One of the good guys hangs 'em up; good call for all
We’d all be standing around the middle of the Raptors locker room after games a bit awkwardly, maybe 10, 20, sometimes 25 beat grunts and camera operators and drop-ins, waiting patiently for whichever Raptor got dressed first so we could get some passable quotes to use in whatever story we were working on.
Chris Bosh was always the last – he had to get the earrings in and the tie knotted just so because you can’t do TV while looking slovenly – and the seconds would turn into minutes and the deadlines would be rapidly approaching.
And then, without fail, TJ Ford would be done, he’d approach the middle of the room where everyone was gathered and he’d catch someone by eye, stop for a second and say:
“Anyone need anything from me.”
It didn’t matter if he’d played well or poorly or at all, he’d stand there and answer questions honestly and with candor until the last questioner was gone; didn’t matter if they fled to talk to someone else or what, he’d wait and do whatever he had to do.
It was just the kind of guy he was, and is, and of all the Raptors to come down the pike in all the years, the tiny point guard was among the most honest, self-critical and forthcoming of them all.
News yesterday that Ford is going to have to retire from the game he loves so much because of neck/spine/back fears hit like a bolt of lightning, out of nowhere but not entirely unexpected because of the clouds that had been gathering for a while.
I wasn’t there the night he collided with Mark Madsen of Minnesota Timberwolves to cause the first injury that brought his genetic spine flaw to the forefront. TJ was playing in Milwaukee at the time and was as fearless as anyone in the game and the fact he and Madsen developed a friendship afterwards speaks volumes, I think, to TJ’s credit.
I wasn’t there the night in Atlanta when Al Horford smacked him and he fell so hard, so many of us at home holding our breath hoping he’d be okay.
But it was always like that with TJ. He’d go in there, looking to get hit and he didn’t care. He knew about his neck and his spine and his future and he’d do what he had to do. And we’d cringe. Always. If there was one trademark to the style of Ford’s play, the only way to describe it was “fearless.”
He was slight – maybe the tiniest Raptor ever – and he didn’t care. We’d hold our breath – as would his teammates and coaches – every time he’d attack the basket, knowing that the next hit could be his last. Never deterred him, though. He’d get in the paint among the giants of the game and take his hits as they were dished out. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew the next collision could be his last but he didn’t care. It’s the way he was.
It’s probably good that TJ hung ‘em up when he did, the last hit, from New York’s Baron Davis a week or so ago, got him a “stinger” and the realization that he was tempting fate pretty much every time he stepped on the court.
I can only imagine his sadness, deep in his heart, that it’s over; that all his speed and agility and uncanny knack for getting to the basket among far bigger men is not something he will get to do again.
Now, there can be no question, in his time in Toronto at least, that TJ had some issues. He didn’t handle the competition with Jose Calderon all that well – although I will tell you without question that the two remain friends today – and TJ had a tendency to sulk when things didn’t go his way. But he was a relative kid and in the grand scheme of things, I guess hindsight should give him a pass. He was TJ, and the stubbornness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Oh, and one more thing:
On so many of those nights when he’d make sure he was available and accountable and would stand there and take whatever we had to dish out, there’d be a really cute little fellow over by the locker.
That’d be TJ Junior.
And that’s the guy TJ Senior needs to worry about now.
The decision he made today is the best for both of them.