It’s an October Wednesday, and Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings is walking across the concourse of Memorial Gym on his way back to his office.
In the distance, he hears the sound of a bouncing basketball.
After five straight days of practice, the Commodores have this day off. No one should be in the gym bouncing a ball. This is a time of rest.
Stallings turns and peeks inside the gym. There, on the floor, is sweat-soaked senior guard Alex Gordon, who is running up and down the court, firing up one jump shot after another.
“I looked in there, and there was Red, completely dressed in his practice clothing,” Stallings said. “I said, ‘Red, I thought today was supposed to be a day off.’ He said, ‘I am taking the day off.’”
Stallings wasn’t surprised. If there is any Commodore who pushes things to the extreme, it’s Gordon, nicknamed “Red.”
After all, Gordon has plenty of motivation.
On April 1, 2000, 15-year-old Alex Gordon was playing in a pickup basketball game with his brother, Anthony Gordon, at a park in their hometown of Pensacola, Fla.
Fate intervened that day and changed Alex’s life for good.
Anthony, a 20-year-old model of health, fell to the concrete and died of a heart attack.
“He just grabbed his chest and that was it,” Alex Gordon recalled.
An autopsy revealed Anthony had an enlarged heart. Alex’s heart was simply broken.
“It was tough because we’ve never had anything like that hit home that close,” Gordon said. “My family coped with it. I probably took it the hardest because we were so close. He was the closest person to me in my life at the time.”
Gordon did his best to adjust by immersing himself in football and basketball at Pensacola High and became an all-state standout in both. He even fished regularly, finding time for reflection in the solitude.
From then on, Gordon vowed to live in high gear. Whatever he did, he did without fear and with reckless abandon.
“My motivation is strictly from my brother, every day,” Gordon said. “I try to do it for the people who can’t do it, and my brother lost his life playing basketball.”
So Gordon pushes himself. He demands excellence of himself. He shoots jumpers on off days until his shirt is wringing wet.
“There are times when I feel like I’m tired, but with my brother, it gives me a sense that you’re doing this for something,” he said.
Gordon arrived at Vanderbilt in 2004 as a self-assured player who planned to score points in bunches. He did just that, pouring in 30 points against Tennessee as a freshman in a game at Memorial Gym.
In hindsight, it might have been the worst thing he could have done.
The Commodores needed the 5-foot-10 Gordon to be a pass-first point guard, but he had other ideas.
“Coming in as a freshman, you feel like you’re the man,” he said. “Scoring 30 points, you think, ‘Hey, I like this.’”
Stallings saw a storm brewing.
“He didn’t have as much game as he thought he had,” Stallings said. “It was just an illusion. I think he thought that’s what he should be doing every game and probably spent some time wondering if I was the guy keeping him from doing it.
“Red thought he was ready before he was ready. I don’t know if pride would allow him to sit here today and tell you that was the case, but that’s the case.”
Gordon does admit that his 30-point might gave him an over-inflated self-image.
“Of course it did,” he said with a grin.
As a sophomore, Gordon started 18 games at the point, but it wasn’t until his junior season that he became VU’s playmaker and fully embraced his role.
He finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.21 to 1) and coughed up only 51 turnovers for the season, the fewest among SEC starting point guards. In 10 SEC road games, he had only 12 turnovers.
Along the way, he remained a respectable three-point shooter and averaged a career-high 7.8 points per game.
As Gordon enters his senior season, the transformation has been deemed complete by Stallings.
“When we recruited him, I remember telling my wife, ‘This kid is going to be a tough kid and a good leader,’” Stallings said. “Early in his career, I never questioned his toughness, but he was trying to go from being a guy who averaged 28 or 29 points a game in high school to learning how to run a college team. There was certainly a transition period for him.
“I’m proud of him because of where he’s come from to get to where he’s at. When he came here, the only thing that really got him going was how many baskets he made and how many shots he took. He really has developed into a complete, selfless leader that our team really respects.”
Three years ago, few could have envisioned Gordon becoming the leader of a program now coming off its second NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance in four years.
No longer concerned with making the highlight reel, he’s discovered the joy of giving, that respect descends from sacrifice.
Since his 30-point night, Gordon has never again scored more than 16 in a game. And that’s fine with him. Hard work has become an adequate substitute.
“Red may be the hardest worker we’ve ever had,” Stallings said. “Just his determination and toughness and his will to get better provides leadership on a daily basis. Red does not take a day off, he doesn’t take a play off, he doesn’t take a possession off. He just gives you the best he has.”
Gordon senses the respect he’s earned from teammates. It’s a status he doesn’t take lightly nor wants to relinquish.
“With something like that, and being the leader of the team, I can never let my team down,” Gordon said. “They’ve seen me grow as a person and seeing how I strive to do the right things all the time.
“It’s kind of like being that big brother.”
Take it from someone who knows.