Spurs point guard T.J. Ford abruptly retired Monday following the latest scare to his surgically repaired spine, which once sidelined him for an entire NBA season and hampered the dazzling promise that made him a college star.
Ford told reporters that lying motionless March 7 on the court against the New York Knicks wasn’t the first time it had happened, and he decided to walk away while he still had a chance. He was playing just his 14th game in an injury-prone season when Knicks guard Baron Davis elbowed him in the back, knocking him to the ground.
The 28-year-old Ford didn’t move for several minutes and wobbled while being helped off the court.
”If it’s anybody else, it’s just a regular play,” Ford said at a Spurs practice before Monday’s game against Washington. ”But because of me and my condition, a simple elbow in the back has a different outcome than hitting someone else in the back.”
Drafted eighth overall by Milwaukee in 2003, Ford also played for the Raptors and Pacers but never quite reached the potential that made him the Naismith and Wooden player of the year at Texas. He led the Longhorns to the Final Four as a sophomore, helping turn football-obsessed Texas into a rising basketball power that gave the program the profile to recruit stars like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge.
But Ford was just 55 games into his rookie season when a collision with Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen changed his career. He landed hard on his tailbone after releasing a short jumper and instantly felt numb upon slamming to the ground. Trainers immobilized Ford’s neck and carted him off on a stretcher.
Ford underwent spinal fusion surgery and was sidelined through the next season. He returned to the Bucks in 2005 and was traded in 2006 to Toronto, where Ford began putting together his best seasons. He averaged 14 points and 7.9 assists in his Raptors debut, and his scoring average hit a career high of 14.9 points with Indiana in 2008-09.
But by the next season, at 26, Ford was already transitioning from a franchise point guard to a backup. He still took satisfaction in a career that was mostly played against the advice of doctors.
”I succeeded at beating the odds, of being the little guy, making it to the NBA and lasting as long as I did,” Ford said. ”I think I achieved a lot. I know I didn’t have the career I anticipated and everyone anticipated, me having been the player of the year (at Texas). But I think I still had a successful career.”
Ford said he had no hard feelings toward the Knicks’ Davis for last week’s elbow. Davis said Monday that Ford was a ”dear friend” and called him to apologize.
”I was just running in there trying to get the rebound and I thought he was a bigger dude. I didn’t even think it was him,” Davis said. ”When I hit him and I saw it was him, I knew no good was going to come out of that.”
NBA players offered best wishes to Ford on Twitter. LeBron James, picked first overall the same year Ford was drafted, tweeted, ”Man sorry to hear about my 03 draft classmate TJ Ford! Get healthy and hopefully see u back on the court someday!”
That isn’t likely, though Ford said he still wants to be around basketball.
”I don’t think anyone plans to retire early,” Ford said. ”I was hoping I could get to that 34-36 age. It’s tough. I wasn’t planning on coming into this season retiring.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who signed Ford in December to be Tony Parker’s backup, said the team enjoyed having him around.
”I congratulate him on all that he has achieved as a player and fully support the difficult decision he was forced to make,” Popovich said.
Knocked out most of the year because of a nagging hamstring injury, Ford was averaging 3.6 points, 3.2 assists and 1.3 rebounds with the Spurs. For his career, Ford played in 429 games, averaging 11.2 points, 5.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.16 steals.