PHILADELPHIA -- As Aaron Gordon and his friend got into the backseat of a black town car outside the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia two weeks ago, a group of autograph-seekers bolted down Broad Street.
These days, Gordon's signature is in higher demand than it used to be, and he graciously signed all of the fans' items before closing the car door and departing for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.
Make no mistake: Gordon wanted to finish first in the 2016 NBA Slam Dunk Contest and take home the trophy. In his mind, he had executed all his dunks to perfection -- including his jaw-dropping "Take a Chair in the Air" dunk over Orlando Magic mascot Stuff that still has America buzzing.
But all the praise and adulation he's received since finishing as the runner-up (and we use the term loosely) to two-time defending champion Zach LaVine in overtime hasn't been a bad consolation prize.
The day after Gordon put on an aerial display that arguably rivaled some of the all-time greats, the 20-year-old's agent, Calvin Andrews, told him, "Sometimes when you lose, you win."
Since then, the Magic's starting power forward has earned a Twitter shoutout from Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, has gained nearly 170,000 followers on Instagram and has begun talks about endorsement opportunities with a number of companies.
Media requests have also begun to pile up. This week, while in Los Angeles during the Magic's West Coast road trip, Gordon will appear on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and ESPN's The Jump with Rachel Nichols.
"I'm extremely grateful for every single thing that comes my way," Gordon told ESPN.com. "One hundred interviews, 200 interviews, I don't care. It's all good. You roll with it. I'm excited to show the world who I am."
Gordon's life has certainly changed recently, even though the down-to-earth, second-year pro who plays the piano during his downtime remains focused on "staying present, staying humble and staying grateful." He had dozens of family and friends in attendance at Monday night's Magic-Warriors game in Oakland, which happens to be a half-hour drive from his native San Jose, California.
"It's crazy, because now everyone is like, 'Oh my god, here is this crazy dunker ...' And for me, maybe the outside perception shifts, but I've known I could do all that for a long time now," Gordon said.
Gordon's mother, Shelly Davis, jokes that her youngest son was so ball-obsessed growing up that she thought he was part golden retriever. One day when Shelly was stopped at a traffic light at a busy intersection, a young Aaron opened the car door and chased after a tennis ball he'd spotted in a nearby gutter. Fortunately, no one got hurt.
Height, explosion and athletic prowess run in the Gordon genes. In fact, Aaron's paternal great-grandfather was purported to be a 7-foot Native American from the Osage tribe in Oklahoma. Aaron's father, Ed Gordon, stood 6-foot-6 and played basketball at San Diego State before earning a tryout with the New England Patriots based solely on his athleticism; Shelly recalls Ed being able to do a standing backflip on the sidewalk.
Aaron's older siblings, 6-foot-9 Drew and 6-1 Elise, played college basketball at New Mexico and Harvard, respectively. Drew, who is continuing his career overseas in France, appeared in nine games for the Philadelphia 76ers last season.
Aaron, now 6-9, hoped to follow in their footsteps, but that journey got off to a rough start.
It started with a third-grade assignment, in which he wrote that his dream was to play in the NBA. But only a year later, Aaron suffered a torn ACL after being undercut in a youth-league game. That same week, his mother said, Aaron suffered a major concussion after hitting his head on the railing of the bleachers while he was watching his team play. He needed the better part of a year to rehab his ACL. He was just 11.
But things got better.
He did the same plyometrics Drew did, doing jumping exercises while wearing a weighted vest. He was also involved in multiple sports -- he played basketball, football and hockey and competed in the high jump. By middle school, Aaron stood 6 feet tall. And the one thing he could always do was jump.
The first time Aaron dunked in a game was in seventh grade -- a rim-grazer, but a dunk nonetheless.
Drew, a talented dunker in his own right, was tough on his younger brother, often blocking Aaron's shots and ultimately making him a better player. Like Drew, Aaron starred at Archbishop Mitty High School, and his exploits above the rim soon became well known.
Gordon scored 24 points -- 12 of them via dunks -- in the 2013 McDonald's All-American game en route to securing MVP honors. He also participated in the dunk contest, although he did not win. Gordon went on to play a year at Arizona before being selected No. 4 overall by the Magic in the 2014 NBA draft.
His next chance at the dunk contest would have to wait a few years.
"Hell yeah!" Gordon screamed inside the Magic's quiet practice facility. "Let's go!"
It was Feb. 9, his final practice before rehearsal in Toronto three days later, and, for the first time in 12 attempts, Gordon had finally successfully completed his most difficult dunk: jumping over Magic mascot Stuff while grabbing the ball off Stuff's head, putting it underneath both of his legs and finishing with his off hand (his left).
"I think it was just easier for me to angle my body, so I had to bite the bullet on that one [using my left]," Gordon said. "I don't ever dunk with my left hand. It took a while [to get it down]. That was the first time I'd ever tried something like that. I have videos on my phone of me getting closer, getting closer, getting closer, and then, boom, I nailed it. I was just super-hyped."
"The hardest part about that dunk is you have to commit. You get up so high, and then you're super off-balance and your legs aren't under you anymore and you're not used to that feeling."Aaron Gordon
In order to dethrone LaVine, Gordon was going to have to get creative. Hoverboards proved to be a trendy gimmick that could provide an edge. Gordon accepted his invitation from the NBA without hesitation in mid-January, but didn't begin seriously practicing until three weeks before the contest. Perfectly understandable, given the rigors of the 82-game regular season.
Gordon practiced three times following back-to-back sets, when the team had days off. His routine was built by combining ideas from his agent, family, friends and fellow high-fliers. Gordon did his dunks over a 6-1 team manager before bringing in Stuff in early February. At first, they went through everything without the mascot costume. Then, they brought in the hoverboard. It was a gradual process.
After nailing his "Take a Chair in the Air" dunk twice more in rehearsals, Gordon was extremely confident about his chances and ready to take flight in Toronto.
"The hardest part about that dunk is you have to commit," Gordon said. "You get up so high, and then you're super off-balance and your legs aren't under you anymore and you're not used to that feeling."
Growing up, Gordon always wore hand-me-downs from his older brother. But ever since he's been in the NBA, Gordon has developed a unique fashion sense.
So for his opening statement at the dunk contest, he wanted style and flair. Gordon and his sister decided he should walk into the arena wearing a breakaway suit, which they had custom-made. He came out to "Classic Man" by Jidenna, then ripped off the suit and went to work.
He admitted, though, that he received mixed reviews on the entrance.
Taking center stage, Gordon was in his element, all eyes fixed on him.
"It's the best feeling in the world," Gordon said. "I was way more relaxed than I was in the McDonald's contest."
He received a 45 for his first dunk -- an East Bay 360 in which he went between his legs as he was rotating (also his final dunk in McDonald's). He missed his first attempt at his second dunk -- a between-the-legs attempt over Stuff while the mascot was on a hoverboard -- but made his second, resulting in a score of 49. Shaquille O'Neal was the only judge to give the dunk a 9, which earned brother Drew's ire on Twitter.
Gordon advanced to the finals against LaVine -- who scored a 50 and a 49 on his dunks in the first two rounds -- and turned things up a notch, securing back-to-back perfect scores. Gordon's 360 Scoop in which he took the ball from Stuff after the mascot did a few revolutions on the hoverboard was impressive, but nothing could compare to what came next.
"The only other dunk that comes to mind is [my favorite dunker] Vince Carter's reserve 360 windmill in 2000," Gordon said. "That's the only other one that comes to mind."
Gordon then performed an under-the-legs, left-handed dunk while vaulting 7 feet, 7 inches over Stuff -- or high enough to win the bronze medal in the high jump at the 2012 Olympics, according to ESPN's "Sports Science."
Bedlam ensued. Social media blew up. Memes were created. One featuring milk and cookies became Gordon's mother's favorite.
"Let's go home! Let's go home!" TNT analyst Kenny Smith yelled.
"He should've gotten like a 70 or something -- 100, maybe," Elfrid Payton said.
"I had what felt like an out-of-body experience," Gordon said. "I don't know what I was thinking or feeling. I thought I had it wrapped up."
So did everyone else. Only he didn't. LaVine matched him 50 for 50, taking off and finishing a windmill dunk from the free throw line.
Gordon had only prepared four dunks, so overtime proved to be a struggle. LaVine put two more perfect scores together to win the title.
Many believed Gordon should've won or there should've been a tie. Still, Gordon was gracious in defeat.
"It's a judgment," Gordon said. "In my opinion, I did extremely well and did exactly what I needed to do. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity. It was awesome. There was nothing to be disappointed about. It would've been cool to have the trophy, but Zach is a freak, and the majority of his dunks were 50s. It's not too bad to lose to that guy."
A Gordon vs. LaVine Part II is a year away, so Gordon is back to playing basketball now. And he is improving his game by, well, leaps and bounds.
His in-game dunks continue to wow people. In Philly, he did finish a left-handed alley-oop. The next night in Orlando, he took off from near the free-throw line before finishing with his right.
Still, if he's going to become a complete player, Gordon is going to have to develop a jump shot. Michael Jordan himself reminded Gordon as much during All-Star Weekend. He's currently making just 31.6 percent of his jumpers, according to basketball-reference.com.
"I love the challenge," said Gordon, who has been working with shooting coach Dave Love. "This is what I love to do, and the more comfortable I get with shooting the ball, the better I'm going to be as a player. I've taken way too many shots in practice to count."
"He's a work in progress, but he's a hard worker," Orlando coach Scott Skiles said. "He's working on his shot all the time. He's got to find ways to use his athleticism -- sometimes he's kind of caught in between. He'll get a pass and you'll wonder, 'Why doesn't he just go up and dunk the ball?'"
"All I can do is be myself, play my game and try to develop it," Gordon said. "My expectations for myself are very, very high."
He certainly has plenty of time to come up with a plan for the 2017 dunk contest.