DeAndre Jordan, one of the league's most jovial, whimsical players, doesn't want to talk. Or at least he doesn't want to tell the whole story.
When Jordan, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed with the Brooklyn Nets, the two superstars took less on their respective contracts to make room in the budget for Jordan. But when asked how all of this developed, Jordan plays coy.
"Did they? Those are great guys, man," he says, falling back in laughter. "As far as money goes, I don't know how they did that. I dropped out of college, so I don't know."
The deflection is typical of Jordan. "He's super humble," says Nets swingman Joe Harris. "He'd never talk about himself or anything he does."
Still, those within the league understand well what Jordan, 31, can do. That's why the Nets were willing to pay him $40 million over four years when given the breathing room by Durant and Irving. Even as Jordan's natural position—the traditional, physical center—goes out of style, he has proved valuable beyond rebounding and pick-setting. He has navigated a somewhat frustrating career to become a uniter of teams, the NBA's preeminent guru. In an age where players are zipping around the league through trades and free agency and teams are assembled on the fly, Jordan might be needed more than ever.
"There's always one guy on the team that everybody's energy is drawn toward, and he was that guy," says Jamal Crawford, the veteran guard who played alongside Jordan for five seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. "People see how fiery he is, but he has another side where he's very calm and understanding. You felt like he was the big brother. He'd put his arm around you and say, 'Everything will be all right.'"
As he enters the later stages of his career, Jordan remains beloved throughout the league. Even at 6'11", his personality is outsized: he wears sombreros to postgame interviews on winter nights in the Northeast; he is an avid Harry Potter reader and Twilight fan ("Team Edward; I was locked in"); he is a deep believer in meditation; he is a vegan—and yes, he's happy to tell you about it. Baron Davis, an old teammate in Los Angeles, calls him "the funniest dude I know." In Dallas, where Jordan spent only a few months last year, the Mavericks still talk of his pregame ritual: sprinting across the locker room, leaping as high as possible and diving into the laps of his teammates.
"He's definitely different," Mavs guard J.J. Barea says..
In Brooklyn, he has already developed handshakes with each player, much to the delight of Jarrett Allen, with whom Jordan shares center duties. "In the best way possible, he keeps us on our toes," Allen says. When the team traveled to China as the NBA's relationship there became strained, Jordan helped schedule a team dinner to keep the group on track. Since then, some two months into the season, teammates have appreciated his knack for pick-me-ups and pep talks.
"He's gathering us up, trying to speak with us, like a mental coach," second-year wing Dzanan Musa says.
Jordan's stats—roughly eight points and 10 rebounds per game—are well below his prime numbers, and he doesn't strike the same fear around the rim as he once did. And yet, his teammates say he's irreplaceable.
"Any time you look at the makeup of really good NBA teams that have star power, they always have reliable veterans that have the pulse of the locker room and connect with the 15th guy but also with the No. 1 option," Harris says. "DeAndre's able to bring everyone together.
Jordan does not just have a room where he mediates. He has a meditation room. The difference is in the details: candles, crystals, small statues, vapor oils. Each morning in his apartment in the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, Jordan enters the space, dims the lights and sits in his meditation chair, elevated so that his folded knees don't knock against his collarbone.
Initially, a few years ago, Jordan would lean on guided meditation recordings to help him clear his mind. Now, for the most part, he can do it on his own, rotating through different mantras daily. Tomorrow, he says, he will focus on forgiveness. The point is to acknowledge the negativity and pressure that surround him—the grind of practice, the responsibilities he has with family and friends—but to see those concepts and let them pass by without judgment or concern. "The more I'm getting better, the faster I let those thoughts go," he says. "Eventually, down the road, I won't think about anything. Maybe I'll start levitating."
Meditation has helped Jordan find the peace of mind needed to lead in the NBA. It has been a long journey here.
Davis recalls that, during Jordan's rookie season at age 19, "He was like a frustrated kid, and he couldn't really contain his emotions. It was like, man, if he could ever bottle his energy and focus it into the game, he's gonna be great."
Jordan took major steps forward as a sophomore, Davis says, by focusing on his duties at center. Meanwhile, his social skills began to shine as well.
“I have a relationship with everybody,” Jordan says. “If everybody’s going off the rails a little bit, I can go, ‘What’s going on? Talk to me.’”
The Lob City Clippers were notorious for infighting, but Jordan did his best to keep the team at ease. “I feel like that was my personality—I was so outgoing, optimistic, charismatic. I felt like that was my responsibility, my role.”
Still, Jordan is a passionate player himself, and he says, “There would be [trying] times where I’m like, Oh my God!”
For years, Jordan has ranked at or near the top of the technical foul charts. Perhaps that’s the nature of protecting the rim. Or perhaps he’s been letting out some frustration that way —Jordan, after all, has battled one nagging issue his entire career: awful free-throw shooting.
In the history of the NBA, only four players have attempted at least 300 free throws in a season and made below 45 percent of them: Wilt Chamberlain, Ben Wallace, Andre Drummond and Jordan, who accomplished the feat in three consecutive seasons.
In his prime, Jordan would often receive the hack-a-Shaq treatment, and he dreaded fouls being called while he was shooting. What’s worse—or stranger—is that he estimates he’s an 80 percent free-throw shooter during practice. Why the historic discrepancy? He has spent much time pondering this question.
When a player is at the free-throw line, Jordan says, "It's the only time where the game stops. It's just you. Nobody's moving, and everybody in the crowd is looking at one person. It's psychological."
Last season, Jordan found a trick to reduce the pressure. While lining up to shoot his free throws, he would yell, "Who you got?"—as in, Who are you guarding?—at teammates standing around the rim. Then he'd let the ball fly, without thinking too hard about shooting mechanics or stats. Maybe it was a form of in-game meditation, a way to ignore the negativity—and it worked. He shot a career-high 70.5 percent last year.
"You can joke about the rituals," Mavericks big man Dwight Powell says, "but that's hard work. It was amazing."
Jordan is always on the lookout for self-improvement tricks. He is an avid reader and researcher. A few years back, for instance, he heard about the benefits of a plant-based diet. His trainer suggested he would experience serious muscle loss if he cut out meat, but Jordan wanted to see for himself, so he had his blood work taken and then went vegan for a summer and compared the results. They were "positive," he says, and he's stuck with the diet ever since. (Occasionally, he ropes in his teammates, too.)
His knack for critical thinking makes him a natural fit in Brooklyn. Allen is an enthusiastic advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math); guard Spencer Dinwiddie is the league's foremost expert on cryptocurrency; Durant has often lamented the lack of depth in mainstream conversation about basketball; and Irving has been known to question the bounds of reality. He and Jordan like to exchange reading material.
"It's good to be around guys like that," Jordan says. When it comes to Durant and Irving in particular, "We talk about priorities, what's important in life. They're very in-depth conversations." Irving and Jordan are fathers to young children, and they like to talk about "dad stuff, dad problems."
The players have helped each other through NBA problems, too.
In the summer of 2015, after Jordan famously reversed course on the Mavericks by spurning them at the last second and instead re-signing with the Clippers, he was shocked by the wave of negative energy that emanated from social media. Everything from typical NBA trash talk to death threats rolled in. Like a "dumbass," he says, he read through it all.
One message might read, "We're so glad you came back to the Clippers!" The next: "F--k you, I hope you die!" Jordan stared at his phone dumbfounded and hurt. He questioned himself. "I started to think, 'Damn, am I a bad person? Maybe I'm a bad guy, that I did this to these people.'"
Jordan is a people-pleaser, and all of that negativity—coming from, of all places, his home state of Texas—weighed on him.
"I'm not going to say I went into a depression," he says, "but it definitely was a dark time for me during the rest of that summer."
As the public basketball community turned its back on Jordan, some in the NBA family helped him move forward. One such player was his new teammate, Durant. The two had known each other since their teenage years, when Durant tried to recruit Jordan to the University of Texas (he instead attended A&M). During that 2015 summer, KD was still with the Oklahoma City Thunder; NBA fans hadn’t yet turned on him over a free-agency decision.
"He was an outlet for me," Jordan says. The big man would show Durant some of the worst messages he received, which Durant downplayed. "He's like, 'Man, f--k that. Do you know them?'" Jordan recalls. "I'm like, 'No.' He's like, 'Well then, whatever. Go out there and hoop.'" The support was much-needed during a vulnerable time in Jordan's career.
"That just shows me how much he cared about me as a person," Jordan says. "I always feel like I owe him for that."
He had his chance to return the favor one year later when Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors. Social media vitriol hit unseen heights, but Jordan showed Durant nothing but support.
"You're my friend before you're my co-worker," he told KD. "You told me the same: 'So what, who cares?' You made a decision you thought was best for Kevin."
By the time free agency swung around this summer, Jordan, Durant and Irving—who orchestrated his exit from Cleveland in 2017, and whose tenure in Boston quickly turned sour—were well-prepared for any public outcry (which mostly came from disappointed Knicks fans).
"We've been through a ton of s--t," Jordan says. "We didn't care about any backlash or any talk. We've all been through that, so how bad is it going to be?"
This free-agency decision was made over FaceTime. Jordan recalls the conversation as fairly casual, even anticlimactic. All three players had long appreciated Brooklyn—the culture and talent the team had in place—and, on the eve of free agency, confirmed the decision with each other. (As for the financial logistics, Jordan's agent, Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports Management, confirms the Nets could not have fit Jordan under the cap if his co-stars hadn't taken less money. Irving and Durant converted a chunk of their salaries into performance-based bonuses to create room.)
Until that call, the players weren't totally certain of their decisions, and the Nets really had no clue. In Brooklyn, as free agency opened, Nets management bided their time, keeping an eye on TV screens and refreshing Twitter, hoping something would break. "I had no degree of certainty," head coach Kenny Atkinson recalls with a smile. To maintain sanity, he had convinced himself the Nets were out of the running. He stepped away from the various screens for a moment, and that's when he heard a celebratory cheer.
Some six months later, the Nets' season hasn't gone exactly as planned. Irving has been sidelined since Nov. 15 with a nagging shoulder injury, and the Nets currently hold the No. 7 seed in the East. There was a three-game losing streak on the road, plus losses in overtime and at the buzzer. In short, it has been the type of season that demands a DeAndre Jordan—his screens, his rebounds, his positivity, his quirkiness.
Take, for example, his newest creation: an assist celebration.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem overly important that a player averaging only 2.2 assists per game now celebrates his nicest passes by picking up a phantom coin—a dime—from the court and putting it in his phantom pocket. But such playful moments are critical to Jordan’s basketball philosophy, and in turn, what he brings to the game.
"It's tough, you get frustrated," Jordan says of the NBA grind. "But at the end of the day, we're playing a game. It's a serious game, but it's a game. We take it serious, but we gotta have fun with it. I want to have fun with life."