UT Fans Clamor To Know Ford's Status

About as many Orangebloods have been asking me this week if <B>T. J. Ford </B>will declare for the draft as they did when <B>Roy Williams </B>was mulling his career options last December. The panic attack was spawned when an <I>American-Statesman</I> columnist predicted Wednesday that there was an 80 percent chance Ford would forgo his junior season. The concern heightened later Wednesday when Ford was injured during a pick-up game on the UT campus and taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital.

Ford was taken from Gregory Gym and admitted to the emergency room late where St. David’s Hospital medical staff examined him (reportedly for head and neck injuries). Ford was released at 10 p.m.

While relieved that the injury appears not to be career-threatening, it obviously presents one more scenario for Ford to consider between now and May 12 when he makes one of the most important decisions of his life. Should Ford risk this type of injury on an amateur court, or has the time come for him to financially secure his future with a hefty NBA contract?

Kirk Bohls opened his column with these words: "Brace yourself, Austin. T. J. Ford is as good as gone." Bohls substantiates his prediction by referencing those "close to the Texas program."

Remember: Bohls is predicting, not reporting, Ford’s decision. And if one were to reference Ford, it all hinges on how to interpret a single word: "possibility." The consensus National Player of the Year said Monday that turning pro was a "possibility" but that he has not thought about it yet.

The reason the word weighs so heavily is that Ford said (on Senior Night last March) that he was "110 percent certain" that he would return next year before adding, "I can’t wait to be a senior." He also reiterated his decision to stay at Texas each time the question was asked (which is to say, at nearly every press conference) during the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps the greatest insight into Ford comes from head coach Rick Barnes. The fifth-year coach has described Ford as the "calmest, coolest guy on the court" and yet "very emotional" off the court. Barnes said Ford is one who "lives in the moment" (not unlike most other 20-year olds, but not every college student has a chance to become a multi-millionaire in a few months. Would anyone blame, for example, a computer science major for leaving school early for a seven-figure annual income?).

Don’t misunderstand: my heart bleeds Orange and I want Ford to stay for two years. But following Barnes’ assessment of the ridiculously talented youngster, Ford’s determined comments about staying in school were uttered in the emotional aftermath of hard-fought wins along side his teammates with whom he has endeared himself from Week One. His comments about the "possibility" of turning pro came on the heels of a jet-setting, cross-country Awards Banquet circuit that took him to Atlanta to LA to Austin in less than 72 hours. There, he rubbed shoulders with future NBA millionaires who undoubtedly reminded him that he has already captured every national individual award to be had.

Therein lies the distinction between Ford and nearly every other star athlete: Ford is the most team-oriented kid I have ever come across. For T.J., it’s always been about the group of guys surrounding him. His affinity for next year’s seniors (Brandon Mouton, Royal Ivey, James Thomas, Brian Boddicker) diminishes his concern for self. In fact, Ford is selfless to a fault. And he desperately wants to win an NCAA championship.

Some have said the fact that Ford needs to develop an outside shot before he can substantially improve his lottery pick and seriously consider the NBA. Ford doesn’t have an outside shot (he barely shot more than 25 percent in the South Regional last month and was just 31 percent for the whole Tournament. Ford was 0-4 from beyond the arc against the Huskies and Texas doesn’t beat Connecticut without Mouton’s career best 27 points).

The NBA doesn’t care about Ford’s outside shot. If anything, the NBA cares more about his 5-10 frame. But NBA scouts know that the Little General brings enough to the table to be able to start for, say, the LA Clippers or Cleveland, by mid-January.

The one constant is the fact that sometime between now and May 12, Barnes and his star player will sit down to discuss all of Ford’s options and to objectively evaluate the decision that will best serve Ford. It will be a session removed from the heightened emotion of, say, a Senior Night win as well as from the whirlwind, cross country Banquet tours of future millionaires.

Moments after Texas’ win over Michigan State, Ford said he loved Barnes, whom he described as "like a father to me." Ford trusts Barnes' counsel. And those who know Barnes trust that the head coach will give him sound advice. Until then, the best you can do is try to interpret every single word Ford utters in the next three weeks.

Is T.J. gone?

Bohls says it’s 80-20. I say it’s 50-50. But I’d still be willing to bet that Ford is back for one last hurrah.

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