New Rivals: Indiana-Illinois
Border war became enflamed over battle for Gordon
Posted: Tuesday November 20, 2007 11:55AM; Updated: Tuesday November 20, 2007 3:38PM
PROTAGONISTS: Eric Gordon, Kelvin Sampson, Bruce Weber
HOW WE GOT HERE: A battle for the allegiance of one teenager ignited a war between two bordering basketball nations. So goes the saga of Eric Gordon, a 6-foot-4 prodigy from Indianapolis' North Central High who was the first major recruit to commit to Illinois coach Bruce Weber following the Illini's Final Four run in 2005. The plot thickened from there.
In March '06, Kelvin Sampson was hired in Bloomington, and Gordon reconsidered the Hoosiers, who hadn't appealed to him during the Mike Davis regime. Sampson says the Gordon camp reached out to him -- "We just reacted to [the family], really" -- setting in motion a quiet courtship. In the meantime, Jeff Meyer, Gordon's father's old college coach at Liberty University, and Travis Steele, Gordon's AAU coach, were added to the Indiana staff, and relations between Weber and Sampson were forever strained. By October '06, the turnabout was complete: Gordon announced he would be a Hoosier instead.
Years of intense recruiting work by Weber's staff went to waste, as other top-flight guards had passed on the Illini to avoid sharing shots with Gordon. Says his father, Eric Sr., "It wasn't a great situation by any means. But my goal was always to do what's best, and I looked at it in terms of what was the best place for my son to play college basketball, and be a student athlete."
The pursuit of Gordon was a 21st-century Illi-ana version of Paris stealing King Menelaus' beloved Helen of Troy. That scandal set the epic Trojan War in motion. But whereas it took years for the Achaeans to finally strike on the Trojans, Gordon's War began in the Internet Age, allowing Illini and Hoosiers factions to clash instantly on message boards and reader-comment forms over ethical issues. There were some ugly moments in cyberspace: Gordon received threats, allegedly from Illinois fans, on his MySpace page, and security detail was added to his high school games as a precaution. He was a five-star prospect in the middle of a five-star drama before he had played a single college game.
Come Feb. 7, in what might be his only trip as a Hoosier to Champaign, Gordon will have to face the music. Weber expects it to be loud. "Hearts will beat faster, and our fans will be a little more vocal than normal," he says. Gordon knows what's coming, and says, "I'm ready for it. But I have to treat it like just another good game on our schedule." If only it were that easy.
TALKING THE TALK: Asked whether he characterized the Indiana rivalry with the same "respect" he did the Illini's battles with Michigan State, Weber said, "I would just say that it's a huge game. There is an added excitement to it. It's a border game. You hope they're rated in the top 10 this year. There'll be some extra juice and electricity when we play each other this year."
WHEN THEY MEET: Jan. 13 in Bloomington, Feb. 7 in Champaign
HEAT LEVEL: Molten