Rattlesnake Gordon attacks when it counts

Updated: April 1, 2005, 12:34 AM ET
By Sam Smith | Special to ESPN.com

Everyone with the Chicago Bulls worried for a while about Ben Gordon, even though they'd never seen anyone shoot like him. Ever. Veteran coaches gasped when Gordon came in for his predraft workout last spring. Former players like Scott Skiles and John Paxson, and even coaches who've been around the game more than 50 years like John Bach, agreed they'd never, ever seen anyone shoot like Gordon did.

So when the 6-1 guard from Connecticut started missing all through the preseason, no one was too worried. Rookie jitters, adjustment to the pros and all that. Gordon shot 24.7 percent and 23.5 percent on threes. No big deal. Just getting accustomed to the league.

Ben Gordon
If Gordon feels rookie jitters, you won't see them on his face.

And then the regular season started and Gordon still couldn't shoot. Nothing-for-six in the opener, a zero-for-three against the Kings. Loss upon loss. He suddenly didn't look 6-2. He looked overwhelmed. He couldn't defend much. They started posting him up coming off the bus. He made poor decisions with the ball. He was no point guard. He must have been color blind, throwing as many balls to the other team as to his. Eight games and eight losses and he still hadn't cracked 30 percent on threes, and he was barely above that overall.

Paxson knew he had someone special, was sure of it. He saw something in Kirk Hinrich the year before that many didn't, the competitiveness, the determination to succeed. He was sure it was in Gordon.

But nothing from Gordon. No thrown chairs or pouts or stomping away.

"I never listen to the criticism," Gordon said. "I learned a long time ago you're only as good as your last game. So I don't let the negative stuff affect me anymore."

He once did. Coming to UConn, he was celebrated in stories regularly lauding his high school accomplishments.

"I used to read the paper every day," recalled Gordon of his days at Mt. Vernon (N.Y.) High School. "There never was anything bad said about me. Every day there's this big picture of me and a story and one day it hits me, 'Why is there only good stuff? That can't always be.' So I stopped reading about myself. I imagine there was some crazy stuff being said about me when I got [to the Bulls]. I just said to myself, 'I'm going to get through it. Just keep on working.' It's not like I can't shoot."

But even Paxson wondered. They all did. Internal discussions produced the name Shawn Respert, the undersized all-American Michigan State guard who was a Milwaukee Bucks lottery pick in the mid-1990s and never made it, though Respert recently said cancer treatments at the time held him back. But what if Gordon couldn't shoot? He was maybe 6-1, not a great defender or ballhandler. What then?

No worries. The rattlesnake has taken a bite out of the NBA.

That's what some around the Bulls call Gordon, a lethal shooter unafraid to take on the biggest game in the NBA. Gordon is laconic and Sphinx-like on the court, so it's difficult to know just what he's thinking. His expression doesn't change whether he's 3-for-15 or hitting a game-winner. His college coach, Jim Calhoun, called him Gentle Ben to chide him into more action.

But make no mistake, Ben Gordon is a competitor.

The 21-year-old is a top candidate for the Rookie of the Year and NBA Sixth Man awards. He's the Bulls' prime fourth-quarter option -- in fact, he leads the league in fourth-quarter double-figure games with 21 -- and he's threatening the all-time rookie record for 3-point shooting percentage, residing among the league leaders in 3-point shooting. And Gordon's been battling about even with Emeka Okafor among the leading rookie scorers (currently 14.9) despite playing a dozen fewer minutes per game.

Thursday night against Cleveland, Gordon led the Bulls with 21 points and eight assists, including a delightful dish to Tyson Chandler that led to a three-point play with less than 3 seconds left in regulation. A LeBron James 3 at the buzzer forced overtime, but Chicago responded with an 11-0 run in the extra session. Gordon's final free throw closed the scoring in a 102-90 victory.

Gordon's spate of heroics have been truly remarkable: Wednesday night, 22 fourth-quarter points on his way to an NBA-rookie season-high 35 to lead the Bulls over the Bobcats and Okafor, his principal competition for Rookie of the Year. Before that, 16 fourth-quarter points to beat Minnesota, 11 in the fourth quarter to win at Memphis, 10 in the fourth quarter to win at Detroit, 10 in the fourth quarter and 27 overall for a second straight win over the defending champions, 19 in the fourth quarter and a game-winner at the buzzer to beat the 76ers, and then, in the next game, 14 in the fourth for a win over the Knicks. Two days later, a repeat win over the Knicks with 17 in the fourth quarter and another game-winner at the buzzer. Then 10 in the fourth quarter to beat Denver, 11 in the fourth quarter to beat the Kings, 11 in the fourth quarter and 29 overall for a win over Miami, 15 in the fourth quarter that took the Spurs down to the last seconds and then 14 in the fourth quarter to win in Seattle. Yes, these were no cheesepuffs.

And all for a team with a chance to double its victory total from last season with one of the top records in the Eastern Conference this season.

Through it all, Gordon remains unaffected and sober.

He usually goes home from practice to the house he purchased in Chicago's north suburbs to buy home decorating items online. He is finishing the home himself. That's usually after calls to his accountant to find out how his investments are doing. Gordon says he's intent on operating his own business after his basketball career is over and needs to understand not only that his money is secure but that he has a part in managing it.

No, not your typical NBA star.

Well, Gordon isn't actually a star yet. Not even a starter.

For coach Scott Skiles, defense comes first. Toughness is back in vogue in NBA coaching, at least in some places. In Chicago, it's why center Eddy Curry, despite being the team's best low-post player, sits so many fourth quarters. Gordon doesn't defend quite as well as Chris Duhon, so he doesn't start. It doesn't hurt that Gordon's first run is usually against a second-tier shooting guard. But he's there in the fourth quarter, no matter how he defends. He is the team's best pressure-scoring option.

Imagine when he turns 22 next week.

Gordon is a rare player, what the pro scouts call an attacker. He challenges the defense absolutely without fear of consequences.

He has an uncanny ability, especially for his height, to shoot with a hand in his face. Most players need some distance from the defender to shoot. Gordon doesn't and has an exceptionally quick release. He has the quickness to get into the lane for a runner and the ability to loft a shot over almost any defender. Plus, he has the ultimate in confidence, seemingly never disturbed by poor games or missing shots.

It's the best characteristic for a great shooter. One always hears coaches and executives say shooters just keep shooting. There are only a rare few who will do that.

Although there is no true comparison to fellow UConn collegiate champion Richard Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons because Hamilton is much taller and not quite the long-distance shooter Gordon is, they are similar in that when Hamilton came into the NBA, he was a reluctant defender who needed to become tougher to exploit his entire game. It's much the same with Gordon. He has the strength to become a better defender and earn more minutes and a starting job.

My coach used to say it looks like I'm coasting. But the guy playing against me knows I'm not.
Ben Gordon
Now it's not an issue, though Gordon certainly expects to be a starter next season.

He was recently asked about being the sixth man and said all the politically correct things about doing what's best for the team and not disturbing the chemistry. Walking away, someone congratulated him on avoiding the media trap. Gordon smiled. "I learned that a long time ago," he said with a knowing nod.

He's ready for big things, and with the Bulls almost certain to make the playoffs and even gain a high seed, it could be quite the coming out for Gordon, as it was for Dwyane Wade in last season's playoffs.

And for guys like Deron Williams from the University of Illinois, the NCAA Tournament does make a big difference to NBA executives. Miami's Pat Riley said he was sold on Wade after his NCAA performance with Marquette, and Paxson said Gordon, regarded as only a possible lottery pick until then, sold the Bulls when he had 29, 29 and 23 in the Big East tournament when Okafor was out with an injury. Then there were 36 points in a regional final and Paxson knew he had his perimeter offensive weapon.

The Bulls are uncertain whether Gordon can be a point guard, and probably don't need him to be with Hinrich. Hinrich now often plays shooting guard, with Chris Duhon at point guard, but eventually the plan is to play Hinrich and Gordon together in the backcourt -- though Gordon seems ideal for the sixth-man role. In fact, he really is a better candidate for Sixth Man of the Year than for Rookie of the Year, since he averages only about 24 minutes per game.

That is why Gordon expects more.

"I'd say under the circumstances I'd give myself a B-minus this season," Gordon said. "Probably most people in my position coming in as the third pick are like, 'I'm supposed to be starting automatically.' Guys in past years who were the third pick were playing 40 minutes. I think that would take a toll on most players. But I just see the opportunity now to come off the bench and be a spark, keep us in the game. My defense can be a lot better and I can take care of the ball better and get my teammates involved more. Which is why I give myself a B-minus. But I've handled everything well."

Gordon seems always to have done that.

He was born in London, England, and is of Jamaican descent. He moved with his mom and sister to Mt. Vernon when he was a baby. His father still lives in England, but they don't have a relationship.

He really wasn't sure whether there'd be one with the NBA either.

"I knew I'd be leaving after my junior year," he said. "I felt every game was an audition for the NBA and there were scouts at every practice with Emeka. By the middle of the season, I was in a slump and I'm hearing they're saying all kinds of negative stuff, that, 'He can't do this, he can't do that,' that they're not sure if this Ben Gordon kid is any good.

"I remember my coach brings me in," Gordon said, "and he's saying 'Ben, I just want you to know you're not looking so good. The scouts are saying this and that.' I probably was better off not knowing that stuff. It messed with me a little bit. And now we're going into the Big East tournament and Emeka is out hurt and all the pressure is on me. So I said, 'Forget it. I'm going out regardless of whether I get drafted or don't get drafted. I just went out to play my best basketball.' And we won the championship. I took that lesson with me to the NBA.

"My coach used to say it looks like I'm coasting," Gordon said. "But the guy playing against me knows I'm not. You may think I'm quiet, but around my friends I'm upbeat, funny, happy. I know basketball has opened so many doors for me. I'm never going to take this for granted."

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.