- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON – Tobi Oyedeji was following in DeAndre Jordan’s footsteps four years ago.
He was a standout high school basketball player from Jordan’s hometown of Bellaire, Texas, and had committed to Texas A&M, Jordan’s alma mater.
Jordan's younger brother Brett was Oyedeji's high school teammate, and it wasn’t long before Oyedeji, who was an only child, became like a younger brother to Jordan as well.
They would talk several times a week about basketball, Bellaire and getting recruited by Texas A&M. Oyedeji would give Jordan a big bear hug every time he would see him, ask him a litany of questions about basketball and life. He wanted to be just like Jordan, and Jordan wanted to be there to help him every step of the way.
Jordan made plans to see Oyedeji on May 30, 2010, when Oyedeji was scheduled to graduate high school before driving to Texas A&M to start his college career. Jordan was going to be there to see him get his diploma and be with him on his first day in College Station, to help him get adjusted.
But that day never came.
Two weeks before he was to graduate, Oyedeji died in a car accident as he was driving home from Bellaire’s prom night. He was just five days away from celebrating his 18th birthday.
Jordan has honored Oyedeji before every game he has played since then.
He puts on a black wristband with Oyedeji’s name and a white cross etched into it as he puts on his uniform, and tweets “#35 @TobiOye” before he takes the court.
“His number was 35, so I have 35 inner-city kids who are excelling in athletics and academics at the game,” Jordan said. “It’s a thing I’m going to do for a very long time.”
Oyedeji is always on Jordan’s mind, but it’s hard for him not to think about the last time he talked to Oyedeji whenever he’s in Houston. He can still picture the smile on the 17-year-old’s face as he was talking about basketball and how he was going to make him proud when he got to college.
“The last time I saw him we were in Houston,” Jordan said. “And he had a basketball tournament and they had just won, and he came up and hugged me like he hadn’t seen me in years. And he was like, ‘Aww, man, I can’t wait to come to the game. You’re my role model.’ It was a tough situation. His whole thing was focusing on now being a great basketball player and a great student and being a great person.”
The roles reversed when Oyedeji died. It was now Jordan who was looking up to Oyedeji for guidance and inspiration.
“He loved the game,” Jordan said. “No one knows what’s going to happen in the future, just take advantage of whatever is happening now.”
Jordan had perhaps his best game of the season in front of his friends and family and the kids who came in honor of Oyedeji. He had 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting, 18 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. It was his third double-double of the season and the third time he has had at least 17 rebounds this season. He only had one such game last season.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers went out of his way this season to make Jordan part of the Clippers’ “Big Three” along with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. He was featured on the cover of the Clippers’ media guide and program, addressed the fans before the opener and often addresses the media from the podium along with Paul and Griffin.
“He does so many things,” Rivers said. “You don’t see the 30 points, but he creates more with his rebounds and his defense. I think we played him 15 straight minutes in the game because we had nowhere else to go, and he was playing so well and he kept saying he wanted to stay in. I thought his presence was huge.”
Jordan doesn’t care much about his personal statistics. He knows he will never be a great offensive player, but that’s not what the Clippers need him to be to become a championship team. They need him to be their defensive captain. It’s a challenge Rivers gave Jordan in the offseason, and one he has accepted and lived up to since the season started.
“I just want to be the best defensive player I can be and anything I can give us offensively is a bonus,” Jordan said. “My first, second, third, fourth and fifth priority is definitely defense. I want to be everywhere and help everybody.”
As Jordan continues to improve his game and evolve into the player he and the Clippers believe he can be, he knows he’s not doing it alone -- and he’s not doing it just for himself.
“I definitely feel like I’m playing for him,” Jordan said of Oyedeji. “There are important things that I’m playing for and he’s definitely a huge part. I just try to keep him alive in that way.”
3dMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon