Chicago-cultured: Gordon’s hard-nosed mentality fits in with new home

Former Kansas State guard DaJuan Gordon celebrates after a teammate’s basket during a game against West Virginia on Jan. 18, 2020, in Manhattan, Kan.

Joel Lorenzi

In the fall of 2015, a 5-foot-10, 130-pound freshman strutted into one of the most storied gyms in Chicago. He was a complete stranger to almost everyone there.

Curie Metropolitan High School coach Mike Oliver laid eyes on the 14-year-old DaJuan Gordon for the first time then. He didn’t think much of him. The same school graduated McDonald’s All-American Cliff Alexander just two seasons earlier and boasted one of the city’s best backcourts in Devin Gage and Elijah Joiner that year.

Yet there was Gordon barking, poking out his chest and clapping in players’ faces like he owned the place. Even as Gordon flew under the radar for the better part of three years at Curie, he made it known that he was always up for the challenge.

When Missouri snagged the former Kansas State guard out of the transfer portal last week, it made sense. He’s intense, a defender who won’t pass up a challenge and always has something to prove — the type of player Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin would build in a lab if he could.

And it’s the chip that sits on Gordon’s shoulder — one that’s been around since his days in Chicago — that’s allowed him to go from an unknown, unranked teenager to a perfect fit on a Southeastern Conference team.

“We just want to get better, we’ve got the work ethic,” Gordon said of his similarity to Martin. “We just wanna be successful. We’re tough, not gonna back down from anything.”

Gordon’s story didn’t begin as some middle school phenom with millions of YouTube views. He didn’t have his side of the city rallying behind him before he grew hair on his chin. Gordon traveled 30 minutes from the city’s southeast side to ensure his best shot at making noise at a school of Curie’s caliber.

His first action came on Curie’s junior varsity team. Beyond his intensity, Gordon didn’t dazzle coaches upon arrival.

“We didn’t know what we had with him at first,” Oliver said.

Oliver didn’t lack evaluation skills. There was nothing exceptional about a frail, sub-6-foot Gordon other than his grit, and there was no shortage of heart among a program of young hoopers on the southwest side of Chicago.

Gordon began his freshman season starting on JV before being benched toward the end of the season. The staff’s decision was easy. Gordon couldn’t defend a parked car and he dribbled too much.

He was devastated. He wound up stepping away from the team. He couldn’t see what went wrong, and initially figured the coaches had a thing against him. He contemplated quitting basketball entirely.

Gordon put his pride to the side come summer, looking inside himself and developing that bug for basketball, the gym rat relationship with the game that ultimately drove him.

“I wanted to play,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t gonna go into my sophomore year and not be the guy. I started working out every day with my uncle. We took it to another level. Started working out twice a day, started working out after practice. … I started to call my uncle to start working out instead of him calling me.”

Through his sophomore season, Gordon kept his head down, writing down names and barking up all the right trees. He was a hitman of sorts on the court as he quietly dominated JV. He took initiative to defend, though he still hardly could stay with anyone. Even after he led his squad to a JV city championship berth, Gordon didn’t make the cut to play with varsity for the rest of the season.

The following summer, Gordon suited up for Oliver and Team Rose’s 17U team — former Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose’s AAU squad within the Adidas Circuit — and drew some attention. He laced up alongside some of the city’s biggest names, including Simeon and now-Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker and Orr’s Chase Adams and Raekwon Drake. If he couldn’t defend before, that team forced his hand.

“I got to see another level,” Gordon said. “Playing against guys that were way better than me. … I got to see a pro. I got to watch Talen. He was killing, getting calls from Michigan State. … He told me that if I don’t play hard I won’t be nothing. It’s stuck with me to this day.”

While those few months weren’t enough for coaches to fixate on his star potential yet, it was enough to buy stock in Gordon as a rotational guy.

By the end of the summer, Gordon had played against some of the best players in the state and nation. He stood 6-3, weighed roughly 50 more pounds than when he arrived at Curie and planned on kicking down the door in which Oliver had wedged his foot.

Gordon was brought off the bench on varsity the next season. At the time, St. Joseph’s transfer Marquise Walker was attracting attention around the city upon arrival at Curie. He and Gordon were in the same grade, and Gordon took it upon himself to prove that he deserved that attention.

“He’d say, ‘Man, coach, I’ll lock (Walker) down every night,’” Oliver said. “I’d say ‘OK, well, you keep talking about it. Let me see it.’ And he used to come in there and destroy them guys, man. He had a chip on his shoulder.”

There was no external beef: Gordon and Walker rode the train home together most nights. But Walker was the reason coaches were showing up to open gyms. It was personal, as was every matchup Gordon was entrusted with from that point on.

“He was the talk of the school,” Gordon said. “And I was supposed to be the talk of the school. I had to go at him to show everybody what I’m about. Everybody knew I was good, but they didn’t know if I could be that guy. … Every day after practice, I was sending pictures of me in the gym (to his teammates) just to tell them to get in the gym. To let them know I’m working harder than them.”

Gordon wasn’t the toughest of the group yet, but he played a mental game. He obsessively opted to guard the best player in the gym and vied for head space inside the mind of whoever he defended. He was the biggest trash talker that side of Chicago, even when coaches and players had yet to grasp just how good he was.

No one in the city was off limits. He played starter minutes off the bench and spent the season having to guard players like Ayo Dosunmu, Adam Miller, DJ Steward and Horton-Tucker.

“He’d say, ‘I wanna go guard the guys with the name,’” Oliver said. “That’s how he became so good. He didn’t respect nobody. Chicago is a lot of hype; they build up certain guys. A lot of guys will go, ‘That’s Chase Adams, that’s Talen-Horton Tucker.’ DaJuan would say, ‘I don’t know who that is.’”

It hardly made him popular. Gordon was never into popularity, though.

The summer leading up to his senior year, Kansas State watched him play for the first time with Team Rose. The staff didn’t intend to recruit him prior to watching. But like several other staffs that summer, they’d seen all they needed to see after several games to invest in Gordon and extend him an offer. He signed with the Wildcats in the fall.

Everything came full circle for his monumental senior season, by the end of which there wasn’t a prep player in the city who didn’t know who DaJuan Gordon was.

Prior to the state playoffs, Curie lost just one game all season. Gordon averaged 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, two assists and two steals. His game was polished. He could be thrown at any ball handler. He was corralling boards among the trees. He was trying to touch the square on the backboard every time he jumped.

The Condors routed Miller and Morgan Park by 31 points early that season. It didn’t change the common media perception that Miller was the city’s best player. Gordon didn’t take too kindly to the idea.

“If you’re the Sun-Times Player of the Year after what we just did to you guys, I should be the Naismith Player of the Year,” Oliver said Gordon told Miller after the game.

When the teams met for the city championship, Gordon didn’t hold back. He talked the entire game to fans, coaches and especially Miller.

At one point, as he pressed Miller in the backcourt near the baseline, Gordon stripped the ball from him, dove underneath him for the loose ball and called a timeout. Gordon tossed the ball at Miller before walking off.

“You ain’t on my level,” Oliver said Gordon told Miller as he remained on the floor.

Curie trailed the whole way, but behind Gordon’s 31-point effort, a comeback was in the cards. The Condors muscled away a win for the program’s first official city title. Their only other loss that season would come in the state semifinals against downstate dynamo EJ Liddell and Belleville West.

Gordon was named the 2019 Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year. He was off to Manhattan, Kansas in the fall for what he thought would be the necessary stepping stone for him to get to the next level. The NBA was his goal long before Division I coaches came calling.

Gordon and Kansas State coach Bruce Weber each seemed to know what the other wanted. The Wildcats were losing depth after an Elite Eight appearance the prior season. Weber wanted a freshman who could contribute instantly. Gordon seized the opportunity, hoping that competing in the Big 12 could get him closer to the league.

Weber told Gordon a story about Barry Brown, a Manhattan legend who once vowed to be the defensive stopper as a freshman.

“That’s gonna be me now,” Gordon said.

And he made himself at home. He did his usual talking. He got on the aux cord in the gym everyday to give his teammates a taste of Chicago rap music as he rowdily sang along.

He became comfortable. The coaches wanted to play to his strengths, but still deemed it necessary to help improve his outside shooting. Gordon shot 32.9% from 3-point range his freshman season, likely better than they expected. He enjoyed a solid season, averaging 6.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals. He was the only K-State freshman to appear in all 32 games.

The following year was supposed to be Gordon’s breakout campaign. Like others, his development took a big hit due to the abrupt COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re at home locked up for two or three months, it stunted everybody’s growth,” Kansas State associate head coach Chris Lowery said. “He was definitely a guy who was last to leave the gym. … That’s why you just wish that he could have had his own summer because — let’s be honest — he used the summer the year before his freshman year to springboard into who he was. If that summer doesn’t happen, he doesn’t get to where he was as a true freshman.”

There was no better time for Gordon to thrive than the summer. The summer before his junior year put him on the map. The one before his senior year got him offers. With the momentum he had entering his sophomore year at Kansas State, he didn’t have those same few months in the lab to work on himself.

“My knee was messed up, I got an injection,” Gordon said. “I was only supposed to be out for two months. I ended up being out for four months because of COVID. … I had to go work out at a park. COVID in general, the whole season took away from my late nights of me working out. I couldn’t really get in the gym as bad as I wanted to.”

Gordon averaged 9.1 points and 5.5 rebounds his sophomore season, but he shot just 37.5% from the field and 21.7% from 3. Things only got tougher midway through the season when he sprained one ankle, then suffered a hairline fracture in his other foot a game later that kept him out for roughly three weeks through February. He never quite regained his rhythm.

He stared down his new reality in March. The Wildcats finished 9-20, second-to-last in the league. Four other players were disappearing between graduation and the transfer portal. Gordon’s breakout season went sideways. The larger role Gordon envisioned as a scorer no longer felt realistic moving forward at Kansas State.

“We didn’t want him to leave,” Lowery said. “For him, he wants to be a much better offensive player. I think that he’s gonna be. I thought he could get there here.”

Gordon’s home became a temporary stay, one in which it became hard not to think about what could have been.

“It just didn’t work out,” Gordon said. … “What they wanted was something I didn’t.”

More than 240 miles away, he’s beginning a new chapter. His decision to transfer to Missouri boiled down to one thing: Martin.

The culture Martin has built was put on a pedestal this past season, and Gordon couldn’t help but admire from afar. When Gordon sees Martin, he sees himself.

“Tough coach, tough culture,” Gordon said of Martin. “From the same situation where I’m from in life. … We both have some dog in us. We both come from rough areas in Illinois. We both want to make the best of our situation and want to win.”

Now, Gordon has the chance to do something special in a system that is tailored to him, a system that emphasizes defense to the point that it creates offense. One that rewards tough players. And perhaps most importantly, one that will look to prove itself as it ushers in a new era — just like Gordon.

He’ll waltz into yet another new gym in the fall, one he’ll likely sing and shout in from Day 1 like it’s named after him. This time around, everyone will know him. But he doesn’t intend to shake that chip off his shoulder.

“Coach Martin has coached good players, and he always runs a winning program,” Gordon said. “So I have no choice but to get better.”