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Air Gordon

Eric Gordon is a prodigious talent and hot-button topic after he spurned Illinois to sign with in-state Indiana

Posted: Friday February 23, 2007 1:14PM; Updated: Friday February 23, 2007 3:13PM
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Unafraid to make a statement on the court, Gordon has proven his abilities as the best guard from Indiana since Oscar Robertson.
Unafraid to make a statement on the court, Gordon has proven his abilities as the best guard from Indiana since Oscar Robertson.
Michael Hickey/WireImage.com
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By L. Jon Wertheim, SI.com

As often as he heard his coach's directive, "Let the game come to you, " Eric Gordon was getting impatient. His team, Indianapolis' North Central High, was slogging through a sloppy first quarter against a crosstown opponent, Broad Ripple. Shrouded by the usual double- and triple-team defense, Gordon had scarcely touched the ball.

With a nod that was barely perceptible, Gordon, a 6-foot-3, do-everything guard, called for the ball beyond the three-point arc. He deked by the first line of defense with an NBA-grade crossover. With two dribbles, he slalomed by another opponent, a "help" defender who provided nothing of the sort. Still eight feet from the basket, Gordon took flight and achieved cruising altitude. His right arm cocked as he started his descent, he deposited the ball in the hoop with such violence that the entire fixture swayed back and forth like a flag in the breeze.

It was the kind of play that illustrated why Gordon is regarded as Indiana's best backcourt player since Oscar Robertson (Crispus Attucks High, class of '56), and why, by most accounts, he's overtaken Huntington (W. Va.) guard O.J. Mayo as the best high school player in America. It was also the kind of sensational play that neutralizes partisanship. The opposing crowd on the Broad Ripple bleachers went ballistic, shrieking "Air Gordon," jokingly covering their eyes, and dispensing high-fives. Yet Gordon jogged back downcourt as if he'd done nothing more remarkable than score two points, no trace of a smile registering under his moustache. A week later, he could barely recall the dunk.

"I just remember feeling like I needed to be more aggressive in that game," he says. "But that specific play? I'm not real sure."

In many ways, Gordon's story is downright quaint. The latest in a long lineage of Indiana schoolboy stars, Gordon is a soft-spoken kid who spent innumerable hours in the driveway, as his attentive father, Eric Sr., taught him the mechanics of shooting and the black arts of boxing out.

"I've never seen a player so unafraid of work," says North Central coach Doug Mitchell, one of those hidebound native Hoosiers who command instant respect. "Want to know why he's gotten so good? Because he practices at game speed every single time."

The oldest of three boys, "E.J." as everyone calls him, comes from a two-parent home -- old school! -- and has grown up on a tree-lined block. No hardscrabble, tragic backstory here. He's a conscientious student at a first-rate public high school. His favorite class? "Trigonometry. No, wait. Can I change my answer? Japanese."

Last fall, he announced that he was playing for State U., Indiana, an hour from his folks. "Eric's succeeding," says Mitchell, "in an old-fashioned way."

Yet for all the throwback trappings, the courting of Gordon is a relentlessly post-modern saga that offers a window into the contemporary world of high-stakes, high-tech recruiting. On Thanksgiving Day of 2005, Gordon verbally committed to the University of Illinois. It was an exceptional recruiting coup for Illini coach Bruce Weber, one that looked better and better as the months passed. Gordon turned in a laurelled junior season and was the breakout star of the national summer circuit. Gordon was already blessed with talent of cosmic dimensions and one of those precocious bodies that recalls LeBron James. While other players (i.e. Mayo) appeared to stagnate, Gordon's game seemed to be maturing in dog years.

"He just scores in every conceivable way," says recruiting guru Bob Gibbons. "He shoots well, he takes the ball to the rim, he gets to the free throw line, he plays both backcourt positions. He's such a complete player and he keeps getting better."

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