NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Alex Gordon is reminded of the worst day of his life every time he steps onto the basketball court. For him, that means every day.
There's also the tattoo on his left arm. The pictures that clutter his dorm room. The calls home to friends and family, flashing back to images of the day - and the game - that took his only brother's life.
As horrible as it was, that was the day he learned to live without fear. That was the day he started playing with the attitude an undersized guard needs to earn respect. Not to mention instilling a little fear in his opponents.
The torment of that day has shaped him into the leader of the winningest senior class in Vanderbilt history.
``Alex is not a person you want to cross,'' Vanderbilt senior forward Ross Neltner said. ``He doesn't hide his feelings. If he thinks you screwed up, he'll let you know. He keeps everybody in line.''
The senior guard, nicknamed ``Red,'' has been a leading force for 18th-ranked Vanderbilt (25-6), which plays Auburn on Thursday in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
He plays loose and unafraid because, well, he's already seen the worst thing that could happen on a basketball court.
April 1, 2000, was a sunny day in Pensacola, Fla.
Alex Gordon, then 15, went to play a pickup game with his 20-year-old brother, Anthony, who was in a hurry to hit the hard court at their hometown park.
They played for hours, full court, 5-on-5, often guarding each other. They talked smack back and forth, as brothers often do. It was just another day at the park.
Or so it seemed.
Without warning, in the middle of a game, Anthony grabbed his chest. He crashed to the ground, gasping for air.
Alex stood stunned. Players frantically called 911. Others knelt in prayer.
Alex could only watch as his brother went into cardiac arrest, lying limp on the pavement where they had played seconds earlier, years prior.
Anthony had an enlarged heart, an undiagnosed condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and died. Alex's heart was crushed.
``I took it real hard,'' Gordon said. ``To know how much I love my brother, to go play basketball was real tough. At first, I tried to forget about it. But I couldn't.
``So I just use it as motivation. When I get tired, I think of him. When I want to quit, I think of him. Some people don't have the opportunity to play. My brother lost his life playing basketball.''
When Gordon came to Nashville, he didn't want to leave his past behind.
He placed those pictures of his brother in his room. He makes those calls home. He permanently inked his flesh - a tattoo of Anthony's tombstone, surrounded by trees and the words ``It's been one'' - a reference he says only his brother would understand.
``I keep those reminders there so I don't quit on him,'' Gordon said.
He's listed at a generous 6 feet tall and is the smallest player in Vanderbilt's starting lineup. He's not a high scorer, averaging 10.5 points this season.
But his voice carries the most weight, his teammates say, and his decision-making backs up the words.
Last week, for instance, Vanderbilt trailed Mississippi State by a point in the waning seconds of overtime. Gordon had an open look but decided to pass to teammate Shan Foster, who sank his ninth consecutive 3-point shot to give Vanderbilt an 86-85 win on Senior Night.
Foster knew who to thank for his 42-point night.
``If he didn't give me that opportunity, I don't know if anyone would remember me having such a great night,'' Foster said. ``He made it all possible.''
That wasn't always the case.
Gordon came to Vanderbilt in 2004 as a go-to scorer.
He put up 30 points in a 67-62 win against in-state rival Tennessee his freshman season. But his shoot-first mentality didn't last, and he struggled through his sophomore season.
``When he came in I don't think he had any idea of how to play basketball with four other guys,'' Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. ``Basketball to him, the only part of the game that ever mattered to him when he first got here, was when he had the ball in his hands.''
The Commodores needed a pass-first guard, and Gordon finally embraced that role his junior year.
Last season, he finished fourth in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.21 to 1). He ended the year with 51 turnovers, the fewest among SEC starting point guards. He's continued to roll ever since.
``Red is a no fear kind a guy,'' Stallings said. ``That's the kind of guy we needed. Through his own sheer will he's become that.''
There have been moments when he hasn't always been strong, even for his teammates.
During a March 2006 practice, teammate Davis Nwankwo collapsed. Players tried to help. All Gordon could do was walk away.
``I thought he was dead,'' Gordon said. ``It was like I was reliving my brother's death all over again.''
The difference for Nwankwo was an automatic external defibrillator in the gym that restarted his heart with one jolt, bringing him back to life.
For Gordon, it served as another reminder of why he plays to the edge. His teammates have learned to do the same, winning 84 games in less than four years with his leadership.
``I can only imagine how difficult it must be for him to play ball every day knowing that his brother died playing the game,'' Foster said. ``By the same token, he's done a great job of using that as motivation. And that motivates us. He's the pulse of our team.''

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