Completely paralyzed multiple times during his basketball career, TJ Ford felt terrified that he may never walk again.
Ford, who was born in Houston, started playing basketball at 4-years-old. He attended Willowridge High School and played on the basketball team. Ford finished his final two seasons at Willowridge with a 75-1 win-loss record. The University of Texas started recruiting Ford his sophomore year of high school and he attended UT from 2001-2003 before declaring for the NBA draft and being selected 8th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks.
But with this success came a huge medical obstacle that he would have to overcome. Just before starting his career at Texas, Ford was officially diagnosed with spinal stenosis, and as his career progressed, so did his health problems.
According to the Seton Spine & Scoliosis Center, spinal stenosis occurs when there is not enough room in the spinal canal for the nerves. Depending on the type of stenosis, this causes narrowing and pressure on the nerve roots ranging from the neck to lower back. In simplistic terms, the condition could resemble placing a ring on your finger. If the finger becomes injured or inflamed, the ring constricts and causes pain. In Ford’s case, his cervical spinal stenosis existed in his upper neck which affects the nerves shooting down to his limbs, causing paralysis.
The disorder results from diseases that are present at birth, while acquired stenosis is typically the result of degeneration in the spine. When one area of the spine is injured, it is more likely that spinal health in other areas will fail. The most common surgery to treat stenosis is called a laminectomy, which helps create more space for the surrounding spinal nerves. This treatment aims at minimizing the effects and symptoms of the stenosis, but unfortunately does not stop the progression of degenerative change. Ford says his laminectomy involved taking a piece of bone from his neck and fusing it with a metal plate.
Ford was the first player in the NBA to suffer with this condition.
“There was no research, so I just had to put faith in the man above,” Ford said.
According to The Hughston Clinic website, John D. Dorchak, M.D. worries about athletes who have cervical spinal stenosis.
“Those who participate in contact sports like football or basketball are at risk for serious nerve injuries due to pinching within the spinal canal,” Dorchak wrote on the website.
He also says returning to practice or competition with one of these conditions may result in severe, permanent damage to the nervous system.
Marquis Daniels, who last played with the Milwaukee Bucks, experienced the same ailment as Ford.
“The good thing is that the things I experienced and went through, he and the NBA were able to use the research from myself to apply to him and he was able to further his career as well,” Ford said.
After Ford suffered multiple injuries from this condition, he didn’t completely throw in the towel. Instead he refocused his passion to helping others perfect their athletic skills.
“I try to give them the best tools so they can live their dream of making it professionally in sports,” Ford said. “And if not, [I hope to just] give these kids a foundation where they will be able to change career paths.”
One of Ford’s former basketball camp members, Wes Vanbeck, is now playing basketball at the University of Houston and feels that Ford’s mentoring helped him to achieve his goals.
“The year and a half I was at TJ’s camp, he really developed my game to the next level,” Vanbeck said. “He taught me how to play better defense and how to be more efficient on offense.”
Not only did Ford help Vanbeck’s basketball skills, but he also instilled the importance of a strong work ethic.
“TJ really helped me with my confidence and one of the main things that he stressed was working hard,” Vanbeck said. “When you are in the gym and you want to get better you have to put in the time and Ford intends to continue his basketball camp and to teach youth how to play the sport he is so passionate about.”
*Jorge would like to thank the help of great friends Taylor Smith, Chrissy Dickerson and Tessa Meriwether in their assistance with this project.*