Everyone optimistic All-Star forward will play Friday

Ford Tough and Rock Solid

Many things haven’t changed in the transition from Bill Laimbeer to Rick Mahorn – and one of them is that head trainer Laura Ramus still has the final say on when an injured Shock player can return. So what did Ramus have to say Wednesday about Cheryl Ford’s availability for Friday, a date Ford and the staff had targeted for her return more than a month ago?

“Her strength is good. She’s getting her legs underneath her, her lungs under her, to play basketball so that’s the whole next step,” Ramus said. “How confident am I she’s going to play on Friday? Very confident.”

Ford passed her biggest test to date during a 5-on-5 scrimmage Wednesday, all but ensuring she’ll be in uniform against Indiana Friday for the first time since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee last July. Ford is eager to rejoin her teammates on the court – for as long as her lungs will allow her.

“Could not breathe,” Ford said, sighing just to get those words out after the scrimmage, yet still smiling. “But the knee felt good. Just ready to go. I’m excited about hopefully playing on Friday, and seeing how it goes.”

Even if she’s only able to play 10-15 minutes, Ford’s first game in 11 months should be a big boost to Mahorn in his debut as head coach of the Shock. “Of course she’s not going to be conditioned well because she hasn’t been on the court on a consistent basis,” said Mahorn, who will monitor her playing time closely. “We figure her timing will be off but we’re just glad to have her back out on the court when she gets there because her presence is always felt.”

Ford returned from off-season microfracture surgery on her left knee for the 2008 season opener – and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds. “She can rebound on one leg, it’s unbelievable,” said assistant coach Cheryl Reeve. “Does a drill for five minutes and goes and gets five rebounds. It’s just what she does.”

Ramus: “That knee is rock solid”

While Ford will surely show some rust, Ramus is confident her knees are capable of taking the pounding. “ACL (surgery) is pretty straightforward,” she said. “She’s got a rock-solid ACL, ligament stability-wise, and that knee is rock solid. There’s no uncertainty there.” The price paid for that certainty was a grueling rehabilitation that took longer and, because of the invasiveness of the procedure, more painful than the microfracture therapy of a year ago.

“I think this is by far the hardest injury for me to get back from,” Ford said. “They were saying I was supposed to be back in six months; it was 10 months yesterday, so pretty tough. Pretty tough.”

Ford has found strength in her teammates’ support. “They’ve been really patient with me, encouraging and just telling me how much they need me back on the court,” she said, “and it just made me work harder.”

The Shock captain is also driven by the bittersweet memories of last year’s postseason run, when she watched her teammates win the championship without her. She recalled Taj McWilliams, the six-time All-Star forward acquired to replace Ford in the lineup, asking her if they’d play together in 2009 to win another title. McWilliams asked the question before the team had even been presented the trophy.

“I think it’s going to work pretty well,” Ford said of playing with McWilliams, the fourth-leading rebounder in WNBA history. “I’m really excited about the opportunity to play with her and learn from her.”

Ford could be in uniform for the first time in 11 months, when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Even with the tandem of Ford and McWilliams, the Shock frontcourt is missing key pieces in suspended center Kara Braxton and injured forward Plenette Pierson, both of whom are out until at least July. Ford noted that through three games the 1-2 Shock have been unremarkable on the boards, ranking in the middle of the pack against the rest of the league. “That’s not us,” she said, “so I know they want me to back out there to get some rebounds.”

A Promising Precedent

Anyone who doubts Ford can recapture her former glory should keep in mind how well she progressed after undergoing the microfracture procedure, which historically has proven to be far more unpredictable to come back from. “It’s an unknown if [the knee]’s going to heal,” Ramus said.

Ford put any doubts to rest with her 11-rebound debut and subsequent 8.7 rebounds per game in 24 appearances – a career-low average for her, but still among the league’s best. That’s the most positive indication that Ford will be able to regain the form that has made her, to date, the only player in league history with a career rebounding average in double digits (10.1 rpg).

With Ford scoring most of her points on put-backs – drawing upon reflexes, timing and excellent conditioning – it wouldn’t be a surprise for her scoring to take longer to come around, as 2008 illustrated. Her field-goal percentage was well below her career average of 46.2 to start the season, but steadily climbed with each passing game. Ford shot 37.5 percent in May, 43.2 in June and then 59.2 in July.

By the time Ford injured her right knee July 22 against the Sparks, she was in top form, averaging 13.8 points over her last eight games – more than a five-point bump from her average over the first 16 games (8.3 ppg).

The challenge now is as much mental as physical. “Last year I went out and I didn’t really think about it,” she said. “I try not to think about it, but I do.” After playing just 39 regular-season games over the past two seasons, Ford must relearn how to play carefree basketball and let her extraordinary instincts take over. An injury-free Ford averaged 32 games and led the WNBA in rebounding three times in her first four seasons.

Ford won’t be that caliber of player on Friday, or even at month’s end. But after that, who knows? Injuries happen and can be rehabilitated; doubts can be erased by a strong performance, but instincts, if you’ve got them, are always there. And they never leave.