Nov 06, 2014

Ford Returns to UT with Focus on Graduation

T.J. Ford in front of the University of Texas Tower on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Photo by Shannon Price/Reporting Texas

Former NBA player T.J. Ford is keeping a promise to himself: Return to UT and finish the degree. Photo by Shannon Price/Reporting Texas

By Jennifer Victoria Groudle
For Reporting Texas

T.J. Ford knew when he left Texas that someday, he would return.

He was a sophomore in 2003 when he took the Longhorns to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Final Four in New Orleans, winning the Naismith and the Wooden player of the year awards along the way. He decided it was time for him to leave school for professional basketball, but he left with the promise to himself that he would get his degree.

Ford made good on that promise in August, at age 31. He enrolled in 12 hours, working toward a degree in education. He wants to be a coach.

“I came here to start my education, and this is the place where I want to finish my education,” Ford said.

The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Ford, a 6-foot point guard from Willowridge High School near Houston, with the team’s eighth pick in the 2003 draft. Ford played in the National Basketball Association for eight years, averaging 11.2 points a game for four teams. He sat out his second season with a back injury. Ford retired in 2012 after aggravating a condition known as spinal stenosis.

“My time was up,” he said. “I continued to get injured, and my body took too much of a beating. I wanted to walk away while I had good health.”

He moved back to Houston with his wife, Candace, and their three young children.

After the NBA, he focused on his foundation and his basketball academy, which Ford founded in 2012. The T.J. Ford Basketball Academy consists of two traveling teams for boys in the 17- and 15-year-old age groups. The academy stages camps throughout the year for girls and boys from age 8 to 17. Five academy graduates are playing in college, and another eight have commitments to play.

Ford took some correspondence classes during his time in the NBA. He now commutes to Austin each week from Houston.

Ford needs about 50 hours to finish, and he’s taking courses in government and sociology, among others. He has an apartment in Austin.

“He didn’t have to come back,” said Texas head basketball coach Rick Barnes. “(But) he wants to be an example for his children and young players.”

Ford regularly attends UT practice, helping out the coaching staff when needed.

Barnes has noticed a positive effect on his players.

“They’re willing to listen because he has been there, where they want to go,” Barnes said.

Ford will be the first college graduate from his immediate family. His mother, Mary Ford, could not be prouder.

“It’s something you want for your kids, but there’s nothing you can really do until they want it,” she said.

Another former Longhorn and professional basketball player, Terrence Rencher, graduated from UT in 2008 and is now an assistant basketball coach at Texas State University in San Marcos. Originally from the Bronx, he played at UT from 1991 to 1995 before his 12-year professional career, most of it in Europe.

He returned to UT in 2007.

“I knew the dynamics of the classroom,” Rencher said. “I knew how to engage the teacher, and I wasn’t afraid to ask questions.”

Ford, like Rencher, is now more focused on school because his life is different as a student.

“Being in school is different with the age and perspective that I have in life now,” Ford said. “I’m mostly here to go to school, and do what I’m supposed to do,”

The university extended his scholarship, as it does for most athletes who return to finish their degrees.

Ford imagined how he will feel walking across the stage in cap and gown, diploma in hand.

“Out of all the things that I accomplished in my playing career,” he said, “I think that this will put the final touches on what the University of Texas means for me as an individual.”