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A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
K-chick, k-chick, k-chick. It was approaching midnight on Sept. 16, 2004, when Ed Gordon and his wife, Shelly Davis, were awakened by the sound of a shovel biting into the hard dirt of their San Jose backyard. That day they had given their younger son, Aaron, a new basketball hoop with a breakaway rim and an in-ground stanchion for his ninth birthday. Let's set it up tomorrow, they told him as they trundled off to bed.
Aaron couldn't wait. K-chick, k-chick, k-chick. Shelly thought of the long-suffering neighbors, who over the years had retrieved basketballs that caromed off the old portable hoop and had put up with the incessant trash talk. Let's please not wake them.
K-chick, k-chick. Please, Aaron! K-chick. After making a small hole, the boy finally went to bed. But he was up early to help Ed take measurements and to mix and pour cement. By 8:30 a.m., they were watching the concrete dry.
The hoop still stands at precisely 10 feet. It has survived nearly nine years of ferocious dunks by Aaron, his older siblings, Drew and Elise, and their long-limbed friends. A picture of it was featured on Aaron's Twitter page until recently, the Lucite backboard surrounded—embraced, you might say—by the branches of a pepper tree. In a way, the tree is Aaron Gordon's proxy. If he could wrap his arms around the game and hold it tight, he would.
His hoops obsession has already brought Gordon, a sculpted 6'8", 222-pound alloy of pogo-stick hops, basketball IQ and walk-on want-to, some distinction. In the last few months he was named California's Mr. Basketball for the second time—only the sixth player to be twice honored—and MVP of the McDonald's All-American game, and he was the leading scorer and rebounder for the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the U-19 world championships in Prague. He is projected to be a top five pick in the 2014 NBA draft. But he wants to be much, much more.
"Most kids will tell us, 'I want to go to the NBA.' 'I want to be one-and-done, two-and-done,' " says Joe Pasternack, the associate head coach at Arizona, the school for which Gordon will play this fall. "For Aaron, it was, 'I love this game so much that I want to be the greatest to ever play it.' We don't hear that very often."
But then, how many elite 17-year-olds play every game, even annual alumni games, as if it might be their last? How many already know they want to coach? If Gordon saw the staff at Archbishop Mitty High drawing X's and O's while he was in the gym shooting, he'd hustle over and ask, Can I get in on this? Mitty coach Tim Kennedy says that when college recruiters sketched their plays, Gordon would offer suggestions: I would break this off right here and get action there. And the coaches would get a little giddy. Yeah, yeah, you can actually do that!
Yet Gordon's analytical skills were hardly the foremost reason top schools wanted him. YouTube is packed with clips of his thunderous, whip-cracking dunks. (One shows a split-screen of Gordon, 17, and Blake Griffin, 23, making equally impressive off-the-wall jams with their respective USA Basketball teams.) And some coaches would say Gordon's slams aren't as dazzling as his rebounds. This March, while leading Mitty to its third straight state title game (after winning two straight Division II championships, the Monarchs fell to Mater Dei in the inaugural Open Division final), he averaged 15.7 boards to go with 21.6 points, aerobatically—and relentlessly—maneuvering for balls far outside his airspace. "He's like a retriever pursuing a tennis ball," says Mitch Stephens, a longtime Bay Area preps writer for several different media outlets. "You know those dogs who forget about water, about food; it's just ball, ball, ball? That's Aaron."