By Bill McCaughey
For The Fort Bend Star
For a moment it feels like the year 2000 as T.J. Ford stands at half-court in the Willowridge gymnasium and directs his team through a four-man weave drill.
But the moment drifts back to reality as the T.J. Ford Basketball Academy begins another Saturday of workouts for high school, and several middle school, basketball players.
Ford oversees the drills and offers advice in a low but powerful voice. The players listen intently because Ford has been in the NBA, and because he grew up where they are growing up, and he made it to the big time.
Ford grew up in Baytown before moving to the Willowridge area to begin high school. During the years 1999 to 2001, the Willowridge basketball team was 75-1 with a 62-game winning streak. They won back to back state championships, and Ford and teammate Daniel Ewing were both named McDonalds All-Americans, the first time teammates were selected in the same year.
“My biggest memories of this gym are being with my teammates. We made each other better every day in practice,” Ford said. “I miss the friendships.”
Ford went on to play at the University of Texas at Austin for two years and then played in the National Basketball Association where he averaged 11 points and 6 assists per game for his eight-year career. He retired in 2012 due to a spinal injury.
“I started the T.J. Ford Basketball Academy six years ago to impact kids in a powerful way, whether it is in basketball, in education, or spiritually,” said Ford. “I want to give these kids confidence they can make it in the world.”
Ford still maintains a home in this area and wants to give back to the community. His basketball academy is not just about basketball. They offer tutoring in school subjects and in social media, and encourage their kids to participate in community service events. Ford would like to build more relationships in the Fort Bend area, to expand the offerings of the academy.
But it is a basketball academy and Ford has helped about 40 players get college scholarships over the past six years.
“We definitely have some players with Division 1 abilities, but our focus is on getting kids into a school at whatever level is right. It might be Division 3 or junior college, but we want to get them an opportunity to get a higher education,” Ford said.
Ford left college after two years for the NBA and is now finishing his coursework to get his college degree. He expects to graduate from UT at Austin this spring with an education degree. Getting his degree was a personal goal, but it also sends a powerful message to his players about the importance of higher education.
After the drills, the players form two teams and begin to scrimmage. One of the players is Sean Haggerty, seventh grader from Baytown. At first glance, Sean seems out of place as he is the youngest and shortest guy on the court. However, as soon as he steps on the court he begins directing his team as a point guard should. After a slick crossover move, he drains a 15-foot jumper and everyone forgets his age.
“Sean is getting a lot of valuable experience out of playing with the older kids,” Patrick Haggerty, Sean’s father, said. “It’s a great experience for him. He is gaining a lot of confidence in his abilities by competing with the older players.”
Haggerty has played with a T.J. Ford traveling team in the past and has played in tournaments in San Antonio and Las Vegas.
“Our goal is for Sean to get a college scholarship,” Haggerty said. “We tell Sean all the time if you keep your grades up you will go far in life. It’s all about your education, plus you need to work hard.”
Ford would like to expand the academy’s offerings beyond basketball.
“We want interns who want to be in sports management, or sports reporters, videographers, photographers, and others who may not have basketball skills. We want all kids to gain the confidence and maturity to be successful in life,” Ford said. “Higher education is very important.”
And as an example to all of the academy kids, Ford will be back attending his classes Monday morning.