Tuesday, April 1, 2003

T. J. Ford wants to make history

Gannett News Service

SAN ANTONIO - In the happy locker room of the Texas Longhorns, it was history quiz time. Just one question, fill in the blank.

Texas' last trip to the Final Four was in ...?

"Nope. Don't know," said T.J. Ford, the All-American guard who plays as if his basketball shorts were on fire.

James Thomas, the forward who inhales rebounds, shrugged with no answer, either.

That would be 1947. The Truman administration. The Longhorns had three starters 5-10 or under, and someone christened them the Mighty Mice. They were beaten by Oklahoma in the semifinals, and no one has seen Texas in the Final Four since. Not for all 56 years.

"Daaamn," Thomas said. "That's a long time, bro."


Everything in Texas is big, except for the point guard. Ford is 5-10, but what does size matter when you move like you're in Formula I?

"A lot of people doubt little people," Ford was saying. "The thing is, I learned from other guys. I looked at Isiah (Thomas). I looked at John Stockton. I hope other guys learn from me."

He is a Texas legend now. The native son from Houston who stayed home to play basketball. "He made it cool," coach Rick Barnes said, "to go to Texas."

Several places named the sophomore the national player of the year. It is impossible to imagine the Longhorns getting anywhere without him. He could throw a pass through a panhandle downpour and not get the ball wet.

Take the South Regional. Ford played 72 minutes. He had 19 assists. He had three turnovers.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo mentioned hearing Bob Knight say that at a Texas Tech-Texas game, he once felt like standing and applauding a Ford pass.

"Must have been a hell of a pass," Izzo said.

If only he could shoot.

One already famous Ford tale comes from last spring's 72-70 loss in the Sweet 16 to Oregon, as he walked out of the arena with coach Rick Barnes.

"I remember him actually having tears in his eyes," Barnes said. "And him saying, 'I'm sorry, I didn't play very well. But I'm going to be back and I'm going to be better.'

"He started (practicing) the very next Monday."

Ford's summer regimen often included 1,000 shots a day. But he still often can't hit the back end of Bevo with a bass fiddle. The past weekend, he was 7-for-27. It is some measure of his floor game that he could still be named regional MVP.

And it also makes you wonder. How bad would it be if he practiced only 500 shots a day last summer?

But we quibble here. Ford is the ultimate leader, bricks and all.

As the last seconds ticked away Sunday, he and Barnes hugged the winner's hug, having taken their school to a place unseen in generations.

"That hug was heartfelt," Barnes said. "My wife would like me to hug her like that this time of year."

"We know," Ford said, "how hard it is to get there."


The letter came to Barnes a couple of weeks ago. It was from Jack Gray Jr., whose father was Jack Gray Sr., who coached the 1947 Longhorns.

There were nice words for everyone. But especially Ford.

"It said: 'You stand for everything my father was about. Putting team above self,"' Barnes said.

He made sure Ford read it. He wants all his players to understand how special it is, that Texas, the football wonderland, has fallen in love with college basketball. And by next Monday night may even sit atop it.

"It's opening up a history book," guard Royal Ivey said.

"The history I want to make," Ford corrected, "is winning the national championship."

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