CLIPPERS

Clippers' DeAndre Jordan finds inspiration in tributes to friend who died

Clippers center DeAndre Jordan finds inspiration in tributes to friend who died

It is a ritual DeAndre Jordan completes on his way to every game, whether he's driving on surface streets around Staples Center or riding the team bus on the Eisenhower Expressway toward the United Center.

The Clippers center pulls out his phone and sends the same tweet to his 574,000 followers, many of whom are unfamiliar with the significance of the number and Twitter handle that appear on their screens.

"#35 @TobiOye…"

Jordan's tribute continues when he arrives at the arena. He writes the name Tobi Oyedeji on the court with his finger and speaks to his friend before every game when he says his prayer.

"I feel like he would have been in the NBA somehow," Jordan said, "so he's on every court."

Oyedeji also remains in the hearts of those who knew the 17-year-old power forward from Jordan's hometown of Houston. The teenager intended to follow his friend's path to the NBA by playing at Texas A&M before it veered in tragic fashion.

He was driving home from a school-sponsored event after his senior prom in May 2010 when he was involved in a head-on collision that killed him and a 51-year-old nurse. The prevailing theory was that Oyedeji fell asleep.

Toxicology tests determined there was no alcohol or drugs in Oyedeji's system, which came as no surprise to his father.

"When Tobi went to practice and came back aching, I had to beg him to use Advil," Michael Oyedeji said in a phone interview. "He said, 'Daddy, I'm an athlete. They test me at school and I don't want anything in my body.' "

Tobi befriended Jordan through Jordan's younger brother Brett, a teammate of Tobi at Bellaire High who was one year older. When Jordan learned his alma mater was recruiting Tobi, they exchanged phone numbers and talked regularly.

Jordan soon discovered they had more in common than their college choice.

"He was super goofy," Jordan said. "He was the life of the party. But when he got on the court, he was a different person. He was an animal on the floor and that was cool."

Said Michael Oyedeji: "He was just like DeAndre, I'm telling you. When DeAndre gets so fired up and ready to go in games, that was like Tobi. I had to calm him down sometimes."

Tobi always expressed his excitement to his father each time Jordan attended one of his high school games or practices, even if Jordan's brother was a large part of the draw.

"He would talk about DeAndre all day," Michael Oyedeji said. " 'Yeah, I was with DeAndre today. DeAndre this … DeAndre! DeAndre!' "

Jordan recalled Tobi's excitement the last time they saw one another, shortly after a game.

"He came up to me and gave me this big, like squeeze hug that was so strong I like coughed after he let me go," Jordan said. "And then, a couple of nights later …"

Three days after the accident, Jordan coached a charity game to benefit the Oyedeji family. He dedicated his career to his friend and had Tobi's jersey number — 35 — tattooed on his left arm. He also designed a wristband he wears to every game with Tobi's name on it.

Each time the Clippers play in Houston, Jordan provides tickets for 35 children from his old neighborhood in the city's Third Ward.

"He always asked me, 'Is that OK to do it?' " Michael Oyedeji said of Jordan's efforts to remember his son. "I said, 'DeAndre, it's OK. Whatever you do helps me a lot.' "

Michael, a Nigerian emigrant who works as a respiratory therapist, still cannot bring himself to log onto the active Twitter or Facebook accounts of his only child. Tobi's last tweet was sent four days before he died. His fifth-to-last tweet read, in a heartbreaking coincidence, "Time to sleep."

Jordan said he has thought about Tobi every day during what has been the best season of his career as he leads the NBA in rebounding and field-goal percentage.

"Just don't take my job or what I do for L.A. for granted," Jordan said, "because at any point in time it could be taken away from you, when you're 26 or when you're 17. It really doesn't matter."

What Jordan has done for a grieving family has certainly made a difference to them.

"I feel like my son is in the NBA through DeAndre," Michael Oyedeji said. "It gives me a lot of joy."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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