The U.S. men's basketball team speaks with the media at a press conference at the Main Press Centre ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 4, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – DeAndre Jordan admits he's nervous.
Not about playing in his first Olympic basketball tournament. That's something the Los Angeles Clippers center takes in stride.
It's the Opening Ceremony he's worried about.
“I don't want to trip,” said Jordan, who will march Friday night with Team USA. “I don't want to sweat too much. All my family and friends are going to be watching back home. I know once the ceremony starts, it's the real deal time.”
The U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team opens play Saturday against China, a squad it defeated 106-57 and 107-57 during the undefeated five-game USA Basketball Showcase tour.
Jordan is one of 10 Olympic rookies on Team USA. Only Carmelo Anthony, the first four-time U.S. men’s basketball Olympian, and Kevin Durant, in his second Games, are Olympic veterans, although Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and DeMarcus Cousins played on the 2014 FIBA World Cup team that won a gold medal.
On the heels of the NBA season, all of the players had to adjust to the international game, which includes different rules, shorter periods, a closer three-point line and perhaps the hardest change to get accustomed to: a ball that is slightly smaller, more slippery and has a different panel pattern.
Forward Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls said the first time he touched the ball used by the international basketball federation (FIBA), he told himself, “You'd better figure out how to put it in the basket, no matter what. You better figure out how to dribble it, how to pass it, how to shoot it to the best of your ability.”
Jordan worked out with the new ball before he started training with Team USA.
“My hands are pretty massive,” he said. “It was something I wasn't used to. There are definitely times in the game when I'm like, 'Oh man, I have to get my hands right,' but everybody's using the same ball, so you have to get used to it.”
Cousins also practiced with the new ball earlier this summer.
“It didn't go as well as I thought it would,” said the Sacramento Kings center. “I think we're handling it a lot better now, so as the time goes on, the ball will get better for us.
“That's the cards we were dealt. We can't make any excuses. We have to be ready to play.”
Cousins has been ready to play for Team USA for a long time. “I told myself growing up, 'I want to be on that team,'” he said. “My time is now.”
Butler, though, did not dream about playing at the Olympic Games.
“Never,” he said. “Never. Whew. I never thought I'd actually make it to the NBA, but now that I'm here I'll make the most of it.”
Team USA arrived in Rio on Wednesday and is staying on a cruise ship.
Although they have only been together since July 18, they easily bonded, putting aside NBA rivalries.
“We just have a great time,” Jordan said. “We're a group of guys that range from the age of 24, to I don't know how old Carmelo is, 40?”
(Actually, he's 32.)
“Everybody's so competitive and we all want to win and when you've got guys like that, it makes it that much more fun” Jordan added “Whether it's cracking jokes on each other, playing cards on the plane, taking pictures of each other when we're sleeping, playing music, it just brings us closer together.”
And yet Jordan admitted that he never imagined he'd be friends with “certain guys four months ago,” as in “Anybody on the (Golden State Warriors).”
He had a dinner at his house when Team USA was in Houston, where it defeated Nigeria 110-66 on Aug. 1 in the exhibition tour finale.
“There was no way I figured I would invite certain guys to my place, but when we were practicing in Las Vegas, I was like, 'Wow, this guy's pretty cool.' We're all brothers now and it's been less than a month.”
Team USA is 16-0 over the last two Olympic Games and has won 14 of 17 gold medals in Olympics in which it has competed. Its record is 130-5 in Olympic play.
The last time Team USA did not win the gold was 2004, when it won the bronze. That was the first Games for Anthony.
“I know what it feels like when the rest of the world was supposedly catching up with the USA as far as basketball,” said the New York Knicks forward, who hopes to be the first male player to win three gold medals. “I know what it feels like to be at the bottom and I know what it feels like to be at the top of the game as well.
“To be here for my fourth time, to say it's an honor, it’s a blessing, is an understatement. My goal is to help this team and lead this team to a gold medal and enjoy the process and enjoy the journey.”
Besides China, the other teams in the same group with Team USA are Australia, France, Serbia and Venezuela. The U.S. also played an exhibition against Venezuela, winning 80-45 on July 29 in Chicago.
Butler said the blowout wins against teams in the same group “was in the past.”
“We can't go into the games thinking, 'Hey we just beat these guys by X amount a few days ago,’” he said. “Because they're going to study us just like we're going to study them. I think the thing we have to focus in on is rebounding and getting the ball up the court, limiting our turnovers. We talk about that all the time. More than anything, having fun and playing together, that's what's going to get us these wins out here.”
Jordan said Team USA played every exhibition game “like it was a Game 7 in the NBA. We wanted to come out and really work on us.”
He said he believes the team's biggest strength is “we're super versatile. We've got a lot of guys who can play defense and I feel like ultimately what's going to help us is our ability to defend.”
Jordan got a lot of advice from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, his current teammates with the Clippers who have already won gold medals for Team USA.
“They both told me to enjoy the process,” he said. “And I think that means enjoy Rio, enjoy practice, enjoy the games, enjoy other events. Because you never know if you're going to play in this again.”