The first time I was paralyzed was during a pickup game.
I was a sophomore at the University of Texas, and it was the same week that I had hired an agent and declared for the 2003 NBA draft.
This wasn’t an ordinary pickup game. Some Longhorn football players were playing against a few of the guys on the basketball team. This was when we were coming off of our first Final Four appearance in 56 years and the football team was one of the best in the country. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that all 4,000 seats in Gregory Gym were full — and then some. It was a crazy-loud atmosphere. Vince Young and Roy Williams were on the floor. It was legit.
This was the last time a lot of these people would ever see me play in Austin. I had just been named the national player of the year, and I was headed to the NBA. I wanted to play lights out.
At one point, I was driving to the basket when a defender reached toward me to try to get in my way. My body spun around and my head somehow ended up slamming against the thigh of my best friend, Royal Ivey.
The next thing I remember, I was on the ground and I felt … nothing.
I tried to push myself up so that I was sitting, but my arms wouldn’t move. I had no feeling below my neck.
At that moment, the only thing running through my head was the NBA. I was being projected as a top five pick. How could this happen now? I was scared.
I admit, it probably wasn’t wise for me to be messing around in a game like that right before the draft, but up until that point I always felt invincible on the basketball court — no doubts, no fear.
After 10 minutes, I was still numb. I stopped thinking about the NBA and started to worry about my health. Medics arrived with a stretcher to take me to the hospital.
After 20 minutes, I still had no feeling below my neck and I started to totally freak out. I suddenly began to wonder if I would ever walk again. Never mind basketball, what would life be like if I never regained feeling?
After 30 minutes, I felt tingling in my arms, legs and feet. I almost wanted to cry because I was so relieved.
After two hours, I regained feeling in the rest of my body, but I wouldn’t get back to normal for two weeks.
My hope was that it had just been a freak accident. An anomaly. But it wasn’t. It would be the first of many instances of temporary paralysis that I would experience during my basketball career. And with each successive episode, I would always ask myself the same questions.
Is this it?
Is this the one that’s going to be permanent?
Steven Freeman/The Players' Tribune
My relationship with basketball didn’t start on a court. It began in the kitchen of a trailer in Baytown, Texas.
I was four years old when Santa brought my older brother Tim and I a couple of those plastic Little Tikes basketball hoops. Both of us were raised to be basketball fans. My dad played in rec leagues into his 50s and he bought my brother and I whatever gear he could afford. My brother had a Magic Johnson uniform — jersey and shorts — and I had one for Michael Jordan, my favorite player.
From that point on my brother and I would play full court — kitchen to living room — pretty much whenever we could. I’d like to think MJ got the best of most of those matchups.
As a teenager I played at the local YMCA, and that’s where I really fell in love with the game. I was never the biggest kid in the gym, but from early on I had a desire to be great. It seemed ridiculous to say out loud, but I wanted to be the best point guard in the NBA one day.
There was a lot of athletic talent where I grew up, but not much mentorship and guidance. Because of that, not many guys from my neighborhood made it to college. Even the ones who did get offered scholarships would often end up making mistakes and losing them. I wanted to break that cycle. I wanted to be the first person from my family to go to college, and, God willing, to play in the NBA.
In high school my team went 75–1 in my junior and senior seasons and won two state championships. I also played on the AAU circuit, competing against top players from around the country. I learned firsthand that I could compete with anyone, and soon the scholarship offers came.
Around that time, I met Rick Barnes, who was the coach at Texas.
This was before the Longhorns had any sort of clout in basketball circles. Before Kevin Durant, before LaMarcus Aldridge, before Tristan Thompson and before Avery Bradley and so many other future NBA players chose Texas.
The idea that I would even consider Texas confused some people. This was a time when, if you were a top basketball player in the state of Texas, you looked to go out of state for college. Simple as that. But my mom liked the university and saw an opportunity for me to create a legacy there. She saw the opportunity for me to create a tradition rather than to just become part of one. And she liked Coach Barnes.
I did too.
I liked that he didn’t promise me that I’d make it to the NBA. In fact, we didn’t really talk that much about basketball during the recruiting process. Instead he sold me on a different vision. He told me what it would mean in a larger context if a player like myself were to decide to attend Texas. He told me how much it would mean to the program for me to be a Longhorn, what it would mean to my family and to the state as whole. Coaches say a lot of stuff while they’re trying to recruit you, but what made me respect Coach Barnes was that he looked me directly in the eyes the entire time we spoke. He talked to me like a man, and promised to treat me like one. So I agreed to help him build a foundation for the program.
And ultimately, that’s exactly what we did. When I was a sophomore, we made it to the Final Four and I won both the Wooden and Naismith awards as the the national player of the year. Now, the NBA wasn’t just a pipe dream. It was calling me.
I felt like I was on top of the world.
And then, after that one day in Gregory Gym, it seemed like everything might come crashing down.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The first time I heard the term spinal stenosis was the summer after my senior year of high school.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the open spaces in your spine, which puts a lot of pressure on your spinal cord and the nerves in the spine that connect to your arms and legs. The cartilage in your spine wears away, so there’s not much to absorb hits, which is tough when you play a physical sport like basketball. When doctors first discovered it, my family considered surgery, but since it hadn’t affected the way I played up to that point, it didn’t seem super necessary. I didn’t really think twice about it.
That injury at Gregory Gym was the first time I experienced severity of the condition. But fortunately, the incident happened before the age of social media, which would have caused a story about a potential lottery pick getting injured to spread like wildfire. The injury didn’t end up affecting my draft status too much. The Milwaukee Bucks, who knew about my diagnosis, selected me with the eighth pick in the draft.
I had a promising start to my career. I mean, it was a trip, for sure. Every night I was playing against the likes of Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson — it was surreal. And even after games when I had gotten my ass kicked, I was able to keep my chin up because I was living my dream. I was right on schedule.
Fifty-four games into my rookie season, I was feeling great. I was leading the team in assists and my minutes kept going up. But in my 55th game, everything changed.
We were playing the Minnesota Timberwolves and I subbed into the game midway through the fourth quarter. A minute after I entered the game, I was coming off a pick-and-roll driving to the basket — something I had done thousands of times before — and when I went up for a layup, I collided with Mark Madsen. I landed hard on my tailbone. I felt a jolt of pain, and then once again, nothing.
As I was on the ground, I remember Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell, my mentor, coming over to me and yelling, “Get up, get up!”
I told them I couldn’t. I couldn’t move at all.
“I can’t feel my body,” I said, laying motionless on the floor, in shock.
This happened almost exactly one year after the incident at Gregory Gym, so I had some idea of what was going on. But still, it was terrifying. As I was taken off the court on a stretcher, many thoughts were going through my mind. But one thing I was sure of was that I would come back from this.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images
I was the only player in the NBA with spinal stenosis. The trainers did their best but there wasn’t really a road map for treatment that I was supposed to follow. The question became should I have surgery or should I just recover naturally like I had before?
I saw more than 10 doctors. Each one of them had a slightly different recommendation. Ultimately, I made the decision to go ahead and undergo surgery — a fusion of my C-3 and C-4 vertebra. The surgeon said that by fusing together some of the bones in my neck, I would have a better chance of extending my career.
Sounds great, right?
But there was some bad news: The surgery would force me to sit out for an entire year.
That was devastating.
I watched the rest of that season from a hospital bed. But even though I missed the last month and a half of the season, I was still named to the NBA All-Rookie second team.
I moved back home to recover from the surgery. I was surrounded by people who loved me and took care of me, but I can’t recall ever feeling so helpless. I couldn’t play ball. Hell, I couldn’t even carry a bag of groceries into the house if I wanted to. Doing even five push-ups required all my strength and concentration.
After several frustrating months, I was finally medically cleared to start playing again. I started training with coach John Lucas, and even though I showed progress physically, I was a complete wreck mentally. One of my strengths as a player had always been my confidence. If there was a spot on the court I wanted to get to, I knew my body could figure out a way to get there. But now I didn’t know what my limitations were. I felt a step slower. I was hesitant. So the real work became rebuilding my psyche. I pushed myself back to full strength.
And eventually I did.
I returned to the NBA on November 1, 2005 against the Philadelphia 76ers. I was one rebound shy of a triple double in that game. One rebound. I was back, man. That year I stayed healthy for the entire season.
That off-season, Milwaukee traded me to the Toronto Raptors, where I began playing the best basketball of my life. Everything clicked for me, and once again I stayed healthy for the entire season. There was even a two-week stretch when I nearly averaged a triple double a game.
Then, the following year, during a game against the Atlanta Hawks, my luck changed in an instant.
We were up by eight late in the fourth quarter. The game was just about wrapped up. I stole the ball near the basket we were defending and had what looked to be a clear path to a layup. But as I went up, Al Horford jumped up and tried to block ball from behind. He ended up hitting me right on the head and I lost feeling in my body in midair. It felt like someone hit me with a hammer.
It was a freak play. He apologized immediately. But this injury was different for me. When this had happened before, I immediately had the will to get up and try to continue my basketball career. That’s all I ever really thought about. But this time I had no idea if my body would actually respond. I’d already had surgery to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. I was truly afraid that this might be the injury that paralyzed me permanently.
On that night in Atlanta, as I was taken off the court on a stretcher once again, I was ready to just quit. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. I felt so much frustration.
By this point, there was no mystery about what was going on with me. Everyone in the league knew my history. Now I had to consider more deeply why I was actually doing this. I certainly wasn’t the only one who thought it might be time for me to step away from the game.
But after giving it some thought, I decided that I just couldn’t walk away.
I’m one of the only people from my neighborhood to have made it out. Basketball did that.
I’m the first person from my family to attend college. Basketball did that.
And I now had the opportunity to set an example for the next generation. That was what motivated me to come back.
I gave the game everything I had for four more years, and though I had a couple more scares, I kept playing.
Finally, on March 12, 2012, we were playing a game against the Knicks, and I was going after a rebound. I remember the ball hitting the rim, and as I was looking up, Baron Davis, who’s a friend of mine, boxed me out and nudged me a little bit to get position. I immediately dropped to the floor.
Tim was actually at that game and was able to get down onto the court to give me some support. I was surrounded by trainers and teammates, and the entire arena was silent as I was just lying there. After a few minutes I regained some feeling but I still couldn’t move.
This time, I wasn’t thinking about my basketball career. Now I was thinking about my brother, the person who it all began with, seeing me in that state. I was thinking about my two little kids at home, who didn’t know what was wrong with their dad.
I knew that this might be the end, and I didn’t want to get carried out on a stretcher. Not this time. That wasn’t going to be the last image NBA fans had of me.
My teammates tried to help me up, but I just fell right back down.
After a while I found the strength to at least stiffen by body so that I wouldn’t fall again. With the support of a couple of guys, I hobbled toward the locker room.
By the time I got to the end of the tunnel the feeling in my body had come back, but my arms felt like they weighed 1,000 pounds each.
And it was that moment, next to my brother in the tunnel, when I knew for certain that I was going to retire from the NBA.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images
My motivation to keep playing as long as I did was simple. I wanted to change lives. I wanted to make life better for my family. And I wanted to inspire people in my neighborhood. I wanted to show them how far they could go if they never quit.
But what I didn’t fully appreciate until I left the game was that I didn’t need to be playing in the NBA to change lives in a positive way. I didn’t need to make an All-Star team in order to inspire kids. My goal in life was always to become the best point guard in the world. And god damn, I gave it everything I could. But what I came to realize was that if I had the drive to push myself to reach for that goal, I also had the ability to try to make a difference in other ways.
So I use the same determination that had let me come back from the injuries, and I redirected it outward. That’s what motivated me to start the TJ Ford Basketball Academy, where I mentor kids from where I grew up and teach them life skills through playing the game that I love. Hard work, integrity, good attitude…all the things my parents and coaches taught me, I’m now passing on to another generation. But what I now understand is that it’s not enough to just about develop a crossover or a jump shot. There’s life beyond basketball. So as part of my mission, I also help provide the educational resources and mentorship that these kids need in order to not only make it college, but stay there.
Since it began, more than 50 kids who have participated in the academy have landed scholarships. That really means something to me. It means a whole lot.
And I’m also looking forward to setting an example for them in another way. This Friday, May 19, I’m going to take one of the most important walks of my life. I’m going to take a walk that nobody in my family ever has before me. A walk almost 15 years in the making.
I’m going to walk across the stage at the University of Texas’ commencement ceremony and receive my college diploma in Applied Learning and Development: Youth and Community Studies, with a minor in Educational Psychology. In some ways, I think the experience will provide some closure on a certain chapter of my life. But in other ways, it also represents yet another new beginning for me.
If it wasn’t for the injuries I suffered, I’m not sure I’d be doing any of this. I put so much of myself into the game of basketball that it took up all of my energy and focus. But ultimately, it took having the game taken away from me to get a better understanding of who I really am, and what’s important.
Honestly, if I had to do my life all over again knowing I would end up in this same position, I would. I would do it in a second.
Because in my lowest moments, I couldn’t feel anything.
But now, I’m driven by a new purpose — and I feel better than ever.