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Original Issue

So Good It Hurts

Hearts broke when Eric Gordon chose Indiana


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, BroadRipple. Shrouded by the usual double- and triple-team defense, Gordon hadscarcely made an impact.

Now the 6'3", do-everything guard had had enough. Dribbling just outside thethree-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, Gordontook flight and achieved cruising altitude. His right arm cocked as he startedhis descent, and he deposited the ball in the hoop with such violence that theentire fixture swayed.

It was the kindof play that illustrated why Gordon is regarded as Indiana's best backcourtplayer 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 thatneutralized partisanship: The opposing crowd on the Broad Ripple bleachersshrieked "Air Gordon," jokingly covered their eyes and dispensed highfives. Yet Gordon jogged back downcourt as if he'd done nothing more remarkablethan score two points. A week later he could barely recall the dunk. "Ijust remember feeling like I needed to be more aggressive in that game," hesays. "But that specific play? I'm not real sure."

In many waysGordon's story is quaint. He's a soft-spoken 18-year-old who spent innumerablehours in the driveway as his father, Eric Sr., a former guard at then--DivisionII Liberty University and now a sales manager at Novartis, taught him themechanics of shooting and the black arts of boxing out. "I've never seen aplayer so unafraid of work," says North Central coach Doug Mitchell."Want to know why he's gotten so good? Because he practices at game speedevery single time." The oldest of Eric Sr. and Denise's three boys (she'steaches 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-ratepublic school. His favorite class? "Trigonometry. No, wait. Can I change myanswer? Japanese."

The only trulyunsettling chapter of his life has come from being so coveted. On the daybefore Thanksgiving 2005 Gordon offered a verbal commitment to Illinois. Threemonths 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 forDavis. Through calls, e-mails and text messages, the Gordons and Mitchellinitiated contact with new IU coach Kelvin Sampson. On Oct. 13 Gordon switchedhis commitment to Indiana, formally signing with the school on Nov. 8.

Sampson wasaccused of poaching Gordon—the coach brushes that charge aside, saying, "Wejust reacted to [the family]"—and Gordon's decision inspired more than alittle bitterness out of Illinois. Eric Sr. told The Indianapolis Star that hisson had received death threats on his MySpace page. A columnist for the PeoriaJournal Star referred to Gordon as "that steaming pile oftwo-guard."

"I'd say it'sdied down 80 percent, but some Illini fans have been unbelievably poorsports," says Eric Sr. "People forgot we were talking about a17-year-old."

While Mitchelland North Central athletic director Chuck Jones have tried to minimize theattention enveloping their star (the school turned down several opportunitiesto play televised games for as much as $25,000 a pop), they did agree to playon ESPN2 on Feb. 2, but per Jones's conditions, it was a home game. Gordon's43-point masterpiece in a win against Loyola Academy (Wilmette, Ill.) in thatgame, along with his state-best 31.6 scoring average and North Central's 13--4record as one of Indiana's top-ranked teams, has only inflated the hype.

Seeing Gordonwalk casually down the corridors of North Central, wearing head-to-toe IUregalia and clutching a hall pass, is to witness an irony. Today he needspermission to use the urinal; in 18 months he could be in the NBA. Gordon triesto live in the present. "They say [high school] is one of the best times ofyour life," he says, and he's enjoying it. That means savoring the chanceto play high school ball with his brother Evan, a sophomore; watching hisnine-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 thegame come to him.

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Gordon is the state's best guard since Oscar Robertson.



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