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What if … Eric Gordon went to Illinois after all?
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 1/14/2008 3:29 PM

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Twenty-six months after Eric Gordon pledged himself to Bruce Weber, they'll finally be in the same college basketball arena today.

Thanks to CBS' cameras and Billy Packer's voice, most of the nation will get to experience the whole Gordon-Weber-Kelvin Sampson saga that Illinois and Indiana fans have lived since Gordon switched his commitment in October 2006.

Given the abundance of coverage locally, it hardly seems necessary to rehash everything that happened.

But just in case you've been living in Iraq or under a rock, here are the Chief's Notes version of the Illinois-Indiana imbroglio:

• On Nov. 27, 2005, at the outset of his junior year at North Central High School in Indianapolis, Gordon called Weber and rewarded his staff's long-term recruiting effort with a commitment to Illinois.

• After numerous public and private promises to live up to his word, the nation's No. 2 recruit called Weber on the eve of Midnight Madness and informed him he was switching to Indiana.

• Illinois fans claimed that Gordon's father, Eric Sr., orchestrated the fishy switch along with Sampson. Gordon Sr. claimed Illini fans sent death threats their way after his son changed his mind.

• Illinois' assistant coaches, certain that Indiana's coaching staff acted unethically in luring Gordon away, refused to shake hands with Indiana's staff after all three of their games last season.

There's more nuance to this story, of course, but you get the idea.

This rambling preamble leads us to today's game between the struggling Illini and 10th-ranked Hoosiers.

Since even most Illini fans expect Gordon and his Big Ten-best 23.5 scoring average to lead the Indiana to a convincing victory, we're not going focus on what might unfold.

Instead, we're going to reveal exactly what would have happened if a.) Gordon followed through and came to Illinois, and b.) Gordon never showed serious interest in Illinois.

And by exactly, we mean exactly what escaped from one brain and found refuge in 10 fingers stuck to a keyboard.

E.J. loves his Champaign

The scene: March 29, 2006. Eric "E.J." Gordon Jr., chills in his Indianapolis home, playing video games and wearing his prized "Bruce Weber Is My Homeboy" T-shirt. Suddenly, news arrives that Indiana has hired Kelvin Sampson to replace Mike Davis as coach.

Gordon takes a little time to allow Sampson's hiring to wash over him.

"Hmm," Gordon thinks. "Sampson has a reputation of helping players get to the NBA.

"There's, uh, Eduardo Najera and, uh, did he coach Wayman Tisdale in the early 1980s when my dad was playing college ball at Liberty? No, guess not.

"I'm sticking with Illinois and my homeboy Bruce."

But since Sampson promises at his introductory conference to try to keep Indiana players in Indiana, he follows through and speaks briefly with Gordon. E.J. politely rejects his overtures.

So Sampson hires Eric Gordon Sr.'s college coach to be his assistant. Junior doesn't budge.

So Sampson hires someone Gordon has known since middle school to be Indiana's video coordinator. E.J. sends a congratulatory text message but no sign of interest.

This forces Sampson to go nuclear. He hires Eric Gordon Sr. to be his co-coach.

Senior's first recruiting move? He rushes out and buys four cell phones for his son so everyone on the Hoosiers' staff can call him simultaneously.

When the assault begins, E.J. sits on his bed next to his phones and allows the automatic answering service to pick up the calls:

"Please listen to the entire menu because some options have changed.

"If you're violating NCAA probation by making this call, please press 1 now.

"If you'd like to hear Illinois' fight song, please press 2 now.

"If you'd like to leave a message that will fall on deaf ears, please press 3 now."

When the phones finally go silent, E.J. sighs contentedly and leans over to give his usual good-night kiss to the framed Chief Illiniwek picture resting on the table next to his bed.

Gordon signs his Illinois letter of intent in November 2006 and shows up in Champaign in June 2007 as planned.

The national media are so fascinated with Gordon's decision to stick with Weber over his own father it inspires ESPN The Magazine to reprise its Mike Ditka-Ricky Williams wedding concept. The photo of a tuxedo-clad Weber and a bridal gown-wearing Gordon, linked arm in arm, graces the cover of ESPN's 2007-08 college basketball preview issue.

Gordon goes off for 34 points in his first game as an Illini -- including a coast-to-coast dunk he celebrates by high-fiving joyous Orange Krush students as he heads back downcourt -- and only gets better from there.

Today's scene: Heading into the game at jilted and unranked Indiana, which is struggling under the co-coach concept, E.J. Gordon owns a 23.5 points-per-game average for the ninth-ranked Illini as they seek to improve their record to 16-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten.

Gordon says "no thanks"

The scene: Nov. 27, 2005. With only a few hours remaining in his long Thanksgiving weekend, 16-year-old Eric Gordon Jr. sighs as he realizes he can't put off his homework any longer.

He picks up his cell phone and dials a familiar number in the 217 area code.

"Hi E.J.," answers Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "What's up?"

"Coach, I really appreciate all the time you've spent on me," Gordon says, "but I'm afraid I've gotten down to my short list and Illinois isn't on it."

Long pause.

"OK, E.J.," Weber croaks. "Thanks for your honesty. Good luck."

Short pause. Just long enough for Weber to dial assistant coach Jay Price's cell.

"Jay, it's Bruce … Bruce Weber … YOUR BOSS! Call E'Twaun and make sure he knows he's Priority No. 1."

Illinois keeps after East Chicago (Ind.) junior guard E'Twaun Moore all winter and spring. Moore, who's also being hawked by Purdue, reciprocates the interest with several unofficial visits to Champaign.

Then, in June 2006, before he hits the AAU circuit and plays out his senior year, the stellar combo guard commits to Illinois.

(Where fiction meets truth: Since Moore finishes his prep career as the nation's No. 23 prospect -- and defeats Gordon's team in the Indiana Class 4A state finals -- this turns out to be a stellar backup plan for the Illini).

Now, let's rewind for a moment to the middle of the 2005-06 season.

The Illini coaches spy a slender Public League kid named Patrick Beverley who's shredding defenses for 37.3 points per game. Better yet, Beverley seems to love the Illini.

Weber, with no commitments from future shooting guards and a need for a pure scorer, pursues Beverley with reckless abandon and bags the Marshall senior during the April signing period.

Beverley arrives at Illinois in the fall of 2006 and immediately becomes one of the team's scoring threats.

Today's scene: With Beverley averaging 13 points per game -- and helping to give senior center Shaun Pruitt enough open space in the post to average a team-high 15 points -- No. 23 Illinois heads into No. 22 Indiana with a 13-3 overall record and 2-1 mark in the Big Ten.

A classic battle unfolds as CBS' Verne Lundquist and Billy Packer describe the action without once mentioning Gordon's name.

Why? Because he's not a Hoosier.

Moments before he was scheduled to sign his letter of intent for Indiana, Gordon changed his mind and went with IUPUI.

Turns out he wanted to stay really close to home -- he's living with his parents and younger brothers -- and loves the constant opportunity to say he attends "Ooey-Pooey."

Come to think of it, "Ooey-Pooey" might be the best way to describe the whole Gordon-Illinois-Indiana mess.