If you grew up in Chicago during the 90s, it’s likely Michael Jordan and the Bulls were a huge part of your childhood. For some, that childhood fandom spawned into a lifelong passion for basketball. I love Jordan as much as the next guy, but for me, there’s only one Chicago Bull who was so mesmerizing, so amusing and so awesome that he single-handedly made me a basketball fan for life. This is an ode to the heat-checking, tear-dropping, shooting maestro who changed the game forever, Ben Gordon.
From 2004-2009, there wasn’t a single player in the NBA more fun to watch (at least to me) than Gordon. He was drafted third overall by the Bulls after winning a national championship with Connecticut, where he was a human highlight reel, showcasing incredible dunking ability for a 6’3” (if that) guard. Oddly enough, Gordon transitioned to the NBA utilizing a more under-the-rim and nimble style of play.
In 2004, he had one of the more memorable rookie seasons in recent history. Gordon put up 15.1 points per game off the bench, and saved his best play for last. He scored at least 10 fourth-quarter points 21 times during the season, trailing only LeBron James. He even had a 22-point fourth quarter against the Charlotte Hornets.
His most memorable clutch bucket during his rookie season came against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 17th, 2005, the day I became an NBA fan for life. With the game tied up at 86 at the end of regulation, Gordon did this:
I was sitting next to my dad and literally jumped out of my seat, shocked by the cojones on the 21-year-old rook. The shot, a floater leaving his hands just before he ran out of space on the baseline, became a patented shot of his, and a shot that won the Bulls many games. Gordon loved playing in New York where he grew up, and as Knick killer, people called him Madison Square Gordon.
He won Sixth Man of the Year as a rookie, the first time and only time a rookie has claimed the award. Gordon’s microwave scoring and offensive acumen were better suited for a sixth man role even later in his career, yet he never won the award again. Still, he has scored at least 35 points off the bench six times in his career per Basketball-Reference, including a 41-point performance against Phoenix in 2007.
Gordon continued to improve after his rookie season, and with one thing remaining consistent—his silky smooth, high-arcing jumper. In five years with Chicago, he made at least 134 threes shooting at least 40.5 percent each season. It’s rare to find that combo of productive and efficient shooting, but he was able to pull it off, and man, could he get hot doing it.
In addition to his stellar jumper, Gordon played an irregular, unorthodox brand of basketball that was impossible for defenders to keep up with. Other than his jump shot, the most dangerous weapon in his arsenal was his floater. It came in many different forms; odd angles, off-balanced, outside the paint and over the fingertips of almost any defender. The BG floater was truly majestic, and earned him another awesome nickname, “the Rainmaker.”
To illustrate the significance of his outside game and floater attack, take a look at his shot chart from arguably his career-year, the 2006-2007 season:
For one, nearly every zone is green, and one of his worst areas was at the rim. Only 19 percent of his shots came at the rim, which is incredible for a guard putting up 21.4 points per game. In comparison, per NBA.com, nearly 40 percent of James Harden’s shots during the regular season came at the rim.
The difference in style of play between Harden and Gordon show how far offense and analytics have come. It’s possible we’ll never see another guard with as high of a usage as Gordon who scores almost exclusively outside the paint. It’s an inefficient brand of offense that teams don’t want to employ anymore, and if that version of Gordon were still playing today, there’s almost no way he’d be playing starter minutes on a contending team.
Even though Gordon’s play was inefficient and erratic at times, his streaky scoring lifted the Bulls out of their post-Jordan slump and elevated them into the beloved Baby Bulls. Gordon played next to Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni and Chris Duhon, among others during his Bulls tenure, but there’s no question the highlight of the Baby Bulls era came during Derrick Rose’s rookie season in the 2009 playoffs.
The Bulls went against the defending champion Boston Celtics, coming in as major underdogs, but leaving with perhaps the greatest first-round series ever. The series had a record seven overtime periods and was hard fought, and extremely close throughout. We got to see a fun version of Gordon battle alongside Rose against Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, with a barrage of offense and clutch shots from both sides.
Gordon went head-to-head with Allen in Game 2, scoring 42 points and generating memorable plays along the way.
Here’s the famous “three-goggle mother**cker” shot:
And then just pick one from the closing seconds of the game:
That’s a baseline floater over two defenders and an elbow step-back jumper to take the lead, and a crazy game-tying floater from 15 feet over two defenders with 12.3 seconds left.
Really, this is a microcosm of Ben Gordon’s career. When he had it going, there was no one more fun to watch and no one harder to defend. What also made this a microcosm of his career was that Allen hit a game-winning three pointer with two seconds left in this game and the Bulls lost the game, and the series.
From the words of Rust Cohle, time is one big flat circle for Bulls fans, and unfortunately for Gordon. (Play this highlight with the True Detective theme in the background and get your lighters out, never forget.)
After the 2009 season, the Bulls decided to let Gordon walk and instead chose to keep Deng. It marked the end of the Baby Bulls era and the end of any relevance that Gordon had left in his career.
He played three underwhelming seasons for Detroit, losing his scoring touch and ultimately his jump shot. He stooped to new lows in the 2013-2014 season, being demoted to a reserve role with the Bobcats of all teams, shooting just 27.6 percent on threes before being released.
Gordon signed an eye-raising two year, $9 million deal with Orlando last offseason, and although he improved this season, he was once again a reserve on a terrible team.
I choose to remember the good days of Ben Gordon, when he broke defenders ankles, hit acrobatic shots and found a way to win. He’s a dying breed and even though it’s an overused phrase, he truly is one of a kind. Now 32, it’s clear Gordon’s best days are behind him, but he lived it up while he could—and changed at least one kid’s life forever.