Different choices don’t break lasting bond between UMass basketball star Derrick Gordon and his troubled twin

Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2014
AMHERST — On Friday around 2 p.m., Darryl Gordon will start feeling butterflies. When that nervous excitement comes, he’ll know it’s close to game time for Derrick Gordon. It’s true what they say about twins feeling whatever the other is experiencing, especially on game day, according to Darryl.

It’ll remind Darryl to settle in front of the TV at home to watch the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s NCAA tournament game in Raleigh, N.C., scheduled to start about 2:45 p.m.

Home for Darryl Gordon is Tully House, a halfway house in Newark, N.J. where convicted felons who stayed out of trouble in prison complete their sentences while learning life and job skills. Gordon is finishing a five-year sentence after he was convicted of aggravated assault stemming from a non-lethal shooting in 2009. He is due to be released in late September.

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Even before a game as big as Friday’s, Derrick will be thinking about Darryl. He’s always thinking about Darryl — dreaming about the day his brother will be able to see him play live.

“When he gets released, it’s going to be special,” Derrick said. “Just to get back to bond with him. I try to bond with him when I go to visit him, but that’s not really bonding. It’ll be a lot different. We’ll be able to go out to eat and go a lot of places and stuff like that.”

Drifting apart

Basketball united the 22-year-old fraternal twins growing up, but it contributed to their split in high school. Both played and loved the game as youngsters. They’d play outside when they could and turn the kitchen into a makeshift court when they couldn’t.

But as they got older, they began drifting apart. Derrick, the more gifted athlete, devoted most of his energy to basketball. His aspirations to play in college led him to attend St. Patrick, a modest Catholic school with an impressive basketball program in nearby Elizabeth, N.J.

Darryl, who was not as tall or talented as Derrick, stayed home at Plainfield (N.J.) High School, their older brother Mike’s alma mater. Darryl played junior varsity basketball for a year before dropping out of school after falling in with a crowd that was involved with drugs and violence.

The Newark Star Ledger reported that in May 2009, “a neighborhood beef escalated into gunfire.” Darryl Gordon shot a man six times, but did not kill him. He was charged with attempted murder, but plea-bargained down to an aggravated assault conviction.

Seeing his brother go to prison in May 2009 hit Derrick hard. The same way Darryl feels Derrick’s pregame butterflies, Derrick experienced bouts of anxiety and fear as his brother began his sentence. For a while Derrick barely ate.

“I lost about 15 to 20 pounds in about three weeks,” Derrick said. “I had acid reflux bad from all the stressing and thinking about my brother.”

Sandra Gordon, their mother, said Derrick hid his pain from even the people closest to him at St. Patrick.

“Darryl has always been on his mind,” she said. “When Derrick was in high school I’d tell him you’ve got to eat. You have to keep yourself healthy. Don’t let yourself go.”

At school, Gordon said, staff noticed. “They pulled me aside and asked what was going on at home. They didn’t even know that Derrick had a twin brother — that’s when they found out,” she said. “He held it inside for a long time.”

Starting to heal

During his senior year, St. Patrick was part of an HBO documentary called “Prayer for a Perfect Season.” Derrick opened up to the filmmakers and began healing. His appetite returned and he began shining on the basketball court again.

Gordon accepted a scholarship to Western Kentucky out of high school and thrived, averaging a team-high 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds as a freshman in 2011-12. In his locker, he hung a picture of himself and Darryl together, saying it kept him focused. After a midseason coaching change, the Hilltoppers made an improbable run in the Sun Belt tournament to reach the NCAA tournament.

Despite the success, the upheaval at Western Kentucky and the chance to be closer to home and play at a higher level, prompted Gordon to transfer to UMass.

He was required by the NCAA to sit out the 2012-13 season and spent it working feverishly on his game. Gordon has found his stride lately and become one of the Minutemen’s most reliable scorers and defenders. He has shown a marked improvement after a slow start that really damaged his confidence early on.

“I was looking up, talking to God saying ‘What’s going on? I put in so much work. Why is this happening to me?’ I was always in the gym, going to the gym late at night. Shouldn’t I be rewarded for what I did? But no matter how mad I got I always thought he must be doing this for a specific reason.

“It’s been crazy. There were times I cried on the phone with my mom at the beginning of the season,” Derrick continued. “At times I felt like I was losing hope. I’m glad I’m real close to my mom. She was always able to pick me up.”

She helped him deal better with his anxiety about Darryl.

“I told him. There’s nothing we can do, there’s nothing you can do,” Sandra said. “You have nothing to do with what happened with Darryl. You have to live Derrick.”

Meanwhile, Darryl has been tracking Derrick’s basketball career, watching the nationally televised games and otherwise following along online. The other residents of Tully House have taken to rooting for Derrick as well.

“He and the guys where he is really enjoy watching Derrick play,” Sandra said. “There was one time (against Providence) when Derrick made the winning shot and Darryl was in the bathroom. He said ‘Mom they were all yelling ‘Your brother hit the winning shot!’ ”

Derrick handles his guilt better than he did when he was younger. But he will never quite shake the belief that if he had been around more he could have prevented his brother from traveling down a criminal path.

Derrick has been waiting for a chance to rectify that ever since. He has a tattoo reading “My brother’s keeper” on his back and plans on living up to his ink when Darryl is finally released.

“I’m personally not going to let him go back around the people he was around,” said Derrick, who also has Darryl’s name tattooed on his left shoulder and a basketball with Darryl’s initials on his right hand. “He’s been in there long enough that he knows right from wrong. He doesn’t want to get caught up in that.”

Since Darryl was transferred from the Wagner Youth Correctional Facility to Tully House, the two men have been able to talk or at least text daily after being limited to letters before. Derrick said the man he’s reconnected with was much more mature than the troubled boy who had gone away.

“I think it helped him. If he wasn’t in there, god knows what would have happened if he was still out there doing what he was doing,” Derrick said. “I’m not saying it’s good to get arrested, but it in the long run, it helped put my family back together. Everything he talks about is good things. It positive. He tells me he’s not going back to that and I believe him. I told him when he gets out I’m going to take care of him.”

To do that Derrick believes he needs to make it in professional basketball. Like almost every college player, Derrick wants to play in the NBA. But he’s not dreaming about buying an Escalade or dating a Kardashian. He hopes his ability to play basketball can someday give his family a better life.

Those dreams fueled his dedication to conditioning over the summer and his many nights alone in Curry Hicks Cage working on his game. Knowing how hard Derrick’s been working has inspired Darryl.

“From the beginning of this, what he’s been doing has been my motivation to stay focused and get through this,” said Darryl, who is working for his high school equivalency certificate and hoping to go to junior college when he gets out. “It gives me something to look forward to instead of the streets. His support is definitely keeping our family together. It’s given us all motivation. It’s definitely a positive.

“I used to just be chasing the dark side. Now I don’t think about that. I don’t talk to those dudes that I used to hang with,” he continued. “Family is everything right now. That’s the focus.”

Derrick’s NBA dream feels tangible because he has seen two friends reach that goal. Two of his former St. Patrick teammates — Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — were top-five draft picks after just one year at Duke and Kentucky, respectively.

Gordon’s own road to the league figures to be much tougher. At 6-foot-3, his height and outside shooting ability are below normal NBA standards for a player who is not a point guard. Still, he’s hoping enough hard work and dedication can overcome his deficiencies. Derrick admitted that he would leave school early if he thought he’d be drafted and could start providing for his family and get Darryl on his feet.

“It’s not like someone is going to give him a high-paying job when he gets out. I’m in a position I can make a lot of big things happen if I stay the course. There’s a lot of pressure that come with that,” Derrick said. “I don’t want to do nothing too quickly. If I feel I had a good enough year and I feel that I’m ready, I’m going to go. I’ve got a family to take care of. It would take a lot of talking to people and seeing what the NBA is saying. I’m not leaving to go overseas.”

UMass coach Derek Kellogg was impressed that despite those aspirations, Gordon has remained an unselfish player.

“That he’s so committed to winning and being a good teammate is a little bit odd in this age of instant gratification and a somewhat selfish society,” Kellogg said. “I think he’s gotten good coaching and training along the way that’s taught him that winning is the most important thing. If he can continue to do that. He’ll have some good things happening for him down the line.”

Derrick’s other daydream is simpler and getting closer to being real. When he takes the court for warm-ups on Friday, he will savor that daydream for a moment.

He’ll look at the seats usually reserved for the players’ families, and picture his parents, Sandra and Michael, his older brother Mike and of course Darryl, having those shared butterflies in person.

“I visualize them smiling at me,” Gordon said, grinning a little just thinking about it. “And I smile back. It’s going to be special.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage