BUCKS POINT GUARD T.J. Ford hasn't played since last February, when he was immobilized and put on a gurney after a frightening collision with Timberwolves power forward Mark Madsen in which he lost sensation in his extremities. Ford underwent surgery last May to fuse his third and fourth vertebrae, but his spinal cord has remained bruised. While he puts up the confident front of a rehabbing athlete, he has clearly contemplated the dire nature of his injury. "It wasn't like I had an ankle sprain," says the 5'11", 162-pound Ford. "If I felt that I'd be risking permanent injury, I wouldn't [attempt a comeback]."

Ford was born with an narrow nerve canal at the top of his spinal column, which persuaded at least two teams to rule out drafting him. After Milwaukee chose him eighth in 2003, he suffered temporary numbness during a summer pickup game. Ford has spent more time thinking about life after basketball than most 21-year-old NBA millionaires. He recently created a foundation to help underprivileged children in his native Texas and says he will resume college this year, possibly to earn a degree in social work. (He spent two years at Texas before going pro.) "I've been learning a lot about myself," he says. "We all know you can't play forever. So I do understand that I never know when it's my last day of playing." He pauses and adds, "Last year could have been my last day."