There’s a perception that elite high school basketball players are just more talented than their peers, that they somehow arrive fully formed and are gifted.
Natural athleticism is just one small factor in excellence. Curie’s DaJuan Gordon, the 2019 Sun-Times Player of the Year, always had the raw abilities.
But during his freshman year those abilities weren’t even enough to be a regular starter on the sophomore team. Gordon was benched late in the season.
“[Gordon] wasn’t good defensively,” Curie sophomore coach Jerel Oliver said. “He just wouldn’t buy in all the way on defense. He’s always been a good scorer.”
Gordon called Oliver after one game and said he didn’t think he could take sitting on the bench anymore, that he needed a day or two to think things out.
“DaJuan came back and said he wanted to do whatever it took to be on the court,” Oliver said. “I told him if he played defense he would be unstoppable.”
Gordon says that stint on the bench changed everything.
“I just started working more,” Gordon said. “I was in the gym whenever I could be.”
It is unusual for a Player of the Year talent to spend two years at the sophomore level. Delanious Rowan, Gordon’s uncle, says that was key to Gordon’s development.
“It taught him how to lead and helped him develop his confidence,” Rowan said.
Rowan is a strong force in Gordon’s life. When he was young Rowan would take him to watch Derrick Rose play for Simeon.
“I think he mostly came to go to McDonald’s after the game,” Rowan said. “His dad wasn’t around so I made sure I was around. I started keeping him with me all the time.”
Gordon grew up in Bronzeville, he had a basket in his backyard. That’s where he says he played the most as a kid, along with serious time at the South Side YMCA.
“He’s always been a peacemaker,” Tamara Gordon, DaJuan’s mom said. “He learned that from his uncle. He wants everyone to get along, he’s been like that since he was a little kid.”
Gordon has led Curie to remarkable success this season. The Condors, not even a top five team in the preseason, won the Red-South/Central, the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the city title. Curie is 32-1 and hasn’t lost to an in-state team.
The Condors aren’t an ultra-talented team. The group is somehow more than the sum of its parts and that is likely because Gordon, the star, has set the tone as an unselfish, hardworking, peacemaker.
“At the end of his junior year I knew he could be special,” Curie coach Mike Oliver said. “But two years ago I never would have thought Player of the Year was possible. He made an incredible leap and his personality helped make the team great.”
Gordon is averaging 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. Some of his competition for Player of the Year boasts bigger numbers. But Gordon has done the most important thing, he’s won.
“If we allowed him to shoot 20 times a game he would put up huge numbers,” Mike Oliver said. “Our style doesn’t have one guy dominating the ball and shooting all the time. That puts a dent in things like awards sometimes. But in the big games that we’ve played against the other top players he has outplayed them all head to head.”
Gordon has signed with Kansas State. He says Bruce Weber won him over by being chill.
“[Weber] wasn’t trying to persuade me the whole time,” said Gordon. “That stood out, I think he’s genuine.”
Gordon is quiet with the media and most outsiders. His mom says he’s much different with his family and friends but he isn’t ready to share that with everyone just yet. He’s only become well-known locally over the past year.
“I still don’t think he quite recognizes how big of a deal he is,” Rowan said. “He still doesn’t understand that people know him, especially at basketball things. It’s kind of funny.”
At the Pontiac tournament a player on an opposing team said that Gordon was “his favorite high school basketball player.”
That’s an odd thing for a peer to say, but also understandable. Gordon provides the highlight reel moments, wins the big games and does it with a humble playing style that is unfashionable these days.
Curie has been the area’s top-ranked team for almost the entire season. The Condors face Young, the preseason No. 1, in the Proviso West Sectional final on Friday. Curie is four wins from a state title and an undefeated in-state season.
“[Curie teammate] Justin Harmon and I watched them win it when we were freshmen,” Gordon said. “I’ve thought about it constantly since then.”
Whatever the rest of March holds, Gordon’s spectacular season has made him the most unlikely Player of the Year award winner since Homewood-Flossmoor’s Kevin Dillard in 2008.
“I made history,” Gordon said. “Not just for me, but for Curie and my family.”
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2019—DaJuan Gordon, Curie
2018—Talen Horton-Tucker, Simeon
2017—Alonzo Verge, Thornton
2016—Charlie Moore, Morgan Park
2015—Jalen Brunson, Stevenson
2014—Cliff Alexander, Curie
2013—Jahlil Okafor, Young
2012—Jabari Parker, Simeon
2011—Wayne Blackshear, Morgan Park
2010—Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
2009—Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
2008—Kevin Dillard, Homewood-Flossmoor
2007—Derrick Rose, Simeon
2006—Jon Scheyer, Glenbrook North
2005—DeAndre Thomas, Westinghouse
2004–Calvin Brock, Simeon
2003—Shannon Brown, Proviso East
2002—Sean Dockery, Julian
2001—Eddy Curry, Thornwood
2000—Cedrick Banks, Westinghouse
1999—Leon Smith, King
1998—Quentin Richardson, Young
1997—Melvin Ely, Thornton
1996—Ronnie Fields, Farragut
1995—Kevin Garnett, Farragut
1994—Jerry Gee, St. Martin de Porres
1993—Rashard Griffith, King
1992—Chris Collins, Glenbrook North
1991—Sherell Ford, Proviso East
1990—Jamie Brandon, King
1989—Deon Thomas, Simeon
1988—Eric Anderson, de Sales
1987—Marcus Liberty, King
1986—Nick Anderson, Simeon
1985—Michael Ingram, Proviso West
1984—Hersey Hawkins, Westinghouse
1983—Len Bertolini, St. Patrick
1982—Bernard Jackson, Phillips
1981—Walter Downing, Providence
1980—Glenn Rivers, Proviso East
1979—Isiah Thomas, St. Joseph
1978—Mark Aguirre, Westinghouse
1977—Eddie Johnson, Westinghouse
1976—Glen Grunwald, East Leyden
1975—Pete Boesen, Maine South
1974—Audie Matthews, Bloom
1973—Mark Vitali, St. Charles
1972—Quinn Buckner, Thornridge
1971—Quinn Buckner, Thornridge
1970—Lloyd Batts, Thornton
1969—Jim Brewer, Proviso East
1968—Jeff Hickman, Lockport
1967—Rick Howat, Downers Grove
1966—Rich Bradshaw, Marshall
1965—Terry Hurley, Steinmetz
1964—Eugene Ford, Crane
1963—Joe Allen, Carver
1962—Cazzie Russell, Carver
1961—Bob Caress, Thornton
1960—George Wilson, Marshall