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Eric Gordon's quiet efficiency works perfectly for Clippers

BILL PLASCHKE

The third-year guard doesn't provide the excitement that Blake Griffin does, but he gives the team just about everything else.

December 28, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Clippers fans have fallen madly in love with the guy who plays like Hollywood.

Me, I also like the guy who plays like Hoosiers.

Clippers fans stare at the player whose surreal dunks thunder down from the heavens.

Me, I'm also checking out the player whose layups were born against an Indiana garage door.

Clippers fans begin every game focused on Blake Griffin but, like me, I'm guessing they end every game watching Eric Gordon.

"I've kind of been in the shadows a little bit," he said with a grin.

Only on a team with one of the flashiest rookies in NBA history is it possible that the league's ninth-leading scorer could be overlooked, but it's true.

Gordon averages 23.9 points a game but zero expressions. He doesn't smile. He doesn't scowl. He doesn't celebrate. He doesn't complain.

He just takes the pass and pulls off the circus reverse layup in the final 1:01 to help stave off Sacramento on Monday night … in a game in which he also made half a dozen three-point shots. When the Clippers' season desperately needed stabilizing, he steadied it, leading them to five wins in six games while everyone was looking the other way.

"Blake is all about the big highlights, but you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who means more to a team's production than E.J. means to us," said Clippers Coach Vinnie Del Negro.

Everyone calls him, "E.J."' which is short for Eric Jr., because his father's name is also Eric. Some guys would wince at that. Gordon embraces it.

''That's my Dad," he says. "That's cool."

E.J. is cool, not only because of what he is — a 22-year-old Clippers cornerstone — but because of how he got here. He is indeed all Hoosiers, beginning with the basket on the garage on the side of his Indianapolis home where he perfected his trademark drives by bouncing off the door.

His grandfather taught him to penetrate. His father taught him to shoot the jumper. Ask him for contact information on both, and he recites their phone numbers from memory because he talks to them, like, every day.

Said his father Eric: "He'll call me at 1:30 in the morning my time, and I can't tell him I'm sleeping, so I always say I'm just sitting up watching TV, and then I climb out of bed and we talk."

Said his grandfather Earther: "Eric knows there's more important things in life than basketball, like the journey you take with your family."

Growing up in a basketball-rich town, that journey began with E.J. learning to play in a house located across the street from a community center.

"When I saw that house for sale so close to an indoor gym, I had to buy it," said father Eric, a pharmaceutical sales manager. "His mother was like, what? But I sold her."

E.J. would play one-on-one with his grandfather, who is 57 years older but still used elbows and shoves like a kid.

"He only drove on me when I let him," said Earther.

E.J. would shoot long jumpers with his father, a former college basketball player, even after midnight and in the snow.

"You ever try shooting on ice while wearing gloves?" said E.J. "It's great."

After starring for a year at Indiana University, then being drafted by the Clippers with the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, Gordon needed his family again. With the team losing and him not getting many shots, he spent most of his first two years under then-coach Mike Dunleavy feeling the frustration of someone who didn't come to Southern California for the beach — he lives five minutes from the Clippers' facility and spends virtually every day there.

"Nobody thought I was worth that high draft pick, it was tough," he said.

Then last summer he helped the U.S. national team win a world championship, and everything changed.

"It changed my work ethic, brought me out of my shell, made me realize what it takes to win at this level," said Gordon.

It gave him so much confidence, in the first week of this season he actually criticized his teammates for not playing hard. While Del Negro scolded him for airing dirty laundry, everyone soon realized that this was indicative of a guy ready to take control of a team.

So far, he has done that, scoring 20-plus points in 22 of their last 27 games, ranking in the NBA's top 10 in free throws attempted and free throws made. Even his only really lousy game since November has been a teaching moment, in Indiana, where he hit just five of 17 shots in a 27-point loss.

You see, that was the game where 1,000 of his friends and family lined up around Conseco Fieldhouse beforehand to shake his hand and welcome him home.

"There is nothing like basketball in Indiana," Gordon said.

The Clippers' biggest worry about Gordon should be, indeed, that he returns to his beloved Midwest when his contract expires after next season.

Said his father: "Speaking strictly as a dad, I'd rather him play in the Eastern Conference so we could see him more."

Said E.J.: "I can really see the potential out here, and I hope we keep doing things to move us forward, but we'll have to see what it's like when it's time for that decision."

Translated: The Clippers need to show the Hoosier they can win enough to make it worth living in a giant shadow 2,076 miles from home.

Here's hoping they do. The dunks are great, but I love that picket fence.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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