ATLANTA -- It had been a maestro performance by T.J. Ford. And to cap it off, he was going to flip in a sweet reverse layup that would be the icing on the cake in Toronto's impressive 100-88 road win over the Hawks.
In a moment, that all changed. Ford had stolen the ball and was ahead of Atlanta'
s Al Horford on a breakaway, but slowed down and went for the reverse to cut off Horford's angle on the block. When Horford reached out for the ball and instead hit Ford's face, Ford lurched back and hit the floor with his body. Then his head snapped back and hit the hardwood with great force.
With that, his night was over, and one must hope that's the only extent of the damage. Ford landed on his side and was quickly flat on his back, crying in pain. Raptors coach Sam Mitchell came racing over from the far end of the court, screaming at the officials to call a Flagrant 2 foul (they eventually did), and once Hawks trainer Wally Blase saw Ford motionless he raced over as well.
Teammate Anthony Parker was the first one to reach Ford. "I just said 'Lay back, don't move,' because it seemed he was kind of on his side. It seemed like he was panicking a little bit, and started breathing hard," said Parker, who began waving for the medical staff to come over almost immediately.
After a lengthy delay, Ford was immobilized and taken off the floor strapped to a board on a stretcher, an eerie reminder of the injury that he suffered earlier in his career that caused him to miss the entire 2004-05 season when he was with the Bucks.
On a positive note, Ford's teammates said they saw him moving before he was taken off, something Raptors spokesman Jim LaBumbard confirmed.
Ford was taken to Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital. Meanwhile his teammates had to leave him and fly back to Toronto for Wednesday's game against Dallas. Director of Baskeball Operations Marc Eversley and assistant trainer Rory Mullin stayed behind to be with Ford, who was expected to stay overnight at the hospital.
Ford is especially vulnerable to hits like this because he suffers from a congenital condition called spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. That's why the hit on
Feb. 24, 2004, when he crashed into Minnesota's Mark Madsen, was so damaging -- he ended up with a bruised spinal cord and underwent surgery that May which fused two vertebrae in his neck.
And that's why Tuesday's development was so jarring for the Raptors. The team circled on the bench and prayed for him while the medics did their work, and its normally verbose coach, Mitchell, was so shaken that he ended his press conference after just three sentences. "I thought T.J. was playing well. We're just concerned about T.J. and don't have much more to say," said Mitchell. "We've just got to wait and see."
Teammate Chris Bosh, Ford's best buddy and fellow Texan, was also shaken by the hit but relieved to see Ford moving. "It's frightening, we all know the ongoing situation with T.J. and it's just tough to see that," said Bosh.
Bosh added that Ford didn't talk to him because he was so scared. "He was conscious, he wasn't trying to move too much. I'm sure he was feeling pain in his arms and legs," said Bosh.
What was unusual about the injury was that it was one of the most under control plays you'll ever see Ford make, slowing down to trick a defender instead of relying on his superior jets to blow by.
"He got the steal, and usually he goes in like a wild man," said Bosh. "But this time he [was] more controlled. Al kind of mistimed it and hit him in his head. I don't think he meant to do it on purpose, he was just making a basketball play."
As for Horford, the consensus among the Raptors was that the rookie was just trying to make a play and got fooled by Ford, but that may not help him with the league office. He was ejected and could be suspended, especially if Ford ends up shelved for an extended period. The league office will have a couple days to deliberate since the Hawks are off until Friday.
The bitter irony is that Ford has rarely played better. The diminutive point guard tormented Atlanta with his blazing speed and vastly improved midrange jumper, scoring 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting and adding eight assists against just two turnovers. With 1:32 left on the clock and Ford racing toward the basket for another deuce, he seemed primed to add to his tally.
"He was playing by far his best game of the season," said Bosh. "We just hate to see him go down like that."
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.