(We’re counting down the best 20 Bucks since 1991 over the next few weeks. It’s something to do with the lockout sucking the life out of NBA fans. We continue with number 18. TJ Ford, the only Bucks player I’ve ever owned the replica jersey of. – Jeremy)
About midway through the 2003-04 NBA season, TJ Ford was exhibiting massive potential. For a 20-year-old rookie fresh from his sophomore season at Texas, dishing 6.5 assists per game was no small feat. Combine the assists with exceptional quickness and a bevy of accolades from his last season in Austin, and Ford had the potential to be the Bucks starting point guard for the next decade.
However, potential can be dangerous. It seems no word gets thrown around more in today’s NBA. Teams spend high draft picks on international players or college freshmen because they have the potential to be the next big thing. Teams trade established players for guys that haven’t proved much, but have the potential to be great.
Unfortunately, for every player that lives up to the hype, there are seemingly 100 that never rise past mediocrity. Some players lack the killer instinct. Others never had the skill in the first place. Then there are those unfortunate ones bitten by the injury bug.
A terrifying spinal cord contusion derailed Ford’s promising early career. Few who saw the game on that fateful February 24 can forget watching Mark Madsen (who else?) foul Ford, causing him to plummet to the floor. The brunt of the impact was absorbed by his tailbone.
Watching Ford loaded onto a stretcher and carried out of the arena, it was hard not to fear for his overall well-being, let alone his future basketball career. Memories of an exciting rookie season surely flashed through many spectators’ minds as Ford exited the Bradley Center court.
Taken in one of the best drafts of all time, Ford showed early on he could play in the league. At the helm of Terry Porter’s offense, Ford displayed glimpses of the court vision needed to become a top point guard in the NBA. Motoring up and down the floor with Desmond Mason as a running mate, Ford looked always looked like he was having a blast.
No play better exemplified the electricity Ford could bring to an NBA court than an otherwise meaningless fast break right before halftime of a February 17, 2004, game against the Orlando Magic. With 25 seconds on the clock, Dan Gadzuric stripped the ball and threw an outlet pass to Ford, who had already made it well past half court. Before the Magic could even try to recover, Ford ricocheted the ball off the floor, right into the hands of the streaking Mason for a perfectly executed alley-oop. The Bradley Center erupted. To this day, it remains my favorite play I have witnessed at an NBA game.
Of course, not every possession could be a stunning alley-oop. Ford had his faults. He had a shaky jump shot and, most notably, he missed more layups than any player probably should. He certainly knew how to use his quickness to get to the rim; it was what happened when he got there that was the problem.
But thoughts of Ford’s faults were the furthest thing from the mind of fans watching him leave on a stretcher. It was hard not to shake your head and mark down another disappointment as a Bucks fan.
Thankfully, Ford was not going to give up. Although he missed an entire season, Ford worked his way back and was ready for the first game of the 05-06 season. Although cleared by doctors, he still had the condition that caused the injury in the first place. Born with a spinal defect, there was a risk Ford could exacerbate the problem with another fall.
While Ford was back, the Bucks underwent several changes in his absence. Terry Stotts was now pacing the sidelines instead of Porter. Fellow point guard Mo Williams was brought in and played admirably in Ford’s absence. With Williams in the fold, the Bucks found Ford expendable. He was sent to the Toronto Raptors in the offseason. Fittingly, Ford was traded for Charlie Villanueva, a player oozing potential.
Josh Hilgendorf is a contributor for Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.