ORLANDO, FLORIDA – “My legs just felt heavy tonight,” downcast Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon told MAS following a recent loss to Phoenix.
“I had no lift.”
More than a bit surprising coming from the man who several weeks earlier probably saved the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest from extinction.
Of late, that event had regressed from a rousing success during the Dr. J and Michael Jordan periods to being a ho-hum, seen-it-all-before affair rumored to be on life support.
Until Aaron Gordon came along to knock everyone’s socks off with his scintillating slams.
On one of his dunks, the Orlando mascot, Stuff the Magic Dragon, stood in front of the basket holding a ball atop his head.
Gordon, under a full head of steam, leaped OVER Snuff and in one swooping motion took the ball out of the mascot’s hands, passed it between his legs before slamming it through the basket, which by that time was about eye level to Aaron.
And the Toronto All-Star weekend crowd went absolutely bonkers.
That jam and Aaron’s other slams have got to be Googled or You Tubed to be believed.
Check them out for yourself.
Result: One Dunk Contest saved.
And one hoopdom household name established, even if Gordon finished a controversial second that night.
But more on this later.
Back to Gordon having no legs versus Phoenix.
And the reason.
His lack of liftoff was tied to his current situation in the NBA.
Just prior to his spectacular dunk performance, Aaron had been inserted into Orlando’s starting lineup.
At that time, his legs were still fresh.
In the weeks since, though, Gordon had to deal with, as he put it to MAS, “life as starter in the NBA, 82 games a year.”
Yes, Aaron, a University of Arizona product in just his second pro season, was averaging over 10 points per contest and grabbing a like number of rebounds almost nightly following his promotion.
But he was also still experiencing NBA starter growing pains.
And the ups and downs — literal and figurative — that come with it.
And one of those dips had come that evening in an embarrassing 20-point defeat at home to Phoenix, which had lost 13 straight road contests coming in.
Gordon had turned in a lackluster performance, tallying just eight points while being MIA on the boards much of the game after getting into early foul trouble.
So, what specifically had that defeat taught him? MAS asked.
“I’ve got to take care of my body a little better — stretch more, lift (weights) a little smarter,” Aaron responded.
Gordon also lamented not playing more intelligently that evening, after picking up two quick first-quarter fouls.
“Foul trouble is something that’s difficult to play with,” Gordon offered.
“I’ve got to figure out a way to get around that and not let it affect my mentality and I think tonight that’s what I let it do,” he reasoned “I just didn’t stay in the moment, continue to play.”
Indeed, Aaron seemed to hang out in the corner on offense more than usual and did not attack the basket with his customary verve.
And not only were his outside shots not dropping, he couldn’t take advantage of his rebounding skills to score on putbacks.
A muscular but trim 206-cm power forward, Gordon has outstanding athleticism and versatility.
He can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket, rebound offensively and defensively, play tight D and hit the outside shot if his defender tries to sag inside, away from him.
Many feel Gordon is destined to appear at future All-Star events as a game participant, not a Dunk contest performer.
But it may have taken this year’s slam jam to make people sit up and finally notice him.
He was tied after regulation with Minnesota’s Zach LaVine but lost in overtime, thanks to some dubious scoring from one of the judges, Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq likes to hang “Big” monickers on himself, like The Big Aristotle and The Big Shamrock.
After he assigned a roundly booed 8 (out of 10) to one of Gordon’s OT jams, MAS has a new nickname for O’Neal: The Big Dope.
Gordon acknowledged that the internationally televised dunk affair raised his profile.
“A whole lot more people recognize me now,” he said.
While he appreciates the attention, he doesn’t want to be known only for dunking.
What Gordon seeks instead is recognition for the complete ball player he has shown himself to be over the second half of this season.
In the very next game after his off-night versus Phoenix, Gordon bounced back with a stellar performance against, of all teams, Golden State in Oakland.
Aaron went for 20 points and pulled down 16 rebounds against the best team in the world as Orlando gave the Warriors all they could handle before losing a down-to-the-wire affair.
You had to figure the dunk contest somehow infused Gordon with self-confidence that has fueled his all-around emergence since then, right?
The resultant “Ellen Show” TV appearance, Sports Illustrated profile and such HAD to give him a big boost mentally.
“The recognition factor is nice but it hasn’t really bolstered my belief in myself,” he stated. “I didn’t need that for validation of my abilities.”
Gordon said the Phoenix contest had been “one of those days; I’ve got to learn from it and move on.
“I have to live in the present.”
Which is what the NBA Slam Dunk Contest currently does, thanks to Aaron.
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