The Legend lives on: Panthers retire Peter Gordon’s No. 34

The Legend lives on: Panthers retire Peter Gordon’s No. 34

By Thomas Becker

He did things on the court few in this area have seen before. His first step was like a blur, and he consistently made opposing defences look foolish when assigned to guard him.

He was a gifted, but humble athlete, who led the Panthers to back-to-back championships in 1987-88 and 1988-89. Now, 20 years later, Peter Gordon's No. 34 will be forever immortalized in the rafters of the Chi-Wan Young Sports Centre gym.

"To have my number raised to the rafters is amazing, I'm not sure what to make of it," Gordon said. "All I wanted to do was play a game I love. And to finish it by being inducted into the hall of fame and having my number retired is something I would have never have imagined."

SOCCER PHENOM TURNED BASKETBALL STAR

Growing up in Oshawa, Ont. Gordon first picked up a basketball when he was 12 years old and instantly fell in love with the game. He idolized Philadelphia 76ers' legend Julius "Dr. J" Erving and someday wanted to be as good as him. 

"Back then we didn't have access to gyms so we had to play outside. During the summer when I wasn't playing soccer, I would be at the park all day, 14-16 hours playing basketball," he said.

"The one thing people don't know about me is that I was a better soccer player coming out of high school. I received many soccer scholarships to the States, but my focus was basketball."

His raw athleticism was undeniable, but someone had to help him harness those gifts, while keeping him grounded as a player and a man. That someone was high school coach, George Quinn.

"As good as I was, he always said I needed to get better. He taught me to focus on the things I wasn't good at without losing my identity as a player." 

What separated Gordon from his peers was his work ethic. Several players in his position would coast on their talent alone, not Gordon. He wanted to be the best he could be, which involved some imagination on his part.

"I had to improve my dribbling, so I worked very hard on it by doing everything with my left hand," he said. "All day I would brush my teeth, write, open the door, etc. I basically became ambidextrous. And it worked, a lot of players thought I was left handed in the league." 

"WE WANT YOU"

While Gordon was working on his craft at Oshawa O'Neill High School, UPEI's basketball program reached new heights under hall of fame coach George Morrison in the late '80s. He got a taste of championship fame in the 1985-86 season, but to get back to the promised land, Morrison knew he needed a star. And the pursuit for Gordon began.

"We spotted him and we wanted him in Panther green. I called him, I sent letters and I kept at it until he said yes," Morrison said. "We were looking forward to five good years with him. And I could say he became even better than I thought he would."

Gordon considered three schools – UPEI, Acadia and Brandon – but Morrison's persuasive nature and championship experience made the difference.

"George did a very good job recruiting me and convinced me UPEI would be the best fit for me. I also loved UPEI's style of play, they liked to run which was fine with me," Gordon said.

Gordon arrived on the UPEI campus in the fall of 1986 and immediately made his presence felt on the hardwood at Alumni Gym.He checked in as a fairly lightweight player in a six-foot-three frame. But he had leaping and shooting abilities that would put him head and shoulders above the rest, and turn him into a heavyweight around the league.

"George's attention to detail was very impressive. He taught us the importance of preparation. He was tough on us but it made us better basketball players, but more importantly better people. George and his wife Anne have had a big impact on me and I'm grateful to have them in my life." 

In his first season, he earned All-Conference and AUAA Rookie of the Year honours, which foreshadowed things to come. 

Gordon formed the nucleus of a Panther squad that would dominate AUAA basketball in the years ahead, while leaving a lasting impression on fans and teammates alike, just ask close friend and former teammate Darrell Glenn.

"He had this incredible jump shot off the dribble. He would fly down the court at top speed and had the balance to stop on a dime and jump straight up in the air to make a shot," said Glenn, who's in his second year as head coach of UPEI's men's basketball program. "He was so athletic and he could take off towards the basket and weave through traffic in the key while in mid air. He also had extraordinary footwork. He could beat his defender off the dribble with a variety of pivots. You couldn't defend him one-on-one, you had to bring help and a team defensive philosophy to slow him down and he still managed to score at will. "

Athletic ability aside, it may have been his off-court demeanour that truly resonated with those around him.

"He was a great teammate who was always humble about his individual success. Off the court he is and was a great friend. We lived together off campus and Peter always looked out for me. He's just a thoughtful person." 

CHAMPIONSHIP GLORY

After his Rookie of the Year campaign, Gordon and the Panthers turned weekend basketball into the must-see event. Fans filled the stands to witness No. 34 do his thing and the Island faithful were rewarded for their support as UPEI battled for back-to-back AUAA titles.

"We knew we had a good team but to win was very exciting," Gordon said. "The first time we won I didn't know how big of a deal it was, but the second time we won I realized how special it really was."

But like most champions, he still recalls the missed opportunities. 

"Not winning a national title is the one thing that haunted me during my time at UPEI. In my last three years, I thought we had one of the best teams in the country and should have won one or two national titles."

Over five years at UPEI, Gordon averaged 19.8 points per game with 6.1 rebounds. He scored 1,639 total points – 407 of which came from the charity strike. Along the way, he picked up virtually every honour there was: four straight AUAA First Team All-Star selections, CIAU All-Canadian Honourable Mention, and three CIAU All-Canadian selections. 

"In the end what really made Peter a legend is that he could consistently do things in games and practice that you never saw anyone else do before," Glenn said. "I played with Peter for three years and I always thought it was remarkable that even in our third year together he would do something in a game that would make you shake your head and pinch yourself to confirm you actually witnessed the play. In big games, the best players have to play their best and Peter answered the call in numerous big games."  

Now, on the 20th anniversary of Gordon's last championship, the Panther jersey he proudly wore, with the number 34 emblazoned on the back, will live on and serve as a reminder of the work and dedication it takes to be great.

"I look back at my career and still can't believe all I've accomplished, but I know I couldn't have achieved it without my teammates, coaches and most importantly the UPEI fans – the best basketball fans in the world."