Believe the hype. Longhorn freshman point guard T.J. Ford is something special -- maybe the best player in UT basketball history.
The world of sports provides special moments. I was at the first Clay/Liston fight. I saw Jordan and Pippen play in two game sevens. Very special. That was almost 10 years ago. I was at Soldier Field when the Bears beat the Giants in the NFC Championship game in '84, Chicago's first championship in 21 years. I have the ticket and the front page of the Chicago Tribune framed and hanging in my writing lair. I once talked my way into an empty (and spooky) Municipal Stadium in Cleveland a few days before it was torn down. 82,000 empty, faded green wooden seats and a field Babe Ruth played on. That -- and an icy fall wind off Lake Erie -- gave me chills.
The slow developing point I'm trying to make is: Special things are, by definition, special -- they don't happen every day. Here's a flash: There's something special happening in the Erwin Center. It's something I haven't seen in 26 years. The University of Texas has a real point guard.
Most athletes won't (or can't) live up to the hype generated their teams' media machines. Seventeen-year-old freshmen are the least likely to fulfill the hopes of fans fed by recruiting services, meaningless high school statistics, and schoolboy awards.
If you follow this column, you know I'm not easily impressed, particularly if it has anything to do with UT. T.J. Ford is, right now, after a college career spanning less than a dozen games, the best guard (point or otherwise) we've ever had in Austin. Johnny Moore, B.J. Tyler, Travis Mays, Reggie, Lance Blanks, outstanding guards one and all. Ford's better than any of them.
He arrived with all the gaudy awards a high school athlete can garner. A McDonald's All-American, Texas Player of the Year. His last 62 high school games at 5A Sugar Land Willowridge were wins, including two state championships and a snappy 39-0 senior season. The ubiquitous college scouting services all had him as a top-20 national player. Who cares? All crap. I've heard it all before. I'm a Midwesterner. I'll believe it when I see it.
If you go to the Erwin Center, you'll see one of the rarest (special) of sights: a player who makes every other teammate better. For a quarter century I've watched the occasional nice interior pass bounce off the hands, nose, or forehead of an unsuspecting forward and center, not necessarily because they couldn't catch, but because a pass was, in itself, such a rare event. The start of this season has been rocky for Texas. Ford's passes were thudding off of hands and shoulders, and into empty air, as the Longhorns struggled to win each game. The loss of Freddie Williams rocked the team on their heels. But it's being overcome. The chemistry is starting to cook. Teammates are getting open looks heretofore only dreamed of. Ten-foot jump shots, rumbling dunks, open lanes to the basket.
Ford's not intimidated by college basketball. One of the most incongruous sights imaginable came as the players were leaving the floor after a win against A&M Corpus Christi. There's Ford, a tiny kid with an Allen Iverson body, his arm draped around the neck of Rick Barnes. You're kidding me! Our buttoned down, small-town Southern coach was dragging Ford on his shoulders like T.J. was a set of Ping irons. I thought Ford was injured and Barnes was helping his future off the court ... but not so. A bemused-looking Barnes -- his jacket and tie askew -- and his star freshman point guard were having an amiable, Ford-inspired chat, as if Barnes were one of T.J's homies from Houston.
Most college players take years to find a comfortable place on the team. For a freshman to emerge as the team floor leader, six games into the season, is extraordinary. Freshmen tend to be quiet and tentative, usually deferring to their older teammates. Freshman point guards are rare because of the technical difficulty of the position and because they lack the confidence necessary to keep everybody happy. Ford does not lack confidence. And his game backs it up.
He's been this impressive while playing on a badly sprained ankle. Barring any serious injury, academic problems, or a growth spurt that will make it tempting for him to turn pro, he's going to be a fixture on All Big-12 teams and break every UT record of consequence for the guard position.
Go see him play. You'll see something special.
Parting Shots: Why shouldn't Nebraska play in the Rose Bowl? Why is their one loss any worse than Oregon's or Illinois's? Who says you have to win your conference? They're 11-1. Colorado? If you lose to Fresno State you get what you deserve. Shut up, Gary! Oregon lost to Stanford at home. Illinois lost by 25 at Michigan. They didn't have to risk an everybody-loses Conference Championship. One loss is one loss. In the imperfect world of the BCS, Nebraska's claim is as good as anyone's and gives the Big 12 a shot at a National Championship.