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So Good It Hurts
L. Jon Wertheim
February 26, 2007
Hearts broke when Eric Gordon chose Indiana
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February 26, 2007

So Good It Hurts

Hearts broke when Eric Gordon chose Indiana

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AS OFTEN as he heard his coach's directive, "Let the game come to you," Eric Gordon was getting impatient. His team, Indianapolis's 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 made an impact.

Now the 6' 3", do-everything guard had had enough. Dribbling just outside the three-point arc, Gordon deked past one defender with an NBA-grade crossover. With two more dribbles he slalomed by another opponent, a "help" defender who provided nothing of the sort. Eight feet from the basket, Gordon took flight and achieved cruising altitude. His right arm cocked as he started his descent, and he deposited the ball in the hoop with such violence that the entire fixture swayed.

It was the kind of play that illustrated why Gordon is regarded as Indiana's best backcourt player since Oscar Robertson ( Crispus Attucks High in Indianapolis, class of '56) and why, by some accounts, he's overtaken Huntington (W.Va.) guard O.J. Mayo as the nation's best current high school player. It was also a play that neutralized partisanship: The opposing crowd on the Broad Ripple bleachers shrieked "Air Gordon," jokingly covered their eyes and dispensed high fives. Yet Gordon jogged back downcourt as if he'd done nothing more remarkable than score two points. 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 quaint. He's a soft-spoken 18-year-old who spent innumerable hours in the driveway as his father, Eric Sr., a former guard at then--Division II Liberty University and now a sales manager at Novartis, 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. "Want to know why he's gotten so good? Because he practices at game speed every single time." The oldest of Eric Sr. and Denise's three boys (she's teaches business at another city high school), E.J., as everyone calls him, lives on a tree-lined block and is a conscientious student at a first-rate public school. His favorite class? "Trigonometry. No, wait. Can I change my answer? Japanese."

The only truly unsettling chapter of his life has come from being so coveted. On the day before Thanksgiving 2005 Gordon offered a verbal commitment to Illinois. Three months later Indiana announced that embattled coach Mike Davis was resigning. Eric Sr. says his son had always preferred Indiana but did not want to play for Davis. Through calls, e-mails and text messages, the Gordons and Mitchell initiated contact with new IU coach Kelvin Sampson. On Oct. 13 Gordon switched his commitment to Indiana, formally signing with the school on Nov. 8.

Sampson was accused of poaching Gordon—the coach brushes that charge aside, saying, "We just reacted to [the family]"—and Gordon's decision inspired more than a little bitterness out of Illinois. Eric Sr. told The Indianapolis Star that his son had received death threats on his MySpace page. A columnist for the Peoria Journal Star referred to Gordon as "that steaming pile of two-guard."

"I'd say it's died down 80 percent, but some Illini fans have been unbelievably poor sports," says Eric Sr. "People forgot we were talking about a 17-year-old."

While Mitchell and North Central athletic director Chuck Jones have tried to minimize the attention enveloping their star (the school turned down several opportunities to play televised games for as much as $25,000 a pop), they did agree to play on ESPN2 on Feb. 2, but per Jones's conditions, it was a home game. Gordon's 43-point masterpiece in a win against Loyola Academy (Wilmette, Ill.) in that game, along with his state-best 31.6 scoring average and North Central's 13--4 record as one of Indiana's top-ranked teams, has only inflated the hype.

Seeing Gordon walk casually down the corridors of North Central, wearing head-to-toe IU regalia and clutching a hall pass, is to witness an irony. Today he needs permission to use the urinal; in 18 months he could be in the NBA. Gordon tries to live in the present. "They say [high school] is one of the best times of your life," he says, and he's enjoying it. That means savoring the chance to play high school ball with his brother Evan, a sophomore; watching his nine-year-old brother Eron ("He's going to be the best of the three," vows Eric Sr.); and making plans for the prom. You might say he's letting the game come to him.