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Toot The 'Horn After his recent scintillating performances, it's official: Texas's undersized assist master, T.J. Ford, is SI's choice as player of the year

March 17, 2003
March 17, 2003

Table of Contents
March 17, 2003

Inside Soccer

Toot The 'Horn After his recent scintillating performances, it's official: Texas's undersized assist master, T.J. Ford, is SI's choice as player of the year

To the list of life's vexing choices--timeless dilemmas like paper
or plastic, and tastes great versus less filling--basketball adds
pass or shoot. For most of his career Texas sophomore point guard
T.J. Ford fell consistently on the first side of that divide. In
the finals of the Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament in Lewes,
Del., during his senior season at Houston's Willowridge High,
Ford guided the Eagles to victory with 11 assists and zero
points. A year ago, as a Longhorns freshman, he led the nation
with 8.3 assists per game while sinking only five three-pointers
all season. Small wonder that when he made his debut at Harlem's
fabled Rucker Park last summer, the public address announcer made
sport of him during the introductions: "T.J. Ford of Texas! Led
the nation in assists! Can't score!" ¶ So it was a surprise to
see Ford, not a minute into the Longhorns' 76--71 defeat of Texas
Tech in Lubbock on March 1, making the net snap with a
three-pointer for the game's first points. It was a bellwether
shot, emblematic of his newfound range and confidence. "Last
year teams played so far off him, they wouldn't give us a
chance to do what we needed to do on the low block," says
Longhorns center James Thomas. "He's made our lives a whole lot
easier."

This is an article from the March 17, 2003 issue Original Layout

With Ford finally lifting his eyes to the rim, Texas has lifted
itself in the polls. After another 76--71 victory, at Oklahoma
last Saturday--in which Ford further established his shooting
bona fides by scoring 14 of his 18 points over the final 10
minutes, including the game-winning fadeaway jumper with 20
seconds left to play, to lead his team back from a 15-point
deficit--the Longhorns were 22--5 and ranked No. 3,
well-positioned to grab a top seed in the NCAA tournament. This
puts Ford at the center of another vexing choice: Who, from among
at least a dozen worthy candidates, is the year's outstanding
player? The five most prestigious honors are handed out by the AP
(the Adolph Rupp Trophy), the National Association of Basketball
Coaches, the Atlanta Tipoff Club (the Naismith Award), the Los
Angeles Athletic Club (the Wooden Award) and the U.S. Basketball
Writers Association (the Oscar Robertson Trophy). This season
there's no obvious selection from such usual sources as the ACC,
Big Ten and SEC, where league pedigree alone often wins voters
over. And after two recent conference calls to winnow the
finalists for their Oscar, board members of the U.S.B.W.A. threw
up their hands and left 15 names on the list.

If the player of the year should be the most crucial guy on the
most dominant team, we probably ought to anoint Jason Gardner,
point guard of No. 1 Arizona. If he should be the most versatile
player in the land, we could hand the award to forward Nick
Collison of Kansas, who might wheel inside for a lefthanded hook
on one possession, then pull up for a majestic three the next. If
he should be the game's most powerful inside force, or its most
acrobatic scorer, cases can be made for Xavier forward David West
or Marquette guard Dwyane Wade, respectively (see boxes).

But Ford gets SI's vote the way any centrist candidate would, by
cobbling together a platform of disparate planks. He's as
essential to Texas as Gardner is to Arizona, perhaps (given the
Wildcats' superb talent) more so. Like Collison, his shot chart
features marks all over the forecourt. He has Wade's
explosiveness--few point guards have a vertical leap of 44 1/2
inches--and when the situation calls for it, he too will spring
for 30 or more points, as he did when he went for 32 in a narrow
loss at Oklahoma State on Feb. 22. Yet at a time when so many
point guards regard themselves as ankle-breaking scorers and
their teammates as statuary, Ford is a bracing throwback. "The
only time I have to score is when the team needs me to," he says.
"My job is to make guys better. If you average four, I can get
you to average eight or 10."

Though Ford was named national freshman of the year in 2001--02,
the season was in some ways a struggle. In the Longhorns' opener,
a loss to Arizona, he turned his left ankle while trying to keep
up with his more experienced counterpart, Gardner. He never fully
returned to his old self for the rest of the season, which ended
with Oregon's Luke Ridnour outplaying him in Texas's 72--70
Midwest Regional semifinal loss in the NCAA tournament. Walking
off the floor in Madison, Wis., that day, Ford turned to
Longhorns coach Rick Barnes and vowed to remake himself.

Over the summer he launched as many as 1,000 shots a day, using a
gym bag full of aids--everything from a padded glove to keep the
ball off the heel of his palm to a wooden splint placed on the
end of his left index finger to prevent him from larding the ball
with sidespin. Using Texas's Gregory Gym and Student Rec Center
as his labs, he tinkered with how he planted his feet, with the
arc of his shot, even with the angle at which he cocked his
wrist. Managers, trainers, even a girlfriend rebounded for him.
"He'd always lived in the gym," says Barnes. "But [last summer]
he learned how to go in the gym and work."

At the same time, Ford addressed his other weakness: his
toothpick of a body. Texas strength and conditioning coach Todd
Wright had to show him what a squat was, but within six weeks
Ford was hoisting 355 pounds. Ford added 15 pounds to his 5'10"
frame--he's now up to 165--while keeping his body fat below 4%.
"He's like a fine race car," says Wright. "You just try to find
ways to tune it up and make it run more efficiently." Ford's
off-season tuneup--which was really more like an overhaul--ended
with a symbolic act: cutting off his taillike braids. The new
close-cropped 'do "made him a little more aerodynamic, too," says
Wright.

Even as he has added a jump shot to his portfolio, Ford hasn't
neglected his primary duty of distributing the ball. Though at
week's end his scoring average this season had risen by four
points, to 14.8, his assists had fallen only to 7.2. Eight other
Longhorns had scored in double figures at least twice, and none
doubt where the credit belongs. "Sometimes I don't think I'm
open," forward Brad Buckman says, "and T.J. will just slide the
ball right to me."

NBA scouts have noticed the steep ascent of his learning curve.
"If he comes out, he'll be a lottery pick," says one. "He's a
true point guard. That he shoots 41 percent and isn't six feet,
are those concerns? Yeah, but that won't keep people from
drafting him."

Ford has been immersed in basketball since he was a young child.
His parents, Leo and Mary, put the sport at the center of their
family life while raising their three kids (T.J. is the middle
child) in the Sugar Land section of Houston. A fixture in the
city's adult rec leagues, Leo would bring his son along to games,
where little T.J. (full name: Terrance Jerod) amused himself by
dribbling during warmups and timeouts. As a schoolboy, T.J. led
Willowridge to back-to-back 5A state titles, winning the last 62
games in which he played. Then he confounded those who assumed
that because college basketball in Texas had been so mediocre for
so long, he would light out for Cincinnati or Louisville. Instead
he has helped make the Longhorns a fresh alternative to perennial
powers Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Ford's leadership instincts better
than a moment late in Texas's opener, a 77-71 defeat of Georgia
at Madison Square Garden. With 8.4 seconds left and the Longhorns
up by four, Barnes ordered Ford to shoot two technical foul
shots. Next thing the coach knew, a Longhorn toed the line--only
it wasn't Ford, a 77.5% free throw shooter as a freshman, but
junior guard Brandon Mouton, a 75.6% free throw shooter the
previous season who was 4 for 4 from the line during the game.

"What the...?" Barnes barked.

"Brandon needs to keep his confidence up," Ford replied. Mouton
knocked both shots down. The episode tells you two things: why
Ford's teammates love him, and that once a game begins, Barnes
runs the team in name only. "He's extremely aware of what's
happening around him," says Barnes. "In games he's always asking,
'Are you seeing something I need to be seeing?'"

For reclaiming the point guard position in all its old-fashioned
purity, for giving the Longhorns chemistry to match their depth,
for reconfiguring the balance of power in the Big 12 and for
flouting the Samson legend, Ford is SI's Player of the Year.
Whether he's also Model of the Year, well, that's up to Motor
Trend.

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL (FORD) [COVER INSET] SI's PLAYER OF THE YEAR T.J. FORD Can He Take TEXAS All The Way?COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER SOAR POINTS Ford has improved his shooting and looked to the basket more this year, which has been a boon to the Longhorns' offense.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER LATE-MODEL FORD Once TJ got in gear in the second half, Oklahoma's Quannas White couldn't hold him.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL JOINT IS JUMPIN' Ford's decision to go to school in his home state has helped make Texas a hoops hot spot.

Check out Grant Wahl's college basketball Mailbag at
si.com/basketball/college.

"Sometimes I don't think I'm open," says Buckman, "and T.J. will
just slide the ball right to me."
"My job is to make guys better," says Ford. "If you average
four, I can get you to average eight or 10."