Ford To Pursue 'Lifetime Dream'; Declares For NBA

Sophomore point guard T.J. Ford said he didn't make up his mind until Wednesday. Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes said he knew "six months ago." Either way, Ford has made the "real tough decision" to pursue his "lifetime dream" of playing professional basketball by declaring himself eligible for the 2003 NBA Draft, the All-American announced Wednesday on the UT campus.

"It was a tough decision because I've been around most of these guys the past two years and they have a place in my heart," Ford informed a packed Centennial Room at Belmont Hall that included family, teammates, plus a few Longhorn football players. "We've been through so much at this university, both on and off the court. When you care about someone, you care about the way they feel. I knew that making this decision was affecting the guys I love and respect. Of course, I went back and forth."

Neither the April 16 injury suffered in a pick-up game, nor winning both the Naismith and the John Wooden Award as college hoops' best player, was the determining factor in his decision, Ford said. Instead, the choice stemmed from an extended conversation he had with Barnes on a return flight from Los Angeles to Austin last month following the Wooden Award ceremony.

Barnes said he could only give a player the same kind of advice he would give his own son. In essence, Barnes' counseled Ford to remove from the equation the obvious worry he had that declaring for the Draft might be disloyal to both his teammates and to the extended Longhorn family.

In other words, Barnes told Ford to (temporarily) quit thinking like Ford and to start thinking about Ford.

"That was his biggest concern, that he was letting down teammates," Barnes said. "I said to him, ‘Believe me, they love you and they will support you.' And he was always concerned about The University of Texas. My talk was trying to get him to remove that emotion. I told him, ‘We've got to look at it from your point of view.' That was hardest thing for him to do. The hardest part was when he got emotional about The University of Texas."

Ford said he did not confer with NBA players regarding his decision but based it solely on counsel he received from Barnes, teammates and family. Did anyone advise Ford it was better stay one more year?

"Every time I went to the store," he laughed.

Inevitably, reporters asked Ford to account for his statement last March that he was "110 percent certain'' he would return for his junior season.

"I said ‘110 percent' because that's how I felt at the time," Ford responded. "The NBA wasn't on my mind during the season. Just thinking of the NBA would take away from my teammates, and they worked hard all season. I wanted to wait until the season was over before I would sit down, relax, get as much information as I could about making my decision."

He was also following the counsel Barnes gave him just before the season-opener against Georgia last November. Then, Barnes instructed Ford not to allow the decision to become a distraction but rather "focus on becoming the best player you can be" and that there would "come a time when you have to answer this question, but that wont happen until the end of year."

"Everybody comes to college to make a better way for themselves," Barnes said. "T.J. has done more in two years for Texas basketball than anyone who came before him. He changed the perception (of UT basketball) of many in the state. The great thing is he never allowed anyone to pull him in to make it about himself. He kept it about his team all year."

As such, Ford said he did not seriously consider his options until a few days after Texas' season-ending loss to eventual national champion Syracuse.

"It was the first chance I had to sit down and really put some thought in about the future," Ford said. "I thought about the opportunities I had, but I had to sit down and weigh my options."

Added Ford, "I feel like I'm making the right decision. I'm not feeling shaky about this decision at all. It's a happy day for me. My teammates made it real easy for me. They told me I was making the right decision; no one told me I was making the wrong decision."

Ford said he is "ready for the challenge" of an NBA career and that "the only thing I'm sad about that I didn't do was win NCAA championship. I also know how hard it is to win the national championship. The best team doesn't always win it. Everyone knows Arizona was the best team in the country this year."

He also reiterated his promise to his parents and to Barnes that he will get his degree from The University.

The first thing Ford did when he arrived on campus was not only live up to his considerable hype but also endear himself to his teammates, Barnes added.

"More than anything else, the team found out real quick that what he wanted was to make his teammates look good. There's no doubt that he has done everything he's been asked to do, and more. This is his dream. He started out (the season) considered the third or fourth best point guard in the country and he played his way into the best in the country. What else can you do?"

Indeed. As the consensus national player of the year, Ford led Texas to its highest final national ranking in modern NCAA history (No. 3 ESPN/USA Today) and its first Final Four appearance since 1947. He lead the team in scoring (15.0 points) and assists (7.7) during his sophomore campaign after becoming the first freshman to lead the nation in assists (8.37 apg). Ford's 527 dishes ranks second on Texas' career list behind Johnny Moore.

"Texas is a great state, and is a state that has produced some really good basketball players," Barnes said. "With T.J., we were finally able to keep one here. The guys who came before him made a great contribution, but by him coming in, he put a signature on (the UT program), made it okay (to come to Texas). T.J. was well known on national level. In fact, I thought he got more respect on national level than I thought he got here in high school. I knew that once he got here, he would give us great recognition on a national level."

The level of national media on the UT campus Thursday was further evidence of Barnes' statement. Still, Ford raised eyebrows when he entered the overflow room wearing SE Roy Williams football jersey, creating a brief flutter of speculation that he might remain for his junior season.

Because Ford has not hired an agent, he could return to Texas without losing his eligibility. He has until June 19 to withdraw his name from the draft-eligible list. Asked if he would give serious thought to one more year at Texas, Ford grinned and repeated, "I don't have an agent."

Frankly, the only way Ford comes back is if he inexplicably fails to draw the attention (and the resultant mega-bucks) of any of the 13 teams in this year's NBA lottery.

"My intention is to make it in the lottery," Ford said. "That's the only reason I made this decision."

The draft order will be determined on May 22 while selection is set for June 26. If all goes as expected, Ford would become the fourth Longhorn to leave college early for the NBA, joining LaSalle Thompson (1982), Chris Mihm (2000) and Maurice Evans (2001).

"It's going to be a learning experience and it‘s going to be tough," Ford said, "but I know its time to move on."

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