Eat, Play, Dunk

July 22, 2013
July 22, 2013

Table of Contents
July 22, 2013


Eat, Play, Dunk

Hoops-obsessed Aaron Gordon, a 6'8" freshman-to-be at Arizona, is about to unleash his rim-rattling jams on the nation—at least for one year


This is an article from the July 22, 2013 issue


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."

Gordon tinkers on the piano, raps, skateboards and dabbles in golf, but basketball always comes first. When he was eight, he qualified to compete in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the Junior Olympics, in Eugene, Ore. But he would have missed a hoops tournament—"A local, no-big-deal tournament," Shelly clarifies—so he skipped the meet. As a freshman at Mitty, he left a volleyball tryout after 30 minutes because he worried that hitting would throw off his timing when he went up for alley-oops. The summer community-service program in South Africa that his siblings hailed as a life-changing experience? Aaron wouldn't go. Ditto for the senior class trip to Hawaii. Injuries and illness couldn't keep him off the court, either. He averaged 27.0 points during a tournament his junior year before finding out he had been playing with mononucleosis. "I don't like to be away from the gym," he says. "I'd sleep in the gym if I could."

While Gordon played and defended all five positions in high school, it's his combination of size, versatility, smarts and nonstop motor that makes him so rare. "Let's put it this way," says Arizona coach Sean Miller, "the guy who can guard a perimeter shooter and the guy who can get 20 rebounds a game are usually not the same guy." Coaches passing through the Mitty gym would tell Kennedy how lucky he was to have a star who kept his composure, looked you in the eye and was so responsible and thoughtful. When the Wildcats coaches showed up at the Gordon house for dinner, Aaron set and bused the table and filled their water glasses. "That was a first for me," says Pasternack. "Usually top recruits expect us to serve them water."

Gordon comes by his humility naturally. Growing up, he was regularly schooled by two future D-I athletes. On a balmy evening in late May, Elise, a 6'1" senior center at Harvard, sits at a table under the pepper tree, trading affectionate barbs with her brothers and parents. It's a rare night of family togetherness: Drew, the 23-year-old former New Mexico star, is home in between a season spent playing in Serbia and Italy and NBA summer leagues; Aaron is between graduation and tryouts for the U-19 team. Both brothers are howling with laughter after learning that Elise was the largest of them at birth because Shelly was so plagued with morning sickness she only wanted to eat pancakes. "Thanks, Mom," says Elise. "You really set me up for success there."

Shelly, a 5'11" senior manager at a semiconductor company, says that while all three kids inherited her sarcastic sense of humor, their athletic gifts come from Ed, a middle school math and phys ed teacher whose maternal grandfather was an Osage Indian who was seven feet tall. The couple met in 1980 at San Diego State, where Ed was a 6'6" forward playing alongside Tony Gwynn and Michael Cage. Ed was such an athletic freak that the Patriots talked him into a tryout after his senior season even though he had never played football. (He made the team as a tight end but said no thanks, returning west to play in the San Diego Clippers' summer league before spending a year as a pro in Mexico.)

In the bubble of the family backyard Aaron was the runt. Pairing up with Drew against Ed and Elise for backyard games, he played point guard, modeling himself after Magic Johnson. (He wears number 32 in homage.) Even though he grew to be the second-tallest member of the family (Drew has an inch on him), Aaron still prides himself on his ability to handle the ball on the break and find open teammates. "I always wanted to be a point guard," he says. "Still do, with all my heart."

He also wanted to do all the things that Drew could do: defend, rebound, dunk and win a game of one-on-one on the backyard court. Aaron couldn't beat Elise until he was 12. It took him three more years to best Drew. "We're pretty even now, but he used to absolutely destroy me, five out of five games," says Aaron. "He never went easy on me, and I appreciate that now."

Not all the lessons Aaron learned from Drew came on the court. A four-star recruit at Mitty, Drew committed to play for UCLA in May 2007 but averaged just 3.6 points in 10.9 minutes during his freshman year. He clashed with coach Ben Howland over his role and transferred to New Mexico early in his sophomore season. In two years in Albuquerque he averaged a double double, climbing to eighth on the school's career rebounding list (661) while leading the Lobos to a Mountain West title. Yet despite projections that he'd be a second-round pick in the 2012 NBA draft, no team chose him.

Aaron paid close attention to all of it: the promises by recruiters, Drew's misery in Westwood, his blossoming at New Mexico and his heartbreak at the end of the draft—which was painfully clear to the scores of friends and family gathered at a San Jose restaurant. When his turn to be courted came, Aaron took nothing for granted. He quickly narrowed his list to Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Oregon and Washington, then scrutinized each one. Which coaches seemed genuine, and which were blowing smoke? Watching games, Aaron looked to see if coaches ran the stuff they said they ran. He studied body language. How did the players interact with one another? How did they respond to missed shots? "I hate—well, hate is a strong word—I cannot play with people who don't have good body language, who get down on themselves, who aren't competitive, who don't have heart," Gordon says. "I can't stand people who accept losing."

On April 2, the day before he would lead all players with 24 points and eight rebounds in the McDonald's All-American game, Gordon chose Arizona, which was about to lose two top scorers to graduation and would see a third, freshman power forward Grant Jerrett, declare for the draft later in the month. Miller had sold him hard on the program's record of improving shooting strokes, the weakest facet of Gordon's game. (For the U-19 team, he hit only 52.9% of his free throws.) Gordon also liked the school's entrepreneur program, the team's up-tempo style, the chances of winning a national title and his prospective role, which he and Miller agree will include a lot of time at small forward, alongside sophomore bigs Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley.

It's hard to imagine Gordon won't thrive wherever he is. The others ranked in the class of 2013's top five by—Andrew Wiggins of Canada and U.S. players Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Andrew Harrison—all skipped tryouts for the U-19s. Gordon was thrilled at the opportunity. "Eat, sleep, play basketball twice a day," he says one evening in mid-June, just hours before his dawn flight to Colorado Springs. "I can't imagine anything better."

As he talks, he is sitting in the cramped Mitty basketball office. The door is open, and the court, where the varsity is scrimmaging, is three feet away. The squeak of sneakers and the snap of bouncing balls is almost deafening. Gordon's knees bounce anxiously. When this interview is over, he has sprints to run, weights to lift, shots to get up, improvements to make. He can't wait.

"I cannot play with people who don't have heart," says Gordon.


For ongoing coverage of the 2014 NBA draft, which will be loaded with talent, as well as photos and videos of the potential top picks, go to and follow @ChrisMannixSI on Twitter.

PHOTOROBIN ALAM/ICON SMIWITHOUT LIMITS The MVP of the 2013 McDonald's All-American game has earned praise from coaches not just for his hops but also for his rebounding skills and his ability to play—and guard—all five positions.PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE GORDON FAMILY (GORDON CHILDREN)NO BABYING Aaron (with pacifier) would have to earn every point against Elise and Drew on their backyard hoop.PHOTOCHRISTIAN DE MASSIS/FIBAGOLDEN OPPORTUNITY Unlike other top recruits, Gordon (sixth from right) was thrilled to test his skills in the U-19 tryouts before achieving glory in Prague.