My Bar Food With Eric

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Published: January 4, 2015

It has been quite a long time since I so looked forward to a normal night. I’ve had about 10 months of abnormal nights, and this was supposed to be a nice, relaxing evening at the bar with the guys and a game (New Orleans Pelicans v Houston Rockets). I’d worked a little bit later on my last bits of work for 2014, packed up, and made a couple calls (hands-free!) on my way to Tracey’s. I was a little late, but I lucked into a parking spot not half-a-block down. For anyone who knows me, good parking is the closest thing to a good omen that I’ll accept.

As I’m getting out of the car, I notice a little icon at the top of my phone, and when I bring the notification shade down, it’s T-Bob telling me (not that I know him . . . yet) that Eric Gordon just got to the party.

Well . . . this wasn’t normal.

I watched an NBA game with a player on one of teams . . .who has a max contract . . . and was talking to me about the game as it was being played in between normal bar talk.

This was pretty cool.

The Watch Party

I’m going to talk about the watch party, but I’m not going to recount each and every thing. Eric came to the bar as a normal guy. He acted like a normal guy, and he was treated like a normal guy for the two hours he was there. A team rep was there with him, but he was off to the side and did not interfere in the slightest. Some patrons took quick pictures with Eric, and we also took a picture with him on the way out.

We did not ask him about his injury, his rehab, his contract, his relationship with anyone, his opinion of the franchise or any part of it. Again, he was there as a regular guy, and we respected that.

We did ask him about that the game, and that was very cool. Eric broke down several plays for us, both Pelicans plays Rockets plays. He described the goals, the choices, the options, and the key parts of each. He also gave insight into why the Rockets get foul calls and just how they do what they do. In retrospect, I wonder if his clear insight is a reflection of the Pelicans having the Rockets’ number.

For what it’s worth, Eric called a victory for the Pelicans in the third quarter of that game, and it was far from decided. He looked up from some chatting, watched a couple of plays intently (as opposed to watching and talking), and said, “We got this.” He was right.

A good bit of the talk was not about the game, however, just as it is with others. I asked him how old he was before he stopped getting “This counts for your birthday and for Christmas,” and asked him how his he is at Indiana’s favorite lawn game, cornhole. We talked a little football. He also told us some NBA stories, gave insight into the life of an NBA players. We shared some restaurant recommendations, too.

I will say that he was pretty impressed to be, quite coincidentally, surrounded by people who were from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette (Youngsville, really). He actually was a little surprised about Lafayette. I gave him some context in terms of Indiana cities to make sure he realized how far some people drive to see the Pelicans or to meet with other fans in numbers.

Check out this episode of On the Fly for more on the details of talking with Eric.

Also, since they were out of wings (rightly so, as they are quite good), I got some chili cheese fries.

A Little Background

For those wondering: This is not a puff-up piece. This part right here is where I lay out the stark facts and my not-so-rosy opinion about Eric Gordon and this team. So, keep on reading if you were worried, and just stop if thought this is where I get all giddy because a player talked to me. That just does not happen.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been very back and forth with Eric Gordon. The entire situation is just frustrating, I’m sure for all parties including Eric, and it has been for a while. This, of course, has its roots in the Chris Paul trade, which, of course, has its roots going back to super teams, the CBA and lockout, the poor ownership prior to Tom Benson and the NBA, and more. Into the middle of this is plopped Eric Gordon, like fistful of penne into this pasta pot to my left. He plays well, gets injured, and then just can’t get right. Finally, he has a good and lengthy season, only to see that cut short by injury, despite making at least one surprising return to action following a mid-season injury.

To start this season, Eric was playing quite poorly, though with vigorous effort. As he was improving, a new injury struck. Rather than his problematic knee rearing its cap again, it was a shoulder injury. Despite the fact that the knee bone is in no way connected to the shoulder bone (yes, I know those aren’t bones, senor stick-in-the-mud), the injury has been taken a bit out of context.

As it stands, Eric is rehabbing. At some point if the rehabbing does not go as hoped, surgery will follow so try to ensure a return for the start of the season. It is, however, going well enough for him to be cleared to participate in today’s full practice. This is all publicly available information and inference based on publicly available information about Eric’s situation and those kinds of injuries generally; this is in no way based on private knowledge.

The Motivation Question

During his time in New Orleans, the reputation Gordon has been unofficially assigned off-the-court is that of a disinterested party in terms of the community, participating minimally in the community and trotted out by the team minimally to boot.

After talking with Eric for a while, he does seem to be a legitimately subdued guy. This may play a role. He may also have been legitimately disinterested in the past. Or, perhaps, he does not like to be “out there” when the situation does not match his view of his capabilities. All of these are understandable feelings for a guy who has yet to have a choice in where he lives and works.

All of that aside, he made the conscious decision to come watch a game at a bar with fans and writers following his rehab session. He did this knowing that some would interpret his presence at Tracey’s rather than on the sideline in Houston as a lack of support for his teammates. He did this knowing that we’ve written and said things that were not positive about him.

It was a gesture, and a novel one for Eric. Could it have been a move designed to curry favor or improve his image? Absolutely. He did charity appearances following, for instance. Shine, shine, shine. Nevertheless, he still sat at that table with fans who could ask him anything, tell him anything. It did not have to be a pleasant experience for him. And so what if it wasn’t? No big loss for him, and he could have just left. He did have a good time, though. He was laughing, showing pictures on his cell phone, asking people questions.

Either way, it was an active gesture. Whether crafted or whether he just wanted to come (which is what we were told), he still had to do it, and it was a novel gesture for Eric and for many players. Granted, there are not too many players in the position to do just what Eric did, but he still had to bite the bullet and do it. For that, I give him credit.

I give him credit for letting himself relax and just be one of the guys. Also, credit to all the guys for their part in this, too.

I give him and the team credit for believing that this would work out just the way it did: very well.

Going Forward

Per John Reid, Eric is set to practice today.

‘The main thing is just feeling comfortable when I get hit or not around my arm or shoulder,” Gordon said. ”Feeling comfortable taking that kind of contact and hopefully the hit won’t affect me as much.”

Gordon said he has not experienced a problem with his range of motion for the past month, but has worked extensively to strengthen his shoulder.

”Well, the range of motion has been there, but it was completely weak,” Gordon said. ”If I would have played it would have been probably worse and the main thing is the strength and confidence factor.”

There is only so much rehabbing and the bodies intrinsic healing can do, and the specific details of his injury are unknown. Therefore, they have to bring him back through a series of steps. He seems to be progressing well through those steps. The recent public relations campaign may be evidence that they expect, not just hope, that he’ll be back soon. Eric said as much, too.

Discussing the team’s current state, “Somehow we have to take control of our own destiny.” So, he’s not only looking to raise his profile, but also that of the team. This could be motivated by self-interest, of course, but I’ll take it. All players want to raise their profile by being on a good team.

People have asked me my thoughts on him coming back, and if he’ll be on the bench or starting. Nakia Hogan talked to Coach Williams:

“We may start him, we may bring him off the bench,” Williams said. “We are not sure. A lot of it is going to depend on his ability to recover from practice tomorrow and his mindset going into the game.

“You want you best players on the floor. It’s not like we’ve won 10 or 15 games in row and we are like ‘Hey man, let’s not break this rhythm.’ That’s not the case. We are in a different spot. So we’ll deal with that tomorrow, and I’ll have conversations with Eric and the coaching staff and see how we proceed.”

I’m not sure how he eased back in, but I anticipate him both playing starters minutes and starting. The minutes will allow him to affect the game maximally, which is the stated goal. The starting, while it does not matter to me personally, means something in the NBA culture. This team needs Gordon’s profile to be raised to have maximum flexibility with his contract this offseason. Given how the Josh Smith situation played out, teams are not just going throw good or even decent packages to teams for players that are viewed as burdensome.

If Eric Gordon plays well, he could very well be a useful and significant part of the New Orleans Pelicans until he retires. He could also be part of a trade that helps the Pelicans if other teams value him. He could also test free agency to try to get a longer term deal sooner, but this seems unlikely for several reasons not the least of which are the likely current soft market for him and the fact that the salary cap is set to jump significantly after his option year ends. If it did happen, the Pelicans would have cap space to use to try to better themselves.

However, as I’ve noted elsewhere, him coming back does not mean he’ll be playing well. There’s being back, and being back, and being back. Just because he plays, it does not mean he plays much. Just because be plays much, it does not mean he plays well. They need both, but it’s unclear they’ll get both. His minutes will increase provided this rehab strategy works, though I’m not nearly as sour on Eric from an injury point of view as most. I am, however, worried about his level of play. He started the season very roughly, playing worse than he has at any point in his career. He did start to improve, but only up the the point where most, but not all, of his key stats were at careers worsts.

This slow curve can’t persist. He’ll need a couple of game to knock off the rust, get in the flow, but he needs to outplay the backups who have been filling his role, and by a wide margin. January is month where the Pelicans can make some headway in the West, so this is the best time for Eric to come back and help do what he stated above.

“Somehow we have to take control of our own destiny.”

Eric: That somehow . . . that’s you, dude. Not you alone; you with the guys we sat together and cheered for.

This is the best time of all for Eric to improve his reputation in the NBA and in New Orleans. It’s all right there. The Pelicans have proved that they can get right up the glass ceiling without you. You have to be a part of the leap.

Last season, despite being so frustrated with the situation, I felt I saw signs in his game and numbers that indicated that he was past his knee issue, and I was right. I feel I’m right in knowing that he wants this, and he wants it badly.

What I don’t know is if he can. I will be watching very closely, and I’m ready for you, Eric, to make my mind up for me.

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