Six years ago DeAndre Jordan, an NBA rookie, had no clue what was wrong with him.
He was in shape. He was still a teenager. He was a world-class athlete. But every time Jordan worked out for an extended period or sprinted a few trips up and down the floor or generally pushed his body physically he struggled to find his breath.
He felt like he was crazy.
“I kind of told [the trainers], ‘I feel like I can’t breathe sometimes,’” Jordan recalled. “And then I was just like, ‘Man, am I not in shape? Or like, what’s going on with me?’ but, I knew it wasn’t that.”
The Clippers ran Jordan through a series of blood tests and chest scans. It was a nervous time for the 19-year-old center. After a season at Texas A&M, Jordan declared for the 2008 Draft. He was projected to go as high as the late lottery, but slipped to No. 35 overall. The last thing he needed was a seemingly mysterious ailment to set him back.
The tests revealed Jordan was suffering from athlete-induced asthma, something he had developed over time.
“We kind of knew he had it,” longtime Clippers trainer Jasen Powell said. “But we also knew that there were other ways to help alleviate the onsets that he needed to use his asthma pump or the times that he would have his bronchials shutdown some. We did some different blood tests and did some different scans of his lungs and everything and kind of saw what attributed to what his consistent feedback was to us.”
Still, the diagnosis caught Jordan by surprise.
“I never thought that could happen,” he said. “I thought you were just born with [asthma].”
Exercise, or athlete, induced asthma is asthma that is triggered by vigorous or prolonged exercise or physical exertion, according to WebMD. The National Athletic Trainers Association says that as many as 15-25 percent of all athletes have signs or symptoms of asthma and it is something that is developed over time and can be limited or completely dissipate.
When Jordan was first diagnosed he said it was a struggle at times to get a full breath of air. Now, one or two pumps on his inhaler, when needed, are all it takes to get him back to full strength.
“I didn’t know why I felt like I couldn’t breathe or I felt like I had to take in two breaths,” Jordan said. “But, once I figured that out, it was like, ‘Ok, I’m not crazy. I’m not out of shape.’ It’s just this little bump in the road that I’m going to get past. But, the pump definitely helps me out a lot.”
For Jordan, who is on pace to be the second player in more than 40 years to lead the NBA in rebounds and field goal percentage in the same season, having asthma and using his inhaler is not a concern.
“I don’t even think of it as a big deal,” Jordan said. “I don’t want people to think of it as like, ‘Oh my god, DeAndre’s playing with one eye.’ Or, ‘He’s playing with one lung out there.’ It’s not that. I don’t even think of it as being that serious anymore. When they first told me, ‘Oh yeah, you developed asthma,’ I was like, ‘What? There’s no way. How do you develop asthma? You’re supposed to be born with that.’ But, I developed it, and our trainers and my doctors back home have done a good job with keeping me on top of it.”
The times Jordan is forced to stay on top of it most is when the Clippers play at altitude. In Denver, where the Clippers played for the final time this season on Monday, there is 17 percent less oxygen in the air than at sea level. In Salt Lake City, where the Clippers won, 96-87, on Friday, oxygen is about 11 percent less. Those are games when he keeps his inhaler in his sock.
“I only use [the inhaler] certain times,” Jordan said. “I only use it in Denver and Utah…and sometimes if I’m running for a long period of time, or if I like I can’t get enough air, then I’ll use it.”
Said Powell, “When we get to Denver or Utah it’s a lot more challenging. So, I make a point to make sure he has oxygen available, too. Those are two places that I have to be more conscious about it. But also when he exerts himself energy-wise, he has to really open up his bronchials more to allow more oxygen to be consumed.”
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said Jordan’s asthma has not been something he has paid too much attention to, furthering Jordan’s opinion that it’s not all that debilitating.
“There’s been one game, I think, all season where I’ve thought it was an issue,” Rivers said. “Other than that, I don’t worry about it.”
Powell, though, has spent the past five seasons helping Jordan lessen the symptoms and triggers that may cause his chest and airways to tighten. So, far it has been successful.
“Diet is one thing,” Powell said. “Some of the things are that he needs to have more plant-based nutrition so he doesn’t have as much mucous in his tubes. Mucous, a lot of people think it’s just nasal, but mucous also causes thickening in the lining of your tubes. By reducing that, you reduce viruses and bacterias that can affect other areas also.
“It also helps that he’s in the best shape of his life.”
It’s allowed Jordan, who is averaging a career-high 35.6 minutes per night, to seemingly have boundless energy in his first season with Rivers at the helm. He played 41 and 36 minutes in the Clippers two high-altitude games this season and rarely seemed affected by the thin air. He’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, a Most Improved candidate, leads the NBA in dunks, and anchors the Clippers defense.
In a way, Jordan turned asthma on itself. He went from being unable to catch his breath six years ago to taking everyone else’s.