Rookie Eric Gordon is the shining light of the Clippers franchise. He has developed into the team's go-toguy in crunch time and carried the team for large portions of its latest star-crossed, dysfunctional season.
Around the NBA's trading deadline, as other teams were trying to pry away some of the club's talent for their playoff runs, saying Gordon's name to coach/general manager Dunleavy or assistant GM Neil Olshey was the fastest way to end any call.
After coaching against Gordon in February, Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said: "This kid is the best new talent in the league right now, and I don't care who else you mention."
The most profound compliment came Sunday night from the Lakers' reigning MVP, Kobe Bryant.
With the Clippers needing a 3-pointer in the last four seconds to tie the score, Bryant raised his hand and demanded to guard Gordon off the inbounds pass, then proceeded to grab, hold and wrestle him into submission.
"He was just not going to get the ball," Bryant said afterward.
Instead the Clippers had to inbound the ball to their second option, the guy everyone thought would have cemented himself as their franchise player by now, Baron Davis, who had to hoist up a double-clutch shot at the buzzer.
Asked if there was any doubt in his mind Gordon was the intended target, Bryant said, "No doubt in my mind."
Since he became a starter after the Cuttino Mobley- Zach Randolph trade in mid-November,
Gordon has averaged 18.3 points and shot 45.3 percent from the field.
He also set the franchise rookie scoring record with 41 points against Oklahoma City in January, was named the Western Conference's Rookie of the Month for February, and made everyone in the league think he's the second coming of Mitch Richmond.
Without a doubt he's in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, but because of the Clippers' anemic win total (18) and full plate of juicy, headline-grabbing offcourt
Gordon, left, has earned the respect of his teammates, as well as opponents. "He s one of the guys they're going to keep around and help turn this franchise into a winner," Golden State guard Stephen Jackson said. "The good thing about him is he's more mature than these (other) rookies." (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)
stories this season - Randolph's DUI, Elgin Baylor's lawsuit, owner Donald Sterling's postgame locker room rant - Gordon likely will finish behind Chicago's Derrick Rose or Memphis' O.J. Mayo.
Publicly, the lack of notoriety doesn't bother Gordon.
"I just come out playing hard, and whatever happens happens," he said.
But to those who know him well, it's obvious the lack of recognition will fuel his fire through the offseason.
"Everything you don't see on the outside, it's in there," Clippers assistant coach Fred Vinson said. "But unless he trusts you, he won't really expose certain aspects of himself."
At the beginning of the season, when Dunleavy limited his minutes behind Mobley and veteran Ricky Davis, Gordon refused to air out his frustrations in the meida, but resolved to make a point whenever he got on the court.
"He's quietly confident," Vinson said. "Trust me, he flipped out, but it was on the inside. He only lets certain people see it."
One look at Gordon's recent history explains everything. In high school he went from hero to pariah after decommitting from Illinois to sign with Indiana before his senior year.
Death threats flooded his MySpace page, and nasty letters were sent to his high school. It got so bad that his school, North Central High in Indianapolis, had to assign two security guards to him for all its games.
"It was crazy, man," he said. "One guy wrote me and he said he was
Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy hasn't had many bright spots in a season gone wrong, but rookie Eric Gordon, left, is the exception. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
going to wipe me out, like `You won't play your senior season.' Another one said, `I hateyou, I wish you would kill yourself."'
He can laugh about it now, but it wasn't funny at the time.
"Mentally, it was tough. When you're that age, that's kind of serious stuff," he said. "You have to be tough-minded. But it was frustrating, because it was like a personal decision. It wasn't about basketball."
In other words, once you've gone through something like that, playing on an NBA team that fielded just eight healthy players for most of January, dealing with a raging season-long drama between the point guard and head coach, or shrugging off whatever latest freak injury befalls a teammate is nothing serious.
Since he became a starter in mid-November, Gordon has averaged 18.3 points and shot 45.3 percent from the field.
"All that stuff is just basketball," he said. "It's just all about the chemistry part. Just basically on the court. Because when good things happen on the court, that solves almost any problems. That's where it needs to start off at.
"But I think we're going to be fine. I like it here. I want to stay and help build the franchise. I like L.A., I like the fans. To be honest, I was kind of surprised by the fans when I got here. They really have good fans. I see the same people there every night. It's kind of like college."
As soon as the season is over, though, Gordon is making a beeline home to Indiana. This is, by far, the longest he has been away from home.
He still talks to his parents all the time, but going home is different than phone calls or e-mails. His mother Denise, father EricSr. and younger brothers Evan and Eron will be waiting.
Actually, his father will probably be waiting for him across the street at the Jewish Community Center playground where he learned the game.
Officially, Eric Sr. was his coach from the age of 5 through ninth grade.
Unofficially, he has never stopped being his coach.
"After games I always send him a little text message with a critique," his father joked. "I watch the game and when he's walking off the court, I'll text message him. He writes back in a couple of minutes."
Like always, the critiques are honest, short and to the point. No platitudes or exaggerated praise.
"Good game" in a text from Eric Sr. really does mean "good game."
It has been that way forever between father and son. Friends would tell Eric Sr. his son was good enough to play in the NBA one day and he just smiled.
"I always knew he was a good athlete because when I'd coach him in soccer, I would tell him to just kick the ball up the sideline and go run it down and score. He was so fast, he would outrun everyone," the elder Gordon said.
"I didn't know anything about soccer though, so I didn't even realize the kids he was doing that against were really good. Some of them ended up playing in college, even."
It wasn't until Eric Jr. (or EJ for short) started playing for an AAU team named Indiana Red as an eighth-grader that his father began to realize his son's potential.
"He'd been dunking since the seventh grade. But he didn't do it in a game until his eighth- grade year," Eric Sr. recalled.
"He went up for a layup and got fouled. After the game I was like, `EJ, you're so close to the rim, why don't you just dunk it?'
"The next day, he came out, caught a ball off an alley-oop and dunked it over this guy. That's when I was like, `Wow, this kid can be something."'
Not that he started filling up EJ's head with such thoughts.
"Whenever he'd have a great game, I never really magnified it," Eric Sr. said. "I was the coach, and he always played with older kids, so I'd tell him, `You can't just be coming down jacking up shots all the time. These parents will kill me.' So that kind of forced him to work on his game."
It kept him humble and hard-working. The kind of guy teammates affectionately nicknamed "the Hobbit" and still ask to perform rookie chores like buying breakfast sandwiches on the road. The kind of 20-year-old kid who still chats with his high school Japanese teacher and makes plans to keep up his language skills during the offseason.
But as hard as his parents have tried to keep him grounded, there comes a time when superstar talent becomes hard for anyone to ignore.
For Gordon, that time is now.
Can't say anything anymore fido, even Kobe respects him.
He's always been humble. Take it from a guy who watches every single game and every single interview- he's a very good guy and doesn't care at all about his accomplishments.
But just like a franchise player, he knows it's HIS team and he needs to take over and stay here even through the bad times. I like that... I can't wait to see how good this guy will really be.
Edited by TheCalmInsanity, April 10, 2009 - 11:54 AM.