Doc Rivers wore an exasperated look, his latest accessory, given the unwanted and sobering reality of the Donald Sterling saga that had crash-landed into his world. He'd loosened his wine-colored tie, the knot hanging an inch below the second button of his formerly crisp, now game-soaked white shirt. His jacket had long since been shed. His eyes were red, and his voice approached new depths of gravelly. As he sat in his tiny office just off the Clippers' locker room, he clutched a wrinkled box score but stared right through it.
His team had just wrapped up an emotionally exhausting 48 hours unlike any he'd ever experienced.
DeAndre Jordan, the buoyant sixth-year Clippers center, bounded past the open doorway.
"Doc!" the young center exclaimed excitedly, as if he hadn't seen him in a month.
Rivers smiled. His eyes lit up.
"DJ!" he shot back. Jordan kept moving. Soon Rivers' eyes dulled again. But a faint smile remained.
Rivers does that, smile, when in the proximity of Jordan or if the subject of the 25-year-old center comes up.
You see, Rivers has been witness to, and played no small role in, the remarkable transformation Jordan has undergone. In Rivers' short time in LA, Jordan represents both a tangible success and saving grace.
And then there's this: In his first five seasons, he had seven games of 16 or more rebounds. This season he had 28. Throw in four more in 11 playoff games.
But his contributions have gone far beyond stuffing the box score with eye-popping numbers. Along with the role of defensive captain, he's established himself as one of the NBA's best teammates and the heart and really goofy soul of a Clippers team that's shown unflappable team chemistry.
"There's a reason so many players on this team say this is the best experience of their careers," says J.J. Redick. "DeAndre is a big part of that."
After five years of searching for an identity, Jordan has become the Clippers' go-to man in the middle, on and off the court.
"A lot of what he does just can't be measured," says Jamal Crawford. "He's our key. No question."
On a balmy night last June, Jordan jumped in his car and drove to a restaurant in Malibu to meet with Rivers. He wanted to make a good impression, so he arrived early, prepared his thoughts and walked into the restaurant with an open mind. He knew Rivers was going to lay out his role and was eager to learn the specifics.
Rivers made Jordan the defensive captain. He was to protect the rim, talk on defense, make adjustments on the fly and do every bit of grunt work asked of him. It didn't sound glamorous, but Jordan kept listening.
Rivers rattled off a list of players for Jordan to study and emulate: Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Tyson Chandler and lastly Bill Russell.
"I told him all those guys had rings," says Rivers. The coach's message was clear.
Control your emotions, focus on the moment and never deviate from your role. Don't get sidetracked by frustration and impatience. And forget about wanting the ball.
The last part of that was the hardest pill to swallow, but Jordan left that night with a renewed sense of excitement. No coach had ever talked to him the way Rivers had. Jordan started thinking he could be an All-Star and collect postseason awards.
"Doc really made me see that's how I would make my mark," recalls Jordan.
He began to watch compilation tapes of Wallace and Chandler, taking special care to note how they got position, created space under the boards and tapped the ball out.
Jordan's primary objective on offense is to crash the glass and keep Clipper possessions alive. Rivers has long been a believer in second-chance points, and no one is more qualified than Jordan to make that happen. Secondly, Jordan is tasked with freeing up the Clippers' many shooters, whether by setting picks for them to pop off the elbow or by being a rather large obstacle guards can use to shed their defenders while running the baseline.
Sprinting in transition to create lob opportunities is a must.
And there scarcely has been anyone better at catching the lob—ridiculous length, quick bounce off the floor, huge hands and a 40" vertical at 6'11". But it's Jordan's unseen talents—like uncanny coordination, balance and midair control—that have helped author some of his most wow-inducing moments, like catching a lob last March and putting Brandon Knight on a poster for the ages.
"Very few players are willing to accept a specific role like his," says Rivers. "But early on he realized this defensive and rebounding thing is not bad."
"Doc is a big believer in players having confidence," says Jordan. "When you have somebody like that just pushing you, your confidence is sky high. You just want to run through a brick wall for him."
Trust has been a theme that has been paramount to the Clips this season. To a man, Clippers insiders believe Vinny Del Negro didn't trust Jordan and his poor free-throw shooting late in games. "He couldn't stand it," says a source close to the team. "It just bothered him and DJ knew it. It got so bad it freaked him out at the line."
Last season, under Del Negro, Jordan played in 30 fourth quarters. This season he played in 72. In this postseason, Jordan has made appearances in every fourth quarter as of May 11. Rivers doesn't bail Jordan out when the other team goes all Hack-A-Jordan. His free-throw shooting is still dreadful (43 percent in the playoffs), but Doc made his point about trusting his big man unequivocally.
While Jordan is still a work in progress—he can still be a bit quick-tempered and has yet to master that jump hook we've been hearing about—it's tough to find a big man who improved more in the last year.
Note: Defensive rating is an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions. Source: Basketball-reference.com.
After a recent game, Jordan stood in front of his locker putting the final adjustments on a perfect Windsor knot. He's been known to experiment with fashion, as his Kanye-inspired black leather pants suggest, but tonight was more GQ than Yeezy. He threw on a smart wolf grey sport coat in one motion like a superhero dramatically flashing his cape.
As teammates streamed out of the door next to his locker, he had a playful dig for each. Sometimes so the whole room could hear, some under his breath. Each elicited laughter from the target.
No player's appearance, foibles or quirks are off limits. Redick gets chided for looking like Maverick from Top Gun. Matt Barnes is some odd Rick Fox/Borat amalgam. He calls Crawford Benjamin Button. "Because he's aging in reverse," laughs Jordan.
"This dude is crazy," said Crawford after hearing the wisecrack.
Much in the way Jordan has grown into his game, he's gotten comfortable in his own skin off the floor, becoming the heartbeat of the team's unity. In the process he has exponentially increased his worth to the Clippers.
"DJ gives us cohesion," says Rivers. "He helps create an environment that puts everyone at ease. He's really good at that, and it's why our guys get along so well."
"I just want to see everybody happy," Jordan says, "so I try to have a unique relationship with each guy."
When Redick was out with a bulging disk and didn't travel, Jordan kept in touch on FaceTime. "He made me feel very much like I was still part of the team," Redick recalls. (Redick was surprised to hear Jordan owned his No. 4 Duke jersey when he was in high school.) When postseason awards were being handed out, Jordan sent out a half-dozen tweets enthusiastically promoting Crawford for Sixth Man of the Year.
"This group is really tight, and it's part of our identity," continues Rivers. "It's OK to laugh and enjoy the company of your teammates."
Jordan's indefatigable sense of humor bounces haphazardly from bombastic to sarcastic and back again. He loves cartoons, bowling, SpongeBob, paintball and comic book superheroes. Especially Batman. (He got a Batman cake and balloons on his third birthday, and his LA home is flush with Caped Crusader memorabilia.)
He scours the Internet for silly pictures and videos to send teammates. He's seen his dunk on Knight over a thousand times. He misses his Chinese water dragon (that's a lizard, and it ran away "to a better place") but replaced it with an energetic boxer named Bruce (as in Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne). He hates tomatoes, sketchy Wi-Fi and LA traffic. But coming from Jordan somehow, even that seems funny.
In March, he and Griffin joined a comedy troupe at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles for a live reading of Space Jam. Jordan nailed the part of Charles Barkley to the uproarious approval of the audience and later the Internet. He does a pretty decent Shaq too.
Jordan's endearing goofiness extends to his active social media life. From tongue-in-cheek Vines in the locker room with partner-in-crime Blake Griffin (not to mention an occasional vomiting LA partygoer) to cross-eyed selfies with mom Kimberly, to perpetual odes to model girlfriend Amber Alvarez (he sticks his fingers up her nose in one Instagram shot), whom he met at a birthday party, the world gets a taste of what teammates see everyday.
But he's not just here for your amusement. Jordan's in on the joke—more often the one setting people up. He once tweeted a screenshot of a text convo with his mom asking if she'd be his date to the ESPYs on the condition he could wear a ridiculous LL Cool J-style getup. (Mom's quite the card too, taking to Twitter to roast everything from refs to her son's free-throw shooting.)
Redick recalls the warm greeting he got from Jordan when he met him for the first time at the Clippers practice facility. As he does with most, Jordan quickly developed a bond with him by finding out what they had in common. Several weeks later Jordan made a confession.
"Man, I always thought you were a douchebag before I met you," he told Redick. "But you're not!"
"His personality was infectious, and we'd give it right back," said Jordan's former coach at Texas A&M, Mark Turgeon. "Whenever he'd get a big dunk we'd be on the bench like, 'And with the fifth pick in the draft…'"
Jordan has come quite a ways since the somewhat shy, wide-eyed kid prone to bouts of immaturity and frustration that arrived in Los Angeles six years ago. That kid wasn't always comfortable on the main stage.
Once at a party a month before the 2008 draft, Jordan was palling around with fellow rookie-to-be Michael Beasley, with whom he shared an agent. At the New York City shindig thrown by the late rapper-turned-filmmaker Adam Yauch (better known as MCA of the Beastie Boys), chatterbox Beasley was the center of the room, flirting with models and getting laughs. Jordan played the background, opting for the ping-pong table over the life-of-the-party role.
But now the force of Jordan's personality and his irresistible likability make him the center of every room. He's especially in his element when a team-bonding opportunity arises.
In Oklahoma City last week, Jordan organized a night out at the movies by finding the theatre, picking the movie (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and wrangling guys when it was time to head out. He throws barbecues in his backyard (Barnes and Griffin are regulars) for teammates and their significant others. He's trying to organize a team paintball outing this summer.
After Game 5 of the first round, a reporter asked Jordan a weighty question about the anger that bubbled inside of him in the immediate aftermath upon hearing Sterling's hateful words. He paused, bowed his head slightly. "Wow," he said, taking a bit to collect his thoughts given the topic. Before he could respond, Jamal Crawford passed him on his way out of the locker room.
"Twenty-five, 18 and 4," shouted Crawford before ducking out of the room. "Oh yeah, 80 percent from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. We don't win without him."
"I paid him to say that," said Jordan with a smile before getting back to the question.
A moment later, BFF Griffin headed for the door. "Bye, DJ!" he shouted with mock enthusiasm.
"Bye, Blake! See you later, buddy. See you at dinner," Jordan shot back, their inside jokes floating safely above everyone's heads.
There was Doc again. With those tired eyes, gravelly voice and stretched out tie. But this time he was in a good mood. Thirty minutes earlier, his Clippers had come from 22 down and pulled off an improbable Game 4 win against the Thunder.
Doc's voice was shot, as usual, but his step was aided by the customary pep that comes with a career-defining victory. As Doc entered the locker room, Jordan was on his way out.
"We did it!" Jordan said to his coach. Rivers patted him on the back, offered praise and, of course, smiled.
Jordan turned and smiled too but never lost stride. Then he disappeared down the hallway, laughter echoing off the walls.
Chris Palmer has covered the NBA for the past 16 years, most recently as an NBA Insider for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He has also written six books, including The Sixth Man – A Season Inside The NBA Playground, And 1’s Guide to Streetball and the New York Times bestseller, Wide Open. He grew up in the D.C. metro area, where he studied journalism at Howard University. He currently lives in Los Angeles.