same tenacity he possessed before the collision with Minnesota’s Mark Madsen on Feb. 24, 2004, that forced a hard landing on his tailbone, left him numb and eventually led to surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck. More than a year passed before he was cleared to play this June.

Three games does not a season make, but Ford’s averages of 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 10.3 assists are well above rookie season averages of 7.1, 3.2 and 6.5. They’re numbers that make a good story great and make a good team dangerous.

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

I don’t have a big ego about editing, but I was stunned last week to see a parenthetical entry about the NBA Cares Celebrity Fantasy League inserted into my column, following a reference I had made to Star Jones. For one, imagine the odds of seeing ‘Star Jones’ and ‘fantasy’ in the same sentence and the horror of seeing it under my own byline! Nevertheless intrigued, I clicked on the link to see a complete 13-round draft featuring a group eclectic enough to also include Sam Jackson, Diana Taurasi, Pamela Anderson and Bernie Mac.

A quick scan of the draft left me wondering if ESPN’s Bill Simmons purposely handicapped himself by taking three Celtics, two Clippers, a former Celtic and a guy with his last name. Perhaps Simmons didn’t take his competition seriously – which is entirely possible when competing against a Baywatch babe – but it looks like he should have. With her first three picks, Anderson grabbed LeBron James, Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal. She astutely nabbed T.J. Ford in round 11. It doesn’t take an expert handicapper to see that her team is stacked!

Follow the action at: http://www.nba.com/fantasy/nbacares_celebdraft.html

Team of the week: Milwaukee (3-0 this week).
Ford was just one of many happy stories in Milwaukee, where nobody expected the Bucks to have two more wins than the Packers by now. Andrew Bogut snared 17 boards in his second pro game. Michael Redd had a career-high 41 points at New Jersey. Simmons and Magloire are contributing. When Jiri Welsch and Joe Smith are healthy, they’ll be even deeper and more versatile then they are already. Home games against Golden State and Indiana await this week.

Team of the weak: New York (0-3 this week)
Among the four 0-3 teams, New York could least afford a winless start with a six-game West Coast swing beginning on Wednesday in Portland. Shooting under 40 percent as a team, the Knicks were 0-13 from the perimeter on Sunday. They’re no better at the free throw line (58.1 percent) and they’ve turned it over 21 times a game. Jamal Crawford (17 points, 10 turnovers) hasn’t had an easy adjustment to a reserve role.

Quick hits: The West is 7-2 against the East in the early-going … Heat coach Stan Van Gundy used only seven players against Milwaukee on Saturday … The Clippers 3-0 start is their first since 1985-86 … Fantasy players take note, James Jones of Phoenix was the NBA’s most prolific 3-point shooter in the preseason. He’s made three treys in each of the Suns first four games … Chris Duhon and Jason Kidd pulled the week’s only triple-doubles.

Where Have all the HOFers Gone?

With O'Neal, Payton and Antoine Walker, the Heat have three of the top 11 active scorers, but it is that enough to score a trip to the Finals?
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
During a recent bout of procrastination, I was thumbing through The 2005-06 Official NBA Guide and was amazed to learn that Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton are the only active players to eclipse the 20,000 career point mark.

Twenty-nine players in NBA history have topped 20K and 19 of them have been active in the ’90s or the current decade. It’s somewhat amazing to see just how quickly attrition nipped away at a Golden Era spawned by the bountiful drafts of 1984 and 1985.

Allen Iverson (16,738) is a virtual lock to be the NBA’s next 20,000 point scorer; At his current pace, it’s likely to happen as the 2007 All-Star break approaches. Kevin Garnett (15,681) and Kobe Bryant (14,034) also seem like safe bets to reach that hallowed ground the following year. Duncan, McGrady, Pierce, Allen, Finley, Marbury, Nowitzki and Carter are among those more than halfway there who have plenty left to make a run.

Active 20,000 point scorers

2005-06: (2) Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton
2004-05: (3) Reggie Miller, O’Neal, Payton
2003-04: (3) Karl Malone, Miller, O’Neal
2002-03: (5) Malone, Michael Jordan, Miller, O’Neal, David Robinson
2001-02: (7) Malone, Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Miller, Mitch Richmond, Robinson
2000-01: (5) Malone, Olajuwon, Ewing, Miller, Richmond
1999-00: (4) Malone, Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Ewing
1998-99: (5) Malone, Dominique Wilkins, Olajuwon, Barkley, Ewing
1997-98: (8) Jordan, Malone, Wilkins, Olajuwon, Barkley, Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Tom Chambers

Top Active Scorers (entering 2005-06 season)

23,583: Shaquille O'Neal
20,829: Gary Payton
18,838: Clifford Robinson
16,738: Allen Iverson
16,712: Latrell Sprewell
15,681: Kevin Garnett
14,945: Chris Webber
14,034: Kobe Bryant
13,974: Michael Finley
13,689: Stephon Marbury
13,619: Antoine Walker
13,575: Juwan Howard
13,570: Jerry Stackhouse
13,545: Ray Allen
13,338: Shareef Abdur-Rahim

-- Bill Evans appears weekly on NBA.com, where he worked from 1996-99. Now a Milwaukee-based freelance writer, he has also worked with the Sonics, Bucks and Cavaliers.

Have anything to say? E-mail Bill at billnbatalk@yahoo.com