Derrick Gordon keeps a photo of him and his fraternal twin brother Darryl in his dorm room. In his locker at Diddle Arena sits another, similar picture of the two.
It’s how the star freshman keeps his mind focused on his brother throughout the day.
“When I look at that picture, I just kind of sit there and think, and I get emotional,” he said. “I know he could have been at the same place that I’m at playing basketball and going to school, and it’s not happening because of the situation he’s in.”
Derrick has dedicated his basketball career to Darryl, who was put in prison at the age of 16.
In May 2009, an incident arose in a Plainfield, N.J., neighborhood between Darryl and another man. Derrick said another neighborhood kid had been “picking on” Darryl for several weeks, making fun of him for things like his short stature, and it hit its boiling point on this particular day.
The other man knocked Darryl’s hat off his head, not fearing any retaliation from Darryl, even though Derrick said Darryl had a temper problem.
The other man showed a knife, so Darryl pulled out a gun and shot the man several times in his chest from point-blank range.
It required him to have open heart surgery, and Derrick said he’s still not sure how the man survived.
Darryl was arrested and charged with attempted murder and sentenced to five years, one month and six days in prison.
Derrick received the news during basketball practice when he was 16 years old.
“I was shocked. I was just stunned,” he said. “It was just hard to believe because my family isn’t in to all that — violence and getting arrested and stuff like that.”
When Derrick takes the court this season in his first year at WKU, he’ll don No. 5 — the number his brother wore when he was a basketball player.
On the left side of Derrick’s chest is a tattoo that reads “M.B.K.,” which stands for “My Brother’s Keeper.” On the right inside of his arm reads another that says “HOPE and FAITH,” and on the left side reads “FAMILY FOREVER.”
Derrick said Darryl is his main source of motivation and is what drives him to work harder each day.
“I’m basically just working hard and trying to make it to that next level so that when he gets out, he has something to come home to,” Derrick said. “Everything I do right now is for him — on and off the court.”
Derrick’s dream was for his basketball career to continue with Darryl’s. In middle school, though they were both still young and underdeveloped, it looked as if that might be a possibility. Derrick said he and Darryl started receiving interest from the same colleges about basketball.
Derrick’s father, Mike Gordon, said Darryl, a point guard, was the more athletic one of the two when they were both younger, and it stayed that way for a while.
“I would tell the school that the only way I’m coming is if he was coming,” Derrick said. “At the same time, Western Kentucky was looking for a point guard. It could have worked out real perfectly.”
But several things changed once the two got to high school. Derrick grew to 6-foot-3 while Darryl topped out at 5-foot-5.
Derrick grew into a quiet, somewhat introverted personality while Darryl became more outgoing, Mike said.
The biggest change came when Derrick said he wanted to go to St. Patrick High School instead of Plainfield High School where Darryl was going.
Derrick was attracted by St. Patrick’s nationally-regarded basketball program. In the past five years, three St. Patrick players were named McDonald’s All-Americans and went on to play at major Division I college basketball programs Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky.
At first, St. Patrick’s basketball coach Kevin Boyle wasn’t on board with Derrick’s decision.
“He came as an eighth grader and he was dying to go to St. Pat’s. Personally I didn’t think he was good enough,” Boyle said. “He called, and called, and called, and called. He was always a hard worker and had a lot of self confidence in his game.”
But Derrick enrolled at St. Patrick. It was the first time he and Darryl had ever really been separated for a long period of time.
Darryl continued his basketball career at Plainfield High School, but never reached the level of success that Derrick experienced.
Darryl began trading his practice time for other activities. He got mixed up with a rough crowd and started hanging out on the streets.
Mike Gordon said he and his wife Sandra started blaming themselves for Darryl going down the wrong path.
“As a father it’s like, people are always giving you credit for the good job you’re doing with the kids when they do well,” he said. “On the other side, they tell you, ‘We know you did everything you could. It’s not your fault.’
“But then it’s like, how could you take credit for the positive stuff, but not take the blame for the negative stuff?”
Derrick put blame of what happened to Darryl on his shoulders.
“I tried to talk to him, but I didn’t talk to him as much as I could have,” Derrick said. “I could have done a lot more to prevent the situation, but things happen for a reason.”
Derrick had trouble opening up to people in the aftermath of it all. The heartache that he was feeling about missing his brother was kept bottled up inside.
“I stayed to myself,” he said. “I just didn’t want to talk about that whole situation because it hurt me so much inside.”
Derrick then went through a three- to four-month period when he wasn’t eating enough. His mother Sandra didn’t call it depression, but said he was visibly hurting and lost a lot of weight.
The teachers at St. Patrick had no idea what was causing it.
“No one knew,” she said. “I went there one day because the guys wanted to talk to me and I just had to come out with it. Then Derrick — that’s when he really started to open up. I always told him if you talk about it, you’ll feel better.
“They were real close. They did everything together. It was like taking half of him away.”
Boyle said it got so bad at one point that Derrick considered transferring from St. Patrick to Plainfield High School to be closer to home.
“To his mom’s credit, she made him stay,” he said. “That was a life-changing decision for him.”
Derrick eventually got to visit Darryl, and they exchanged letters back and forth. Once that happened, Derrick slowly regained the weight he lost.
And when he finally saw Darryl again, Sandra said his face “lit up.”
“He just smiled,” she said. “They just laughed and talked and he was just so happy. After that he went on to school and things just started getting better for him.”
Fast forward to Derrick’s senior year of high school at St. Patrick. He had already signed his National Letter of Intent to play at WKU, but this was still a chance for him to make a name for himself.
After what Boyle called a “horrible” preseason, Gordon responded with 37 points against Chicago’s Whitney Young High School at the City of Palms Tournament in Ft. Myers, Fla.
Derrick emerged as one of the key players on St. Patrick’s team last season, the second leading scorer behind Michael Gilchrist.
But there were times throughout the season when thoughts of Darryl would creep back into Derrick’s mind. Boyle had to balance being a tough coach while also being understanding of the fragile emotional state that Derrick found himself in occasionally.
HBO made a documentary on St. Patrick’s 2010-2011 season entitled “Prayer for a Perfect Season,” — set to air Tuesday — and Boyle said there’s a scene that shows him trying to make that balance, although it could seem a little harsh because only a clip of the conversation was shown.
His message was that while he and the team understood what Derrick is going through, they still had a job at hand — to win basketball games.
“One day you’re going to go to work and your boss is going to feel bad about something in your life,” Boyle said. “But at a certain point, you need to be accountable to him and the rest of the team, or they just can’t carry you if you can’t handle it.
“It was that type of message. We can’t keep putting you on the court if you’re not producing.”
Gordon has now had a few months to get acquainted with Bowling Green, which is roughly 850 miles from his home in Plainfield, N.J.
He hasn’t seen his brother since May, and he’s not sure when he’ll be able to next. Darryl moved from a youth correctional facility in Bordentown, N.J., nearly two hours from Derrick’s home to South Woods State Prison.
He knows he’ll see him eventually and is counting the days until Sept. 30, 2014 — the day that Darryl is set to be released from prison.
But until then, Derrick’s life and basketball career are focused on what his brother last said to him.
“He just wants to see me succeed,” Derrick said. “He knows how badly I like to win and how bad I want to get to the next level. He told me that, no matter what, just stay focused and play hard.
“When he told me that, I stuck by it. Now I’m just on a mission right now. I’m sure a lot of people see that.”
This story was originally published in the College Heights Herald on Oct. 25, 2011.