Boy meets world: Aaron Gordon goes to the NBA
Inside McKale Center’s press conference room, the Wildcats’ Aaron Gordon looked out to a jam-packed room stuffed with media members and cameras awaiting his long-anticipated decision.
And with one quick breath, Gordon said his final goodbyes and announced he was off to the professional ranks.
“From the first grade I wanted to compete at the highest level, and that’s what I plan on doing next year and I’m going to go to the NBA,” Gordon said on Tuesday. “I’m really going to flourish. I think my game’s going to expand.”
While Gordon’s Arizona career will likely be remembered for his freshman record-breaking statistics and accolades, how much the 18-year-old grew up over just a few months might get lost.
Arizona freshman forward Aaron Gordon celebrates after executing a reverse dunk during Arizona's 87-59 win against California in McKale Center on Feb. 26. Gordon declared tuesday for the 2014 NBA Draft.
No one on this Wildcats team hated losing more than Gordon. And no one was more up front about it than Gordon.
Immediately following Arizona’s 75-71 loss in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 15, the small locker room seemed to shrink in the silence.
Gordon sat hunched with a towel over his head.
“What are you doing?” Gordon asked as a photographer took his photo.
Looking up, Gordon had watery eyes and rosy red cheeks from the fist that had been holding up his stooped head.
Unsure if Gordon understood, the professional photographer explained he had every right to be in the locker room and to take photographs.
“Cool,” Gordon said sarcastically. “Whatever you got to do to make some money.”
Frustrated, Gordon got up, bumped a teammate out of the way and went to the showers to clean off his sweat and his tears.
But Arizona’s season wasn’t over.
It had just failed to accomplish one of its three season-long goals. A goal that the team set during the summer, a goal it was favored to accomplish and a goal that would have given it even more confidence heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats, then 30-4, were favorites to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“I believe that some of the things we learned in today’s game will better serve us for the biggest prize while we all do this, and that is to hopefully be able to advance next week in the NCAA Tournament,” said Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller after the loss to UCLA.
“For us, it’s about the NCAA Tournament,” Miller added.
Winning the entire NCAA Tournament championship was the big prize. It was almost a big enough reason for Gordon to put millions of dollars and NBA aspirations on hold.
“I can be a pretty emotional guy,” Gordon said, back in the locker room a week after the loss to UCLA. “I hate losing, even more than the next guy. Basketball is so important to me.”
In San Diego, the Wildcats prepared for their first NCAA Tournament game of the year, Gordon’s first ever.
There was no awkward silence, and the tears from sadness were now tears from joy as the team joked and laughed after an hour-long practice.
“I just like having fun,” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said with smile. “When there’s an environment like this, I can’t help but be a goofball.”
The madness of March was alive and well, and would only get more intense as Arizona kept winning.
After its third-round 84-61 demolishing of Gonzaga, Arizona’s locker room seemed to have grown.
Excitement and energy pushed the walls open, yelling and music opened up the cramped hallways and laughter brightened the underground room.
In the locker room, Hollis-Jefferson had been pushed into the corner, fenced in by reporters.
“We’re playing basketball,” Hollis-Jefferson said loudly with wide eyes and an even wider smile. “If you can’t get excited about doing something you love, then you don’t love it enough.”
But the singing and laughing would only last so long, because just as fast as the tournament heated up, it ended. Six days later, the fun and the games were all over.
“It’s like [how] a car crashes, you know,” Miller said following the Wildcats’ 64-63 loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. “It’s just, you’re done.”
There again sitting in the corner, head hunched with his eyes watery and cheeks rosy, was Gordon.
No towel covered his face that time; Gordon appeared to try his hardest to keep the walls from closing in on him.
Enclosed by dozens of reporters and cameras, Gordon raised his head, wiped his nose and collected his thoughts.
“Losing a game is not [a] tragedy,” Gordon said. “There’s real tragedies all over the world. This is just basketball.”
After answering every question, Gordon broke the silence by standing up and giving players hugs.
“I don’t know if you could coach a kid that you love more than him,” Miller said of Gordon. “It’s not about his rebounding or his talent. It’s more about how you love having him on your team, because he’s the ultimate winner, the ultimate teammate.”
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella