Gym Dandy

THE HAT MAN, 43-year-old Steve Gordon, is a tireless, devoted disciple of basketball who has people from the NBA to Microsoft jumping through hoops to work with him.

Dave Taylor is receiving one jarring wake-up call. And it comes in the form of Sarunas Marciulionis, the Seattle SuperSonic guard who is making one of his commando runs. Unfortunately for Taylor, he is the only thing between the hard-charging, 215-pound Lithuanian and the basket.

Backpedaling as if his life depends on it - and maybe it does - Taylor, 37, a real estate attorney, loses his one-on-one with gravity and splashes, bottom first, onto the floor at Bellevue's Pro Sports Club.

Gym-rat legend

Off to the side, Steve Gordon feigns sympathy.

"Way to use your head, Dave," Gordon says, clapping his hands as everyone else in the gym cracks up.

Gordon allows Taylor to rub his backside a little, then sends him on a series of lung-scorching sprints. The espresso carts aren't even open yet and Gordon already is starting a day that very much resembles a Marciulionis run at the basket - frenetic and unrelenting. It will end some 16 hours later, in the very same gym, doing some of the very same things but with some very different people.

Typically, Gordon leaves his house at 5 a.m. and doesn't return until 11 p.m., sometimes later. He keeps slightly shorter hours on weekends, but only because the club also does.

"He takes a couple of holidays off every year, but only because no one's at the club to do anything with," says his wife, Megan Lantry. "He plans a lot of vacations we never take."

This is the price you must pay when you are the Puget Sound region's pied piper of basketball. That's been Steve Gordon's role around here for at least 15 years. Almost every basketball player of note, from preps to pros, who has come through Seattle has at one time followed Gordon into a gym to be put through the paces.

Sonic President Wally Walker, once one of Gordon's clients but now his part-time employer, calls Gordon "one of the all-time gym-rat legends."

The Hat Man

Even the casual basketball fan in a way knows Gordon. He's the guy putting various players through workouts before Sonic games - the cat in the hat, often turned backward, in Griffey-like work mode.

John Johnson, renowned "point forward" of the Sonics' 1979 NBA championship team, dubbed Gordon "The Hat Man." The nickname, and its numerous variants (Mad Hatter or, simply, Hat) stuck. And legend has it that few have actually seen Steve Gordon without a trademark baseball cap plunked over what Gordon himself admits is a combed-over, sprayed-over hairdo that is part Lou Henson, part Dick Versace.

"I've seen him actually put his cap on in the shower," swears Sonic swingman Nate McMillan, who has worked with Gordon throughout his nine years in the NBA. "He had his hat off, hanging outside his stall. He was in the last shower, way back in the building. When he saw me walk in, he reached out, snatched his hat and put it on. Right in the shower."

The last known public sighting of Gordon's hatless dome was three years ago, when Gordon and Paul Woolpert coached a group of Sonic rookies and free agents against the Brazilian Olympic team. Ernie Woods, the longtime men's basketball coach at Bellevue Community College, and Sonic Coach George Karl were the ones who got Gordon to ditch his lid.

"We told him that it was against NBA and Olympic rules to wear a hat when you're coaching," Woods recalls. "He believed us."

Megan Lantry is asked if her husband wears a hat to bed.

"That's kind of a personal question," she replies.

Gordon: "No comment."

He knows everybody, everything

It might be the only question that has ever stumped the inimitable and otherwise loquacious Hat Man.

"He's the kind of basketball junkie you meet in the park who knows everybody and everything about the game," McMillan says. "He's a guy who should be in a higher position, with some team, but isn't."

Some may beg to differ. Some would say that Gordon already occupies a high position. The program Gordon has built at the Pro Sports Club is not just a pillar in the local basketball community, it arguably is its foundation.

Under Gordon's watch, the club was where Jack Sikma honed his stepback move and McMillan developed his jumper. It's likely the place where Arizona Coach Lute Olsen "stole" Franklin High's Jason Terry from Bob Bender and the University of Washington. And it's probably where the area's next basketball wunderkind will emerge.

On one typical day, Gordon's morning starts at 6 a.m., when he runs a group of local executives, including Microsoft executive vice-president Steve Ballmer, through a grueling basketball workout. When they're done, Sonic forward Byron Houston and former Washington standout Eldridge Recasner, who was the Continental Basketball Association's most valuable player last season, show up for some personal attention. Sonics Rich King and Detlef Schrempf appear as Houston and Recasner end their drills.

Later, Donny Marshall, the Federal Way native who was just drafted out of Connecticut by the Cleveland Cavaliers, drops by. At 3 p.m. every day in the summer, the area's top junior-high, high-school and college kids begin their program of drills and full-court games. Frequently, Sonics and ex-Sonics - including Derrick McKey and Xavier McDaniel, who still make offseason pilgrimages to Hat Man country - join in the full-court fray.

Basketball laboratory

The whole mix creates an atmosphere Gordon likes to call "a basketball laboratory," a place to both strut and learn your stuff.

And it is a place that has taken on increased importance this summer. The NBA's lockout has shut down the Sonics' practice facility to Sonic players. The NCAA summer league is out of commission in this area for the second straight year. Because of liability, safety and security issues, most other public gymnasiums keep their doors locked.

"Steve's got the only show in town," Woods says. "And this is an important time. The offseason really is when individual players are made."

Well, welcome to the Hat Man basketball family. Only, Steve Gordon doesn't treat his players like products off an assembly line. All of them, from Fred to Terik Brown and from Alton Lister to Mark Pope, have become family.

Gordon, 43, lost his when he still was in high school in north Chicago. When he was just 15, his father, Irv, an optometrist, died of a heart attack at age 48. Six months later, Marian Gordon, still despondent over her husband's death, took her own life.

The devastating double loss, Gordon says, "changed all kinds of decisions for me." He went to live with an aunt. He signed a letter of intent to play basketball at DePaul, but decided that his more immediate need was financial and instead accepted a $20,000 baseball contract with the Kansas City Royals.

After a year and a half at the Royals' experimental Baseball Academy, Gordon again was abandoned.

"When the Royals cut me, I figured I had made the biggest mistake of my life," Gordon recalls. "I rushed into baseball. If my parents had lived, everything would have been completely different. I would have gone to college and lived a normal life."

Served as M's bullpen catcher

Gordon retreated to Philadelphia to live with an uncle and briefly attended the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, he played basketball in the renowned Baker League, where he was discovered by a scout for Hapoel Tel Aviv of the pro league in Israel. He played two seasons, then quit when he was pressed to join the Israeli army.

Eventually, a transfer by a construction company he worked for brought Gordon to Seattle in 1978. Not long after his arrival, he was on the doorstep of Woods, asking for a spot in the NCAA pro-am league then held at Bellevue C.C. Gordon's badly injured left knee couldn't pass the physical, so instead he assisted Woods at BCC and played pickup ball with local collegians and Sonics.

Interruptions of practices and pickup games, prompted by errant baseballs, became a source of increasing frustration for Gordon. The baseballs rolled onto the court after slipping past the junior-college catchers who were warming up Mariner pitchers nearby. Gordon finally couldn't take it any longer and, upon returning a baseball, declared that he could do a better job of handling big-league pitches.

They took Gordon up on that claim, which he backed up so well that the M's hired him as their bullpen catcher, a position he held for seven years.

Gordon's big basketball break came when then-Sonic Paul Westphal suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. Westphal missed most of his lone season in Seattle, 1980-81, plus almost all of the next. He spent much of that down time at BCC and the Mercer Island Jewish Community Center running full-court drills with Gordon and Jim Marsh, then a Sonic TV analyst and, like Westphal, a USC alum.

Westphal's first full season back, 1982-83 with the New York Knicks, he won the NBA's comeback-player-of-the-year award, which he dedicated to Gordon and Marsh.

The Hat Man could barely be restrained after that.

"I'd sit and watch him play full-court, one-on-one games with these guys and wonder how he was going to walk the next day," Woods says. "But he would always bounce back, ready for more."

Workouts for stars

Gordon's resiliency, plus his willingness to meet anyone, anytime and anywhere, made him the choice of almost every Sonic looking for some extra work. His reputation has grown to such a level that when tennis star Monica Seles visited Seattle a few months ago and was in need of a workout, she was referred to Gordon. His regular executive group was slow to catch on to the celebrity presence.

Microsoft's Ballmer: "You look awfully familiar."

Seles: "Well, I'm Monica Seles."

Ballmer: "I thought you worked at Microsoft."

Seles: "Quite honestly, I could use the job."

This wasn't the first big deal that almost went down at the club. With the constant intersections of high-powered, high-monied people with basketball Joneses, opportunities are inevitable.

Three years ago, after breaking a hand, Benoit Benjamin was assigned to daily workouts with Gordon. With Coach George Karl waiting, Benjamin predictably was late to the first session. Karl told Benjamin he'd be fined $1,500 for each subsequent offense.

After Karl left, Benjamin told Gordon, "There's $500 in it each time you don't report me." Gordon refused.

Still, they all keep coming back. And, in a large way, they all entrust their careers to Steve Gordon.

"Guys who get paid millions of dollars," Marsh says, "will listen to the Hat Man."

Pushes himself harder

Everyone describes the seemingly indefatigable Gordon as driven about his basketball commitments. He, after all, squeezes in a marketing position with a trucking and excavation company. The long, frantic pace cost Gordon his first marriage in 1986.

But that didn't stop him. In fact, like his previous personal losses, the divorce prompted him to push himself even harder.

"No matter what I'm able to accomplish or accumulate, I'm always paranoid of being by myself and losing everything," Gordon says. "I've lost before. I know how fast everything is capable of disappearing."

Gordon has been on and off the Sonic payroll for more than a decade (he's currently on, and recently was voted half a playoff share by the team). Though more well-known for his work with NBA players, he admits his exposure to the professional ranks is most valuable for the credibility it gives him for his work with the younger basketball generations.

Members of the Pro Sports Club started noticing what Gordon was doing with the Sikmas, Detlef Schrempfs and Clint Richardsons and asked if he'd consider working with their sons. Gordon agreed, and his first crop was a good one. Ryan Drew, Doug Christie, Mark Pope and Jeff Potter all earned basketball scholarships to NCAA Division I schools.

The program has since been formalized, with only the area's top boys and girls gaining acceptance. First operated at a junior high on Mercer Island, the program was moved to the Pro Sports Club in 1989.

This summer, Terik and Fred Brown Jr., sons of former Sonic Fred, and Donald Watts, son of former Sonic Slick, are among the participants.

"My biggest thrill," Gordon says, "is when the NBA players start entrusting me with their sons and brothers."

He keeps their interest with a seemingly endless arsenal of drills, all of which have some unique slant on the game, as well as a competitive component. One of Gordon's Saturday sessions, for example, is limited to players at least 6 feet 8, plus two guards. The big guys are forced to improve their ballhandling, while the smaller players buff up their inside game.

Trusted but tough

Gordon has a knack for earning his players' trust, yet maintaining the right to get tough. Considering the talent and egos with which he has to deal, it is a difficult balancing act. Few question his authority; those who do are shown the folly of their ways.

True story: Both with caps askew, Gordon and a local prodigy

gone Division I are engaged recently in a hotly contested shooting game. The object is to make several dribbling moves, then nail a shot. The other is supposed to match it.

Gordon calls the score; he has just taken the lead. His young counterpart challenges the accuracy of Gordon's count. He is vehement, but Gordon overrules, then pours on the moves and the jumpers until his pupil is left cursing in disgust.

Knowing he's pulled out yet another from one of his many hats, Gordon nods to an onlooker and winks.

"I'm pretty good, aren't I?" the Hat Man asks.