In his first game after missing the previous 20 months with a spinal cord injury, Milwaukee Bucks point guard T.J. Ford fell hard on his tailbone. He sat still, back hunched over, legs spread out on the court for about 30 seconds. His teammates crowded around, but Ford waved them off.
The image led to fearful flashbacks of Ford's last ugly fall -- when he collided with Minnesota's Mark Madsen on Feb. 24, 2004, and had to be carted off the court in a stretcher, wearing a neck brace -- which left Ford paralyzed and nearly ended his promising career. But last week in Philadelphia, Ford got up after banging into Allen Iverson in the fourth quarter of the Bucks 117-108 overtime win, gingerly walked around the floor at Wachovia Center then flashed a smile. He was faking.
"I was just getting a little rest," Ford said after the game, with a wink. "I needed to take a little break."
The break is over for Ford, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound speed racer who has led the Bucks to a surprising 3-1 start. After spending much of the past year wondering if he'd ever play basketball again, Ford has unleashed a newer, better model in his return.
He triggered double-digit comeback victories against Philadelphia and New Jersey, out-dueling Iverson and Jason Kidd in back-to-back nights. He had a career-high 14 assists against the 76ers and scored a career-high 21 points against the Nets. He also helped the Bucks come back from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Shaquille O'Neal-less Miami Heat, 105-100. "I want to be that superstar type of player," said Ford, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 16.7 points, 10.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds in the first three games. "I want to be one of the best point guards in the NBA, to be an all-star. I feel this is the year for me."
The Bucks (3-1) lost this week to another upstart team in Golden State, but there is reason for optimism in the land of beer and cheese. Ford is reminding the rest of the league of his huge impact during his rookie year. He averaged just 7.1 points and 6.5 assists, but the Bucks were 29-26 before that fateful fall in Milwaukee. Without Ford, the Bucks went 12-15 the rest of the season and barely made it into the playoffs, losing in the first round against Detroit. Then, last season, the Bucks had a disappointing 30-52 campaign that led to the firing of coach Terry Porter and an extensive offseason roster overhaul.
Guard Michael Redd, an all-star during Ford's rookie season, resisted the urge to join forces with LeBron James in Cleveland and signed a 6-year, $90.9 million contract to remain in Milwaukee. Milwaukee also drafted Andrew Bogut with the No. 1 overall pick, signed Bobby Simmons in free agency and traded for all-star center Jamaal Magloire a week before the season began. Those new pieces give the Bucks considerably more talent than last season but Ford is the little engine that gets them going.
Redd is averaging 28.8 points and shooting 52 percent from the floor -- including 53 percent from beyond the three-point line (8 of 15) -- and he can attribute most of his open looks to Ford's penetration and playmaking. In the season opener in Philadelphia, Ford frantically dribbled through the 76ers defense in the closing seconds of regulation, forcing them to collapse and leave Redd wide open for a three-pointer to force overtime.
Ford, the former national college player of the year from Texas whom Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld takes pride in having drafting No. 8 in 2003, is looking to claim his rightful place among the stars who have already emerged from his draft class -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, among others. He wasn't cleared to play basketball until June -- more than a year after he fell on his tailbone and his body went numb. "Of course, when those months turn to years, you get to wondering why it's taking so long. You begin to question [if you'll play again]," said Ford, who needed to have surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck. "At the same time, you still got to stay positive and just keep praying."
Ford said he had to relearn how to walk, run, shoot and play with teammates. The grueling summer workouts -- which Ford described as "hardest thing I had to do in my life" -- forced him to appreciate his opportunity to play in the NBA more, Ford said. And by falling and falling again, Ford also quashed any fears of attacking the hole with aggression. "I hit the ground this summer and that was scary," said Ford, who worked out with former NBA coach and family friend John Lucas in Houston. "I fell so many times this summer and nothing happened. At some point, you get confident that it's not going to hurt."
To avoid an 82-game pounding, Ford said he worked relentlessly on his jump shot. Although the results have yet to surface -- Ford is shooting just 34 percent from the floor -- Ford feels that he has improved every aspect of his game. He's a better leader, makes better decisions on the floor and, somehow, the already cat-quick Ford has gotten faster. "I'm a better player," Ford said. "I want to be the best. We was winning before I left. I got to bring that same spirit, that same determination, I had before. That's to win. I'm not known for losing."
Three Observations From the first 10 days
1. The Pistons don't miss Larry Brown
The Pistons' 4-0 record doesn't begin to explain how well they have been playing under new Coach Flip Saunders. The Pistons have said all along that they never got enough credit for being good; that Brown received too much credit for their success the past two seasons, which included winning an NBA championship in 2004. But the Pistons have looked more lethal in the first week of the season.
The Pistons averaged 91.7 points per game in two seasons under Brown, but they averaged 102.3 points in their first four games, topping the century mark three times. Last season, the Pistons didn't score 100 points three times until Dec. 6. The Pistons credit the offensive explosion to Saunders opening up the offense and giving them greater freedom. Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince have benefited from the new style. Hamilton is averaging 25.5 points and could be headed toward his first all-star appearance. Prince is averaging 19 after scoring 52 points in the past two games. "He's sort of like a Steve Spurrier of basketball, you know," forward Rasheed Wallace said of Saunders. "He wants to get them points up and down but yet, we play D."
And yes, the Pistons still play defense. After surrendering an average of 86.9 points in the two seasons under Brown, the Pistons are holding opponents to just 85.3 points. No team has scored more than 90 points against them -- but that should change tonight against Phoenix.
2. Larry Brown misses the Pistons
During training camp, Larry Brown said he still hadn't fully recovered from his summer divorce with the Pistons. He marveled about stepping into a ready-made contender. In New York, he appears to have stepped into a ready-made mess. Brown may already realize his dream job is really a nightmare. The Knicks (0-4) have the opposite record of the Pistons after losing in Portland, 95-83, last night. Although he has a young and talented team, most of the Knicks have never won anything -- and Brown is quickly figuring out that most of his players don't have a clue. In the first quarter of the Knicks loss to Golden State on Sunday, point guard Stephon Marbury stood under the Warriors basket waiting for someone to inbound him the ball. The other four Knicks starters were on the other end of the floor, ready to play offense. Brown stared at Marbury, looked at his other players, turned back and began to curse. When forward Matt Barnes finally ran down the court to inbound the ball, Brown threw up his hands and grabbed a seat on the bench. Brown's reputation as a teacher will be put to the test, but so will his patience. The Knicks will play five more games on the West Coast against Golden State, Sacramento, Utah, the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver, and could potentially start the season 0-9. In Brown's defense, seasons aren't always over in the first three weeks of the season -- in the past two years, Miami (0-7) and Chicago (0-9) have rebounded from poor starts to make the playoffs. Brown has never started worse than 0-5, which he accomplished twice in Philadelphia. In his first season with the 76ers in 1997-98, Brown started 0-5 and the team went 31-51. The season after leading the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001, Brown started 0-5 but led them back to the playoffs at 43-39.
3. Shaquille O'Neal's injury could help Stan Van Gundy
No way the Brothers Van Gundy can be pleased to see their respective superstars go down with serious injuries in the first week. Houston Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy lost Tracy McGrady for at least three weeks with a back strain, while Miami Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy lost Shaquille O'Neal for two-to-four weeks after The Big Aging Center sprained his ankle when he stepped on Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest's foot while grabbing a rebound. With O'Neal, Stan Van Gundy had enough distractions, trying to get newcomers Jason Williams, Gary Payton and Antoine Walker to co-exist. But without O'Neal, Stan Van Gundy has a built-in excuse if the Heat has a poor start the first month of the season. If the Heat is able to remain afloat and competitive in O'Neal's absence, however, Stan Van Gundy may be able to keep Pat Riley comfortable in his seat as team president. Okay, maybe not. But at least Stan Van Gundy doesn't have a chance to upset O'Neal for not giving him enough touches.
Five Games to Watch This Weekend
Pistons at Suns (Tonight)
Had Joe Johnson not been injured, these teams could've met in the NBA Finals last season. The Suns have changed dramatically but intend to run. The Pistons intend to defend. A clash of conflicting styles on display -- although the Pistons score more.
New Jersey at Indiana (Friday)
The Nets have been up and down this season, but a win against the Pacers could get them moving toward some consistency.
Denver at Sacramento (Friday)
Two teams that have struggled out of the gate in a rematch from their meeting earlier this week. The Kings have yet to develop chemistry with new pieces. The Nuggets are still trying to find a rhythm under George Karl, who missed the first two games serving a suspension.
San Antonio at Washington (Saturday)
The Wizards get to measure how good they are against the defending NBA champs. They beat the Spurs last season and should have a good opportunity this weekend, with the Spurs concluding a five-game road trip in Washington.
Indiana at Milwaukee (Saturday)
The Bucks have been the feel-good story so far this season, but the Pacers are also trucking along with Ron Artest back in the fold.