ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The first time Eric Gordon ever watched Team USA play, he was a middle school student in Indianapolis and the 2002 FIBA World Championship was being held in his hometown.
He went to the cavernous old RCA Dome and couldn't believe what he was seeing unfold before his eyes, as the American team trailed for almost the entire first half against Yao Ming and the Chinese national team before mounting a comeback and then applying a strong finishing kick over the final 14 minutes to win it.
That was back when the U.S. federation was going through its darkest days, enduring three losses and finishing sixth after entering the tournament with an unbeaten record in the 10 years since NBA players were first allowed in international competitions.
"I remember that team, they just weren't together," Gordon said after scoring a team-high 16 points as Team USA opened play in the world championship with a 106-78 victory over Croatia on Saturday night. "I think we're a way different team, a way better team."
Gordon shot 6-for-8 overall and 4-for-6 from behind the 3-point line, two of those 3-pointers coming toward the end of a 24-4 run in the second quarter that broke the game open after Croatia trailed just 22-20 after one period.
The Americans rode his hot hand, but it was a hand that wasn't even expected to be here in Turkey.
Back in July when the U.S. team first assembled in Las Vegas, the odds of Gordon making the team were long.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged as much after Saturday's game, saying Gordon "probably had the hardest road to get selected. But every time he came in, he did something terrific."
Gordon is somewhat of an unknown to all but the most hard-core of NBA fans, having spent two seasons toiling for the Los Angeles Clippers after one year at Indiana University, which he attended after garnering the prestigious Mr. Basketball title following his senior season at North Central High School in Indianapolis.
"I probably don't have as much publicity as other people have," he said.
He was something of a mystery to most of the Team USA coaching staff back when training camp began, but his consistent shooting stroke, his tireless work ethic and his quiet confidence began to endure him to the team hierarchy.
"Until we started practicing and you could see where he could fit in and do different things, I don't know if they were good," assistant coach Jay Triano said of Gordon's odds of making the team. "We had a list of people, and we were thinking maybe he's on the bubble, but we were going to wait and see how people play. Well, he shot the ball extremely well. In fact he shot the ball so well, you couldn't keep him off the roster. And especially with people now thinking this U.S. team can't shoot from the perimeter, he stretches the defense for you and creates space for other guys."
When the team was in New York for training camp early this month, they spent one afternoon at the New York Knicks' training facility in suburban Greenburgh, and Gordon made a particularly strong impression.
"He made like seven in a row, or seven of eight. We lost count after that, he just kept making shots. We were playing on two courts, and we were turning to each other saying 'Are you seeing this?' And everybody started looking over and he kept it going," Triano said.
Gordon accounted for a third of the Americans' 12 3-pointers as they shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. Team USA had a 19-2 edge in fast-break points, shot 66 percent on 2-pointers and held their own on the boards against the taller Croatian team, which had some success in the half court on post-ups but was undone by the Americans' knack for playing their speed game and attacking the basket.
Every player on the roster scored at least four points, and the starters were able to rest for much of the second half -- an important development since the Americans were playing the first of three straight games in three days. Next up is a match against Slovenia, which defeated Tunisia by 24 points earlier Saturday, at 4:30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3.com) Sunday.
Gordon should expect an enhanced role in that game, too, with the Americans expecting to see a steadier diet of zone defenses than what they've faced thus far.
"Eric is probably our best shooter. He really can change the game by the way he shoots, the way he attacks," Derrick Rose said.
That's what Gordon has been doing since minicamp opened in Las Vegas, when he sat down for the inaugural team dinner along with 21 other roster hopefuls and wondered whether this might be the first time in his life that he would be cut from a basketball team.
"When you look at that roster from back then in Vegas, you're looking at a roster full of good guys that can play. What I did was look at it, try to look at the things I could do better than some people -- definitely making shots, and playing defense. And that helped me along the way," Gordon said. "My thing was not to back down and keep on playing my game."
And that game has made Gordon one of the key components of a U.S. team that is striving to make those memories from Indianapolis -- not to mention the memories of what went down four years ago in Japan -- part of a dark, extinct past.