Little man, big worker

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:13 AM ET

At the time, fellow staff members at Willowridge High School must have thought Ronnie Courtney had lost his mind.

Why was the new basketball coach at a football school in Houston looking so happy after running into a scrawny 5-foot-6-or-so Grade 9 kid in the hallway?

"Right then, I told one of the teachers we're going to win a state championship before he graduates," Courtney, now the coach at Texas Southern University, said. "The teacher said, 'No way, not with that little dude.' "

When T.J. Ford -- that little dude and a guy Courtney knew well through a family friendship -- hears that story almost 10 years after the fact, a big smile comes to his face. It was not the first time someone had doubted the generously listed 6-foot, 165-pound point guard and it certainly wasn't the last.

It wasn't long ago that more than a few Raptors fans and NBA observers wondered what was going through new president/general manager Bryan Colangelo's mind when he traded 6-foot-11 forward Charlie Villanueva to the Bucks for the fleet-footed Ford, as slender and small a pro athlete as you will find. The book says you're not supposed to deal a big player for a small one, let alone a tiny one.

"I think any little guy has to take the long road," Ford, 23, said recently. "We're little, so we have to work harder than everybody else. We always have to prove ourselves. If you're little, you're always going to have to deal with a lot of criticism and a lot of people who are non-believers in your game."

Along the way, however, Ford has earned his share of passionate believers for the way he creates controlled chaos with his amazing speed. Start with Courtney, who couldn't believe his luck when he transferred to Willowridge and found Ford in the hall on one of his first days. The school was a renowned football powerhouse, having produced Buffalo Bills legend Thurman Thomas, so basketball was an afterthought.

Soon after Ford enrolled, that changed.

He led Willowridge to two Texas titles, ending his high school career on a 62-game winning streak. Not that it came easy.

"I'm just relaxing watching football on a Sunday (when Ford was in Grade 9) and T.J. phones," Courtney said. "He wants me to open the gym for him and I'm like, 'Man, it's Sunday.' "

But Courtney opened the gym anyway.

"For the next 21/2-3 hours, he was in there by himself," Courtney said. "I had to go into the gym and tell him to go home. From that moment, I knew he was going to be something special."

Even before then, Ford had discovered the mode of play that was going to get him to the NBA. In Houston, he was too good to play kids his own age, so he always was placed with older, and therefore, bigger players. Size didn't matter. Speed did.

"You've always got to use what you're best at doing," said Ford, who might be the quickest player in the NBA. "That was my advantage over the (older) guys, my speed."

That attribute served him well at Willowridge and at the University of Texas, another educational institute with the football school tag (think Ricky Williams). Texas, however, became more than that after Ford carried the team to the Final Four for the first time since 1947. His No. 11 remains the only basketball jersey retired at the school.

"From the day I got the job, I tried to do everything I could to make Texas a place that T.J. would take seriously," said then-Texas assistant and lead Ford recruiter Rob Lanier, now an assistant at Virginia. "At that time, Texas was known as a football school. We felt like T.J. could change that. We felt T.J. would make it cool to go to Texas (to play basketball). In effect, that's what ended up happening."

So is Ford's next magic trick turning Toronto into a basketball city? Well, that might be impossible in corporately named "Leafs Nation." And truth be told, things are a lot harder in the NBA.

Ford played winning basketball in his first two seasons in the league with the Milwaukee Bucks, but his career has been defined by a well-documented spine injury (contusion of the spinal cord) that forced him to miss the 2004-05 season. On Feb. 24, 2004, he collided with Mark Madsen of the Minnesota Timberwolves and crashed on his tailbone. He left on a stretcher and was numb all over, eventually undergoing neck surgery.

"I told him you don't ever have to play again," Courtney said. "The University of Texas will take care of you. They'll get you a job. You won't have to do anything the rest of your life."

But Ford didn't listen, undergoing a gruelling rehab program under ex-NBA point guard/coach John Lucas in Houston. Soon after, Lucas joined Ford's fan club.

"In the last 30 years, there have been maybe five to seven true point guards," said Lucas, listing himself, Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Jason Kidd among others. "T.J. Ford is one of them."

Lucas continues to be Ford's instructor. This summer, Ford made 50,000 jump shots under Lucas' watch, trying to improve the glaring weakness in his game.

"It's never going to be great, but it's going to be enough to make people respect it," Lucas said. "The best T.J. has yet to even come close to showing up. He's done all this on physical ability."

If Lucas is right, Ford could be that much-needed real and effective point guard that the Raptors haven't had since perhaps Damon Stoudamire. He is the Ford that drives the team, or as Lucas says, "the Ferrari."

"You guys have one of the most exciting teams to watch," Lucas said.

"With Chris Bosh and T.J., (coach) Sam Mitchell has a couple of great players. Without a big guy and a point guard, you don't even go play."


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