Originally published in SLAM 162

by Adam Figman / @afigman

Eric Gordon’s fate was supposed to be sealed: He was going to fail.

So were all the other members of the ’07-08 Indiana Hoosiers, of course. That’s how pre-season conditioning is designed. Players report to camp, split into a few groups—big men, wings, guards, etc.—and are given stopwatch times they’re expected to reach during six weeks of training sessions. But the goals are completely unrealistic; they’re inflated so the guys fall short, learning in the process that they aren’t invincible, that they have a ways to go before they’re competent enough to take on some of the toughest NCAA competition in the country.

One problem: In ’07, the demeaning strategy, not Gordon, was the failure. The then-freshman attained every single goal set for him.

“I never had a guy not miss a time,” IU’s strength and conditioning coach Jeff Watkinson says. “That’s just unheard of.”

Watkinson would go on to learn plenty more about Gordon’s commitment to success, both at Indiana and years later, when the combo guard hired the coach as his full-time trainer. The two re-connected during the summer of 2010 when EJ—Gordon’s nickname, short for Eric Jr—was training for the World Championships, and ever since they’ve been scheming to help the young pro make the jump that most believe he’s destined to make, the one from potential-filled upstart to NBA All-Star. “I bring him along everywhere I go,” Gordon says. “He’s good for me because he pays attention to every detail.”

For the two, the summer of ’12 existed for the purpose of fine-tuning those details. After a controversial, basketball-reasoned move brought the now 23-year-old to the Hornets last summer, the ’11-12 season turned out to be bleak; not only did New Orleans struggle to string together many victories, but EJ struggled to stay on the court, missing the heavy majority of the season with cartilage damage in his right knee.

He began this year’s hottest months with Team USA, competing for placement on the squad that would eventually take Gold in London. But despite some USA Basketball history—as mentioned, Gordon was a member of the Gold-winning group at the 2010 FIBA World Championships in Turkey—the spot he was fighting for went to James Harden, a guard with a similarly consistent J and similarly sneaky athleticism, albeit someone who didn’t have comparable international experience. Gordon says he was frustrated, but didn’t dwell on USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo’s decision. “Of course I was really disappointed,” he admits. “I’ve been on a USA team before so I know what it’s like and I also know what it’s like to win a Gold medal, and you always look for yourself to be on that team again. It was disappointing but at the same time you gotta overcome that and look for the best.”

From there, Gordon and Watkinson went to work on what they could control. During the injury-plagued ’11-12 season, EJ’s weight sprang into the 220s, and he’s made it a priority to get back down to the 213, 215 area. “That eight pounds makes a big difference,” Watkinson says. “He’s embraced the diet aspect. He’s never been a junk food eater, but he’s avoiding bread, heavy starches. Some of the foods that bloat him and make him feel sluggish, he’s just kinda got those out, and his body has responded really well to it.”

Watkinson also has Gordon training in ways you probably wouldn’t expect. In May, Gordon tweeted video of himself running through sand, completing the kind of training a soldier might undergo while a drill sergeant chews his ear out. “We do more movement-oriented stuff: medicine balls, cable machines, resistance bands,” Watkinson says. “Not always lifting, not always running, not always sports stuff. It’s a hybrid approach, little of everything. Sometimes combine things. Interval stuff out on the football field to avoid always running on the hardwood floors—sprint intervals, things like that.”

And then there’s the on-court prep: “We try to give him more things to add to his arsenal,” Watkinson says. “We do a lot of stuff with separation, because it’s such a big part of his game where he’s efficient separating from a defender. He’s 6-3, getting guarded by a lot of guys that are 6-6, 6-7, so he’s gotta create that space, whether it’s a pivot, a wheel move, a step-back, a pull-back—he’s got different things he can do to create separation.”

By the time he linked with Watkinson in Bloomington, IN, and years before his NBA career kicked off, Gordon already had an impressive little hoops résumé under his belt. The Naptown native was taught the game by his father, Eric Sr, who played three years at Liberty University. When EJ was a small child, his pops moved the family from inner-city Indianapolis to Washington Township on the north side, making sure to find a residence very close to the Jewish Community Center, where EJ and his brothers could learn the game of basketball. EJ was playing in a youth basketball league by 3, and by 5 he was playing in a league with 8-year-olds at Indy’s Municipal Gardens.

“He was always a decent shooter, and growing up he played point guard,” Eric Sr says. “I coached, and he was on the court all the time, so I didn’t want parents saying, ‘Your child is jacking up the shots!’ I made sure he played point guard, and he passed and distributed the ball and played full court man-to-man defense.”

“He was tough on me every day,” EJ says. “He stayed on me. It’s tough when you’re a kid because he expects the best out of you and it’s hard to learn that as a kid when he’s on you all the time. Most kids would break down and be done at that point, probably. But what I did was decide to get better and better.”

As the youngster moved to other coaches beyond his father, he switched over to the wing, where he developed a steady jumpshot that’d soon become his forte. To this day, he uses the same exact shooting form he established for himself as a grade schooler.

Gordon played high school ball at North Central High, making a name for himself as a Naptown-area standout while hooping on famed AAU squads over the summers with the likes of Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr, Derrick Rose and Josh McRoberts. During the school year, though, some of those guys provided the competition. In ’06 McRoberts’ Carmel High was beating up on EJ’s team as the game was headed into the final period. “I looked at him and said, You’re supposed to be the best player in the state of Indiana. Start playing like it,” says Doug Mitchell, EJ’s high school coach. “He looked at me and kinda smiled, and had 21 points in the fourth quarter. I thought, This guy’s got it.”

Though his college career is now more known for controversy than anything else—EJ literally received death threats for backing out of his commitment to the University of Illinois and heading to IU to play for Kelvin Sampson—he put up a solid season (669 points in total, one Big Ten Freshman of the Year award) in Bloomington before declaring for the ’08 Draft.

The L.A. Clippers then drafted the soft-spoken shooter seventh, and though he displayed flashes of greatness during a three-year stint in the City of Angels, averaging 16.1 ppg his rookie year and 22.3 in his third, Gordon was shipped out of town in the deal that founded the roots of the Chris Paul-helmed Lob City. NOLA finished the year 21-45, the silver lining coming in the form of a ping-pong ball that granted the franchise a lanky big man out of the University of Kentucky.

And then there was that little contract fiasco. This past July, the Phoenix Suns offered Gordon—a restricted free agent—$58 million over four years, a max deal. It was undeniably a risk; if he deserves a max contract, it’s because he’s going to be a max player, not because he is one. The ball then bounced into New Orleans’ proverbial court. “[If the Hornets match] as of right now, I’d be disappointed,” Gordon told the Times-Picayune during the three-day waiting period before New Orleans would have to match or let him move west.

No breaking news here: The Hornets matched. While there certainly weren’t any hurt feelings—life could be worse, you know, than earning $14.5 million a year to play ball—EJ was more concerned about the perspective of the fans, many of whom watched the situation unfold and wondered why this guy seemed to want out so badly.

“It’s all a business game,” he says. “I would say it’s hard for them to really understand the whole outcome of the situation. They don’t know the rules, like how contracts are formed. But hey, that’s the only thing I was worried about, was the fan reactions and how negative stuff was forming. All I wanted to do was get the best feel for myself and to look forward for the best in wherever I’d end up at.

“I look forward to just being back there,” he says, “and not having to worry about anything and just playing.”

But Gordon, a proud adidas endorser who’ll rock the Crazy Shadow this season, will now be counted on to do more than drain three-pointers and posterize big men. Unlike in L.A., where he was a mere youngster amidst a random smattering of talent, and his first mess of a year in the Big Easy, EJ is now the highest paid, best player on the roster his name sits on, and the player who will be looked upon to be its guide. With rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers in tow, there’s little doubt the Bees can sneak up on some people and maybe fight for a 7- or 8-seed in the crowded West, but it won’t take place without some decent leadership.

“I think I’m going to be more vocal each year,” he says. “I learn more every year and you always learn something new. I would say the number one way to lead is by example. At this point I think I know what is best for some of these young guys. It’s about staying in the gym and working on something every day. It’s all about getting better.”

And not only is EJ the unquestioned leader of the Hornets, he’s also the unquestioned leader of the Gordon sons; his little brother Evan will play at Arizona State University in ’13-14 after he serves an NCAA-mandated year on the sidelines for transferring from Liberty, while the youngest, Eron, a ninth grader at North Central, has already been offered a scholarship to Indiana. “[Eron is] probably about where Eric was at this same time—Eric did a few things better than he does, and he does a few things better than Eric did at this very same age,” Eric Sr says.

If Eron’s fate is anything like his eldest bro’s, he’ll be just fine.