- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Aaron Gordon has a secret. He was not born a basketball player. He's not like most guys who insist they can't remember a day they didn't play, as if the bouncing part of the bouncing baby boy refers to a wee Spalding that joined them on the way out of the womb. In a former life, Gordon was an ice hockey player.
"What? He was?" Arizona coach Sean Miller asks.
Turns out few knew of the secret life of this one-time Archbishop Mitty star.
The truth is, the entire Gordon family, now known for their basketball prowess -- dad, Ed, played at San Diego State, eldest child, Drew at UCLA and New Mexico, middle sister, Elise at Harvard and now Aaron at Arizona -- skated. The sure-to-be cringe-worthy photographic evidence is included here, courtesy of mom, Shelly Davis Gordon, who started the whole thing by picking up a pair of skates on a business trip to Bavaria years ago.
She gave the skates to Drew, who showed an immediate affinity for the sport. Suddenly all of the Gordons were lacing up their skates -- Shelley with her company team, Ed with a club of his own and Drew, the real talent in the family, who would have gone East for school to play if concussions didn't derail his career.
As for Elise and Aaron, they were the kid sister and brother who tagged along to Drew's practices, more content to play slide and giggle than compete.
"You'd skate as fast as you could and then slide on your stomach,'' Aaron said.
But old habits and fun memories die hard even in the Arizona desert. Told there's a rink in Tucson, Aaron's eyes lit up.
"There is?" he said. "Let's do it. I'm in.''
Somewhere Miller's heart just stopped beating. Sure, why not let his stud freshman, a surefire lottery pick, the anchor of his No. 1 and undefeated Arizona team, slide around ice on 3mm blades?
"OK, maybe after the season,'' Aaron conceded, "but I would love to.''
Of course he would, because that's exactly who Aaron is -- a kooky, funky dressing, occasionally off-beat 18-year-old.
He is a basketball player, and a very good one at that, but basketball doesn't define him.
It never has.
"We weren't tracking our kids to be basketball players or anything like that,'' Shelly said. "We let them all find their own way.''
Aaron's way eventually led him away from the ice and onto a basketball court. And in a few months the basketball court will lead him to a new suit, a stage and a baseball cap as an NBA lottery pick. But before all that, Aaron is going to enjoy the ride.
And he is actually enjoying it.
We have gone this season from talking about how great the Fab Freshmen of '14 are and would be, to a bit of necessary self analysis, questioning whether all of this attention is fair to 17 and 18 year old kids. Two of the original four (Joel Embiid and Tyler Ennis came late to the party), Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, have struggled, and after the Most Fabulous Freshman Class Ever Assembled has taken a little time to assemble itself.
Somehow Gordon, named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 on Wednesday, has rolled along relatively unscathed. He's not the Wildcats' leading scorer, and no one is wringing their hands. He's had a few off nights and no one is worrying what ails him.
Mostly, that's because Arizona is No. 1 in the country and 18-0. Sort of hard to pick much apart with that.
Part of it is the way the Wildcats are constructed and the way Gordon plays. He is not a volume shooter. He's not going to take 20 shots (he only averages 9.8 per game) and, frankly, Arizona doesn't need him to. So his numbers won't make your eyes bulge.
"Until you see him play, you don't understand all that he does,'' Miller said.
Arizona has done a decent job of protecting him, too, limiting his media engagements and exposure.
But a bulk of it has to do with Aaron himself. He's remarkably unaffected by all of the attention and hoopla.
"You know, I've had it a while,'' he said. "Once you get to college, it's just a bigger spotlight. The nation sees you instead of just California, but I don't mind it. The year of the freshman thing? I'm a freshman, so if it's our year, I'm OK with that. I love to be challenged.''
Gordon's biggest challenger is the man in the mirror.
His parents didn't push him, not to play basketball, or to play anything really.
The rule was simple: If the Gordon kids wanted to try a sport, they tried it. Consequently the family sporting equipment closets at one time housed ice hockey gear (for everyone), football uniforms (for Aaron) and water polo suits (for Elise).
"My son went to college at the age of 17 because I didn't know people held their kids back for sports purposes,'' Shelly said. "I never heard of that. My kids were just kids.''
Instead Aaron drove himself.
As a kid in the backyard instead of dreaming he was a great player, he dreamed of beating great players. Then, if he messed up his move, he'd do it again and again until he "won." Now he replays games in his mind, harping on his mistakes, envisioning what he could do better. He puts winning above everything, but that doesn't mean he accepts mediocrity from himself.
"As much as I know I can count on my teammates, I still put the pressure on myself to come out and perform,'' he said. "If in some games I don't and my teammates step up, I'm happy for them, extremely happy but I'm disappointed in myself.''
He admits, when asked, that he has played a perfect game but in his mind a perfect game isn't a lot of points.
"It has to include rebounds,'' he said.
Because of his on-court ability and maturity, it's easy to forget that Gordon is just a kid. Then you talk to him and there it is. He's not even going to be 19 until September.
He still talks about road games like summer camp -- "This winter break, it was just traveling, being with my friends, hooping. It was the best" -- and likes to show he's a little quirky by dressing funny.
He loafs around campus in a pair of beat up Converse sneakers that have crossed over the line of vintage and into scruffy. He might partner them with his Broke Billionaire T-shirt, or maybe a sweater straight out of Bill Cosby's 1988 closet.
"That's my Cali swag,'' he said.
It's all helped endear him to his teammates and eased what could have been an awkward transition. Gordon is not the only stud recruit on the Wildcat roster. Nick Johnson, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Gabe York, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were all big pick ups when they signed with Arizona.
Gordon just happened to be the biggest.
"You know a freshman comes in here with all that talk, all that attention and the other guys know it,'' Miller said. "That can be a problem if it's not handled right, but he wants to be a good teammate first. So it's been no problem. You want to be around him because he's a good person, not just because he's a good basketball player.''
The real challenge will likely come next year, when a person who hasn't allowed a sport to define him will be defined by a sport -- job title, basketball player.
Gordon's parents used Drew and Elise's recruiting experiences to help guide them through Aaron's. They were purposefully polite but discreet as he made his choices, thorough in their research to figure out what best suited his needs.
But now the trail stops. The other two each spent four years in college and Aaron will be gone in a year's time.
"Watching them go away as freshmen to the people they were at graduation, they weren't the same people,'' Shelly said.
The family has started to plan, to try to figure out a way to allow Aaron to spread his wings and yet be cocooned by someone he trusts.
Elise graduates Harvard in May and plans to go to law school. The early plan, Shelly said, is that if Aaron is drafted to a city with a good law school, Elise will apply there and live with her baby brother.
"We may plant her with him wherever he goes,'' Shelly said. "She's always going to be a sister first, and she'll keep a thumb on top of him.''
Unless, that is, Aaron can entice her over to an ice rink, maybe even for a game of slide and giggle.