The day any athlete has to walk away from the game they love is a sad one. When they need to leave before their time because of injury, it's even worse. The news out of San Antonio today is that T.J. Ford has played his last game of basketball and will retire.
While the team is calling it an indefinite leave of absence, Ford himself is calling it retirement and tweeted this message this morning:
Today will be a new beginning in life.
Let's take Ford's word for it and assume this is the end. If it is, lord knows he's been through more than his share of scary moments on a basketball court.
Despite some brilliant performances, perhaps the most enduring memory I have of Ford, regrettably, is the image of him lying on the court in Atlanta after taking a hard foul from then-rookie Al Horford. I remember being absolutely terrified as a limp, motionless Ford remained on the floor, while they showed replay after replay of the foul and then the fall. It was scary. Really scary.
Especially scary since Ford had already missed an entire season because of a spinal injury.
After a history of neck and spine injuries—Ford suffers from a congenital condition called spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal column—he took another hit last Wednesday against the Knicks and suffered what was called a stinger. Today, it appears as though that injury was a wake-up call to the father of two; there is life after basketball and life that deserves to be lived with health.
Ford told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News that, while he didn't anticipate retiring at just 28 years old, he decided that it was time to walk away.
“That’s not the first time I’ve laid down on the court and not been able to move at my will,” Ford, 28, said Monday morning, announcing his retirement after a Spurs shootaround. “I thought I needed to get out while I still had a chance.”
I'm so thankful that Ford is leaving the game with his health, but I'm sad for him. Whenever the former Raptor would come back to Toronto as a member of the visiting Indiana Pacers, he would come with plenty of smiles and stories, taking the time to talk with arena security, locker-room attendants and Toronto media—pre- and post-game.
While his time with the Raptors came to a frustrating end, he didn't seem to harbor any ill feelings toward his former team once he was in a new city with a different team.
That's who Ford was, though.
He was a player who defied odds in making it to the league and went on to defy harsher odds to remain in it for nine years. All that he went through made the game and the opportunity to be a professional athlete mean that much more to him. He always seemed to have a smile and plenty of time for anyone who had time for him.
His career will always have a lingering sense of "what if" surrounding it. What if he'd been healthy? What if he didn't have spinal stenosis? What if he had been more of a pass-first point guard? The what-if game is never fun to play.
To shift perspectives here, let's flip sides and ask, what if Ford hadn't been so stubborn? We never would have been given the opportunity to see those brilliant flashes. He never would have been able to say he made his own dreams come true.
Even though his career has been shortened, Ford reached the NBA because of an unbelievably strong spirit. For better or worse, he wanted to play his way. While he has to leave because of the injuries he has sustained, I'm extremely grateful this is a decision he's making on his own, rather than it being a decision made by a doctor or medical specialist.
To put in perspective how premature this all feels, consider this: Dwyane Wade tweeted about Ford today, wishing him well and saying it made him remember the 2003 John R. Wooden Award (that Ford had received), where the two sat and talked about declaring early.
Ford was the eighth overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, the same class that brought us Wade, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony. If it feels too soon to be saying goodbye to Ford on the basketball court, it's because it is.
That being said, I'm so glad that this is how this chapter of his story is ending.
"You can walk away from someone who doesn't love you. And you can walk away from someone you don't love. But when the love is mutual," Roy said. "The hardest thing is to walk away."
While Ford is choosing to walk away sooner than he ever expected, the most important thing here is that his life after basketball is a healthy one. Bruce Arthur of the National Post managed to sum up Ford's situation in a succinct, 140-character tweet:
T.J. Ford was briefly paralyzed twice in basketball, and suffered several spinal injuries. Glad he's walking—walking—away from the NBA.
Above and beyond everything else, amen to that.