clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Eric Gordon is happy, healthy and ready to make us remember

Eric Gordon was on the path to stardom before all sorts of roadblocks detoured his progression. Yet he's still just 26 years old and may finally have found his NBA home.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly five years later, the scene plays like a transmission from an alternate NBA universe. Eric Gordon controls the ball on the right wing, staring down Stephen Curry. He feints right as his teammate Blake Griffin sets a screen. Gordon dribbles left, hesitates, then abruptly puts the ball between his legs and reverses to his right hand. Curry crumples to the floor in a heap while Gordon drains an open 18-footer.

The ankle-breaking highlight survives as evidence that there once was a time when Curry was the injury-prone tease and Gordon was the ascendant offensive dynamo. Three months later, amid his breakout season, Gordon broke his wrist. The rest of the year was a virtual wash. Then he was traded. Nothing’s been the same since.

Gordon, who exercised his player option in June to return to the New Orleans Pelicans, says he’s as healthy as he’s been since his last season in Los Angeles. He’s training instead of rehabbing for the first summer in years. He’s ecstatic about his new coach, Alvin Gentry, late of the champion Warriors. He’s 26, younger than his former AAU teammate Derrick Rose and younger than Curry, the reigning MVP. Gordon thinks he can still make his first All-Star team and that he can help make the Pelicans a championship contender.

Suspend your cynicism for a moment. If past is prologue, sure, something—probably injury—will undermine Gordon’s plans. Nearly as often, however, external dysfunction has stymied him.

"The tough thing about basketball is that it’s not just about basketball," he says, leaning on a cliché in a way that feels earnest, yet also earned. "What’s kept me going is the belief that somehow, someway, you’re gonna figure it out and it’s gonna eventually work out for you."

What if, just maybe, this is the year things break right for Gordon? An optimist might see a player who has been thrown every kind of misfortune, and survived in spite of it all.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Doctors typically prescribe Boston braces -- bulky, corset-like contraptions -- for people with scoliosis. Gordon wore one his freshman year of high school so that he could play basketball without exacerbating stress fractures in his spine. He finished second on the team in scoring, demonstrating two things: his enormous offensive potential and an ability to play through pain.

"He’s just a tough-minded, matter-of-fact guy," says Doug Mitchell, his coach at North Central High School in Indianapolis. "Here are the facts, and here are solutions A, B, and C. Let’s make a decision and go."

Gordon knew by age 10 that he wanted to be a pro basketball player, and he was empowered by an ironclad support system. Gordon’s father, Eric Sr., a former standout scorer at Liberty University, chose to raise his family with his wife Denise at his childhood home on the northside of Indianapolis. The appeal: friendly neighbors and the nice Jewish Community Center gymnasium across the street. He erected goals in the driveway where Gordon would duel his younger brothers, Evan and Eron. At the JCC, Gordon would hone his craft with standout AAU teammates such as Mike Conley, Greg Oden and Rose.

"Everything was purposefully set up so that all of the boys would have the opportunity to play basketball in a safe environment," says Gordon’s father, who coached his son through the seventh grade.

With his stocky frame and otherworldly explosiveness — picture a 747 with the burst of an F-16 — young Eric Gordon was a unique athlete. "He could have been a world-class sprinter or a big-time football player," his father says.

That versatile athleticism came at a cost. Intense track running as a kid led to the back injury. His football career ended in seventh grade after he was tackled awkwardly at the end of a kickoff return for a touchdown, causing his leg to swell up like a balloon. No, Gordon was meant to be on a basketball court, where his tenacity turned heads, though it too had a downside. "He really punished defenders," his father says, "but his body absorbed a lot of contact."

Prior to an epic junior-season ESPN2 clash against Conley and Oden’s Lawrence North juggernaut, Gordon suffered a deep thigh bruise that would have kept him out of a less meaningful game. His response—to grit through it, while pouring in 27 points—typified his attitude toward pain.

"He really punished defenders, but his body absorbed a lot of contact."-Eric Gordon Sr.

Gordon settled near the top of a 2007 class that included Rose, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, and O.J. Mayo, but not without controversy. After reneging on a verbal commitment to Illinois to sign with Indiana, Gordon unwittingly put a bullseye on his back. Described by those who knew him then and now as quiet and guarded, Gordon and his family received death threats. "It got serious enough," Mitchell says, "where we traveled with security at the end of his senior year."

Gordon’s environment didn’t improve in college. Kelvin Sampson, the coach who convinced him to de-commit from Illinois, resigned amid an unrelated recruiting scandal midway through Gordon’s lone year at Indiana. "My first practice guys were mad about Sampson so they didn’t come," says Dan Dakich, who replaced Sampson. "Eric did."

In a locker room which Dakich says had "zero leadership" and, it would come out, was beset by drug use, "Eric was strong enough. He handled it better than 99.99 percent of kids could in that situation."

Gordon took it out on opposing defenses, but also himself. Weeks before Sampson’s resignation he injured his non-shooting left wrist. Rather than rest, he played out the year wearing a cumbersome cast-like wrap. His shooting percentages plunged.

"He played with a reckless abandon," Dakich says. "When you’re not afraid of contact, you’re going to get injured. And he wasn’t afraid of contact, that’s for damn sure."

Even with the injuries, his talent was undeniable. Gordon declared for the NBA Draft at age 19 and the Clippers were willing to gamble on his medical history with the seventh pick.

Harry How/Getty Images

Throughout most of his three years in Los Angeles, Gordon thrived despite the toxicity around him. His reward would be a trade to the New Orleans Hornets, the only franchise more dysfunctional than the Clippers. But first, he had to prove himself worthy of being the top asset in a trade for a still-in-his-prime Hall of Famer.

Gordon intrigued as a rookie amid a Clippers season tainted by the preseason resignation of the general manager who drafted him, Elgin Baylor, and the aggrieved exec’s subsequent lawsuit against team owner Donald Sterling. The team won only 19 games, but Gordon made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team and flashed his immense potential in a thrilling January duel against Kevin Durant, notching 41 points to the reigning Rookie of the Year’s 46 in a rare victory.

"Eric was really, really great at attacking in the open floor," says Fred Vinson, who was then an assistant with the Clippers and is now entering his sixth season on the New Orleans staff. "That was one of the main reasons why we wanted to draft him in L.A. — his ability to use his body and get those big shoulders into bodies."

Gordon’s second Clipper campaign was marred by the season-long injury absence of top pick Blake Griffin, the midseason resignation of coach Mike Dunleavy and a variety of ailments that kept him out of 20 games. He still played well enough to make the U.S. World Championship team the following summer and win a gold medal.

Gordon’s third year in Los Angeles began more auspiciously. He and Griffin broke out as potential All-Star teammates, with Gordon rising as high as the league’s eighth-best scorer at 24.1 points per game. But it all came literally crashing down when Gordon suffered a scary fall in a January clash against the Warriors. He returned to the game with a taped-up right wrist, but the team later discovered a bone chip fracture that would effectively end Gordon’s breakout year. As it turned out, his time in Los Angeles was also over.

It still took a Rube Goldberg chain of events for Gordon to be sent packing: the NBA’s unprecedented purchase of the Hornets, a work stoppage that strangled the offseason and moved the issue of competitive balance to the fore, commissioner David Stern’s veto of one Chris Paul trade out of New Orleans (to the Lakers), and his approval of another (to the Clippers).

The Clippers assembled a package that included Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a pick, but Gordon was the prize for New Orleans—and in retrospect, could that dubious honor have befallen anyone else?

"I was growing into a leadership role in L.A.," Gordon says. "I’d been through the rebuild there. Then to come to New Orleans to another rebuild … it was tough."

His father, with whom Gordon has remained close throughout his professional career, says that his son had come to love his situation in L.A. "The trade," he says, "just shocked him."

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It took one game for Hornets fans to experience both the allure and the anguish of Gordon’s career. He debuted by scoring 20 points and nailing the game winner against Phoenix, but in the same game he also suffered a right knee bruise that eventually led to arthroscopic surgery. Unlike most of his other injuries, he couldn’t play through it.

The knee limited Gordon to nine games and complicated his impending restricted free agency. In January he balked at the Hornets’ below-max offer of four years for $50 million. After the season, New Orleans let the market set Gordon’s price, which Phoenix did by offering him a four-year, $58 million max deal. Gordon approached the situation with the same matter-of-factness that Mitchell observed in him as a teenager. "I had a better contract with Phoenix," he says, "and I took it."

New Orleans matched Phoenix’s offer to retain Gordon, who vented about his frustrations with the team through the press. He says he regrets the rare show of emotion, and contends that if New Orleans had offered the max in the first place he would have never considered leaving. Nonetheless, the offseason tension extended into the 2012 season when lingering knee problems kept Gordon out of the first 29 games. Fans started questioning his commitment.

"I think what really ruined things, relationship-wise, was the contract situation," he says. "It was a weird situation. The fans thought I didn’t care … and that definitely wasn’t the case."

Gordon missed 40 games and shot well below his career averages. His decline dovetailed with the rise of another superstar rookie teammate: Anthony Davis. After the season the newly rebranded Pelicans acquired guards Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday to build around their new centerpiece.

The backcourt logjam frustrated Gordon. "You’re trying to find a role for everybody, but what were guy’s real roles? You know, what was my role? I don’t know."

Arthroscopic knee surgery on Gordon’s other knee, which ended his 2013-14 season with 14 games left, seemed to validate the Pelicans’ moves. A third straight losing season, meanwhile, made Gordon and his burdensome contract an easy target for fans.

For his own sake, and the team’s, Gordon needed a course-correction. Fittingly, it came in the form of yet another injury. In a fluky tangle-up with Utah’s Alec Burks, Gordon suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The subsequent 21-game absence may have saved his career. The team struggled, going 10-11, but Gordon "started to get healthy," Vinson says. "And by getting healthy, he got his balance back."

Gordon returned in January a rejuvenated—and wiser—player. "He finessed his game a little bit," Gordon Sr. says.

Despite being a solid 38 percent career three-point shooter, only about of a third of his attempts pre-labrum injury were behind the arc. After his return he bumped that ratio to nearly half, attempting 5.6 a game. His efficiency also spiked, and Gordon ended the year shooting 45 percent from three, second-best in the league. The Pelicans surged with him in the lineup, going 28-21 to close the year and eking into the playoffs. Curry’s Warriors swept them in the first round, but Gordon stayed hot and was the team’s second-leading scorer.

"Eric coming back from his shoulder injury was a big reason we made our postseason run," Davis says. "I think a lot of people thought he was going to be out for the rest of the season. But to his credit, he put off surgery and worked really hard with his rehab to get back on the court."

For himself, Gordon earned something even more valuable: freedom.

Rusty Costanza-USA TODAY Sports

Not since he chose Indiana over Illinois had Gordon had full control over his basketball fate. Yes, his $15.5 million player option would have been tough to reject. But with his injury history, shooting resurgence, and a potentially volatile free agent market, he had reasons to fish for a long-term deal. It wasn’t as if his relationship with New Orleans had always been copacetic.

Two things convinced him to stay, he says: the incumbent talent, and a new coach. Gordon admits being frustrated with his ill-defined role under Monty Williams — who was fired in May — to say nothing of how the coach’s plodding half-court offense may have limited his skill set. Gordon perked up when he saw a familiar name rumored as Williams’s replacement.

"Oh, I was very happy when I heard Gentry was a candidate," Gordon says. "I mean, very happy."

Four years after Gordon nearly joined his run-and-gun Suns, Gentry finally gets his chance to work with the star-crossed guard. A reunion, Gordon believes, that could turn into a revival.

"If I am healthy, I can still go back to the player I was."-Eric Gordon

"If I am healthy," Gordon says, "I can still go back to the player I was."

But who was he, anyway? Squaring a career punctuated by so much pain and complexity is, well, painfully complex. At 26, Gordon is a still-young seven-year vet who nonetheless may have already peaked. He’s a player who has never played a full season and whose willingness to play through pain has often been a double-edged sword.

Vinson says he often talks to others on Gentry’s staff about the explosive, dynamic scorer he saw in Gordon as a rookie in L.A. "I think he can still get back to that," he says.

It could be argued that Gordon has simply endured too much. What he’s demonstrated thus far, though, is that he’s like an ’80s action-movie villain: you just can’t kill him. He keeps fighting even as the sky falls around him. And one needn’t look further than the guys who have influenced Gordon’s wayward path for comeback analogs: Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Steph Curry.

What’s inarguable: Gordon feels healthy and happy—at the same time—for the first time in years. After once nearly putting New Orleans in the rearview, the 2016 free-agent-to-be can’t see leaving.

"I like the guys on this team and I think we can do some good things in the future," he says. "I’m like, why not?"