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RIO DE JANEIRO — To most, he’s known as the impossible-lob-catching, alley-oop-dunking, free-throw-clanking, front-row shot-blocking big man with the Jimi Hendrix hairdo and the scraggly beard. To folks in Los Angeles, he’s the least-heralded but consistently dependable member of the Clippers’ big three. To folks in Dallas, he’s the indecisive flip-flopper who extended the Mavericks’ rebuilding efforts with an unexpected change of heart. To some, he’s the guy in the blonde wig who plays “Mom” in those State Farm commercials.
To Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan is one of his best friends in the league.
“If I were to get married today, he’d be in my wedding,” Durant told The Vertical about Jordan. “That’s how it is. That’s my brother.”
Numerically, Durant and Jordan were bound to be attached at the hip at some point during these Olympic games. Number 5 and No. 6, respectively, in your program for Team USA, the tallest players on the roster – don’t bother looking at the height listings in your program – are always side-by-side during the pregame introduction and national anthem.
But they have also been almost inseparable off the floor since the games began. They were seated next to each other, pumping their fists and cheering, and using their cellphones to record Michael Phelps collecting a couple more gold medals. They’ve joined teammates on trips to the Ipanema Beach to play volleyball, to Copacabana Beach to watch volleyball, to Olympic Stadium to see Usain Bolt scorch the track and to the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue to admire one of the world’s great wonders.
The newest Golden State Warrior and the longest-tenured Los Angeles Clipper are proving that players from those hated rivals can get along. It helps that they’ve been friends almost a decade – beginning when Durant failed in recruiting Jordan to Texas, growing stronger a few years ago when Durant decided to make Los Angeles his offseason home and continuing through now, as they try to bring a third consecutive gold medal back to the United States.
When relayed Durant’s comments about being in his whenever wedding, Jordan nodded and told The Vertical, “For sure, he’s going to be in mine.”
Durant first met Jordan shortly after he committed to Texas and tried to convince Jordan, who was a year younger, to join the program. Jordan wasn’t swayed because he had little confidence they’d ever be college teammates, and signed with rival Texas A&M.
“I said, ‘Why would I come there, when you’re going to leave after your first year?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t think I’m going to leave. I think I’m going to stay.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you.’ And obviously, you know what happened,” Jordan told The Vertical with a laugh. “Ever since then, we’ve been really, really cool and he’s one of my best friends in the world.”
This summer, Jordan was on the other end, heading up to the Hamptons, along with Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and Lawrence Frank, to make a recruiting pitch for Durant to join the Clippers. “I tried every day,” Jordan told The Vertical. “We had a shot. And if you ask him, he’d say we had a shot. People can be happy for him, mad at him, but at the end of the day, he did what was best for Kevin, and he can live with that.”
Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City to join the 2015 champions and the team that eliminated him in the Western Conference finals cast the former MVP as a villain in some circles. Though the decision meant Durant would be joining the Clippers’ hated division rival, Jordan was supportive. Durant told the Vertical that the first text he received after posting his announcement was from Jordan, who said, “Love you, bro. Congrats. Whatever makes you happy.”
Jordan encountered his own negative backlash last summer when he agreed to a deal with the Mavericks but reneged in order to remain with the Clippers. “In one city, I was a villain. I can take it,” Jordan told The Vertical. “It definitely makes you have thicker skin, for sure. I feel like I’m a likable guy. When that whole situation went down, I was like, ‘Damn, am I what these people are saying I am?’ At the end of the day, the person who is going to be playing there, living there, is going to be you. You can’t make that decision for anybody but yourself.”
In addition to hanging out with Durant, the Olympics have also given Jordan the chance to connect with players whom he’d always viewed as the enemy. Those differences have been put aside in pursuit of a similar goal, quarrels that become more difficult to maintain once those guys have been to your home, dining on your mother’s cuisine. Before leaving for Brazil, Jordan invited his Olympic teammates over for dinner at his mother’s home in Houston.
“Six months ago, I never would’ve thought I would’ve invited Draymond [Green] to my house,” Jordan told The Vertical, adding that his relationship with Durant had no influence on befriending the other Warriors on the Olympic team. “Once you’re around these guys you realize, ‘Oh, they’re cool.’ Before, I only looked at Draymond as Draymond who played for the Warriors. We always clashed. So, now that we’ve been together for over a month, it’s been amazing. We hate each other during the season, but it’s bigger than those two teams. Winning a gold medal, representing your country. We don’t even think about that anymore. Which is crazy. I’m happy to be playing with these 11 guys and we’ll be bonded for life after this.”
Jordan has had a sometimes uneasy adjustment to the international game, not sure how or when to be physical without picking up cheap fouls. But these Olympics have given him the chance to distinguish himself out of the shadows of his All-Star teammates Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. In those popular “Meet the Hoopers” commercials, Jordan got a chance to get some notoriety and he wasn’t bothered that it required him wearing a wig and a dress. “I definitely got some flack for it. I got some heat,” Jordan told The Vertical. “But my personality, I’m an outgoing guy, I like to have fun. I like to joke around. It was a fun little experience. My little cousins enjoyed it, so it was good.”
With Griffin missing most of last season with a nagging quad injury and a broken hand from a fight with a former team employee, Jordan was able to earn some of the appreciation he has long sought when he made first-team All-NBA despite never making the All-Star team. “I could care less about the All-Star team now,” Jordan told The Vertical. “Yeah, I really don’t care about it anymore. I’d rather go on my week vacation, to be honest. And being an Olympian, and potentially a gold medalist, that’s better than that. It’s cool to be appreciated and highly valued by your peers. That, to me, is the biggest thing.”
Durant believes the recognition was long overdue. “As a basketball player, you can appreciate what someone like him does, he sets screens, does all the small things, rebounds, blocks shots, talks out there, he’s an anchor on defense,” Durant told The Vertical. “If you’re really into the game of basketball, you can really appreciate him. That’s why he’s paid like a max player, because the Clippers know what he brings and how he helps the team. He helps everyone win.”
The Clippers have had an incredible run of misfortune that spans the franchise’s entire history. Though Jordan has experienced the turnaround in which the team has surpassed the Lakers as the best in Los Angeles, it still has been unable to get beyond the second round because of the flukiest of situations. From the Donald Sterling fiasco, to Paul and Griffin both getting injured in a first-round loss to Portland last season, the Clippers haven’t been able to catch many favorable breaks, but Jordan is undeterred.
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“Every team goes through ups and downs, and some dark times, but you’ve got to keep fighting through and find a way,” Jordan told The Vertical. “That makes for a better story for me. This is my ninth season, and I definitely want a chance at winning something that’s never happened before, with the Clippers. It’s big. I want a chance at the title.”
Jordan said there wasn’t any more urgency to win next season, simply because Paul and Griffin can both become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2017. “They’re both extremely talented players,” Jordan told The Vertical. “I believe whatever decision they make is going to be a great decision. I’m not worried about it right now. I don’t expect it to be a distraction during the season. I can’t speak for them, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to make the best decision for themselves and their families. Whatever happens, happens.”
But one thing Jordan can be assured, for at least one season – he’ll be tussling with his good friend Durant, who is also chasing the same elusive ring. “We’ve always been cool,” Jordan told The Vertical. “We compete against each other four times a year. We hang out in the summertime, go on trips together, so it’s great to be on the same team together now.”
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