Blake Griffin Is Challenging Kobe For King Of L.A.

Few things in life are as certain as death, taxes and the L.A. Clippers’ misfortunes. So excuse me when I say with the most sincerity that a kid from Edmond, Oklahoma, has effectively taken that last tidbit of certainty, cupped its face to his nether regions and slam dunked all over it. I know this, because Blake Griffin showed me so.

From Dime #62:

Time heals all wounds. It must, because in only one half of an NBA season, Griffin has proven any lingering doubters – those that believed he wouldn’t be the same explosive player after last year’s freak, season-ending knee injury – to be certifiably insane. He’s made the second-best team in his new city one of the hottest attractions in the League. He’s must-watch programming, a cultural phenomenon to a nation that has largely seen him only through a SportsCenter/YouTube highlight filter. The Clippers rarely play on national television and anyone outside of Southern California without a League Pass subscription has had to mostly scrape by on TV recaps alone.

Blake is also one of the first NBA megastars born into the Twitter era of instant highlight gratification. In a social media sphere that wants everything as fast as it happens, Griffin is delivering the goods in real time. And in doing so, he has been donned the rookie savior to the basketball badlands that is the Staples Center’s “other” locker room. There was the 31-point, 13-rebound performance in a win against San Antonio, 24 and 18 against Houston in late-December, and the now infamous dunk-a-thon against New York in November where Blake finished with 44 and 15. As our issue went to press, the young fella was putting up 22 points, 12.7 boards and three dimes a game for the Clip Show. The Clippers are set to emerge from the wilderness of futility, and Blake Griffin is the one to lead them.

But maybe we’re asking too much of the kid. The Clippers are cursed after all, right? In 1988 they drafted Danny Manning No. 1 overall, who tore his ACL his rookie season and was never quite the same. Ten years later the Clips took Michael Olowokandi No. 1 in ’98 over the likes of Vince Carter and Paul Pierce. Then the Clippers next franchise No. 1 pick, Mr. Griffin, missed his entire first season to a broken left kneecap. And it’s not unfathomable to think that Blake might be one dunk attempt over the wrong defender away from adding further to the team’s cursed injured list. Yet, none of that potential doom and gloom seems to matter right now. Because in just over three months time, Blake has made one of the unluckiest franchises in all of sports relevant again on a national stage. The guy has one speed when he plays – all out – and he goes at it from the opening tip to the final buzzer. And he’s gotten so good, so quickly, and has been so exciting, that by January he’d moved past Rookie of the Year talk and into the All-Star discussion. He’s on a mission to make people watch, to make them care about Clippers basketball again.

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“Turn towards the camera like, ‘I gotcha bitch!'” says photographer Rob Hammer, who’s running point on our cover shoot with BG in mid-December. Rob’s direction makes everyone in the room laugh, including Blake. Hammer then flips on an old Jay-Z cut in the background – Blake’s feeling the track. Okay, we’re in.

“Oh, you get music for your photo shoot?” says Griffin’s teammate and one of his closest buddies, DeAndre Jordan, adding another layer of sarcastic humor and friendly comfort to the situation.

“Yeah, it’s Jay-Z; no big deal or anything,” quips back Griffin without missing a beat.

The more time you spend with him, the more you see the same 21-year-old hilarious wise ass that his friends and L.A. family are graced with every day. His soft-spoken demeanor is innocent at first, but as Griffin’s dry sense of humor begins to flow, you catch a glimpse of his relaxed self coming through – at least one that’s not hell bent on cramming a basketball down your throat. For one, Blake gave the whole Dime crew a very informative lesson in how to practice raising one eyebrow at a time.

“Blake’s a funny guy,” says Jordan. “He’s a great friend, a great teammate and he’s a hard worker on and off the court. He’s really always there for you. He’s a big kid; he’s definitely a big goofball.

“Blake Griffin’s one of a kind, man.”

It seems fans passionately agree. A quick Google search brings up thousands of comment threads devoted to worshipping the guy’s athletic feats. Seriously, try searching “Blake Griffin is a monster” online. It’s ridiculous. But the craziest part of Griffmania thus far is how quickly word and worship have spread. Five minutes after Griffin destroys a defender, Twitter explodes in a flurry of trending topics and hyperboles to push the message Eastward.

“Blake ain’t human…” “Blake Griffin = Chuck Norris‘s son,” “blake griffin for ruler of the world,” “Blake Griffin no tiene limite,” are just a few of the gems fans have used to describe their exuberance for all that is BG. Their affection has paid off, as the NBA announced in early January that Griffin would be taking part in the Slam Dunk contest during All-Star Saturday Night in L.A. this February. Players have also taken notice.

“Man Blake Griffin is the most explosive player in the league! Crazy bounce,” tweeted LeBron James, who, unless mistaken, has a fair amount of bounce himself.

“There’s been some funny ones,” says Griffin as he tries to hold back a smile. “I was watching a college game and some kid dunked on somebody, and I can’t remember who the announcer was, but he was like, ‘That kid just got Mozgov’d!’ (laughs) And I thought that was pretty funny.”

If there is one defining play from Griffin’s rookie entrance, it would have to be his baptism of seven-foot Knicks rookie Timofey Mozgov during that 44-point outburst against New York. In a screen and roll down the lane, Griffin caught a pass from Randy Foye and in one motion, um, welcomed the Russian center to America. To say that BG may have taken a small piece of Mozgov’s basketball soul on the play wouldn’t do his moment enough justice. It was that mind-blowing. And beyond being viewed online over five million times already, the dunk has helped spark the young, growing legacy of the 6-10, 250-pound forward. Not that Blake cares about silly things like that of course. Although, we did kick around the idea of making a video with him entitled, “Blake Griffin Will Find You and He Will Dunk on You,” to which Blake could only laugh and revel in the awesomeness his celebrity is now creating all around him.

If you’re the Clippers, though, and you are learning how to deal with something other than general fan malaise, this is an absolute Godsend. What other scenario can provide instant mass interest in your team and brand like the Blake/Twitter/YouTube marriage? Having ESPN’s Bill Simmons directing his 1.3 million Twitter followers with messages like the following tweet posted during a Clippers/Nuggets game in early January is invaluable:

I urge anyone who either owns a TV or knows someone who owns a TV to watch Blake Griffin right now.

That is exposure and credibility that money spent on marketing campaigns just can’t match.

Via Blake, basketball fans worldwide have taken notice of a young Clippers squad that is edging closer to becoming a factor in the Western Conference. They have also become one of the most exciting teams to watch in the entire League. Clippers’ games go off. They are bumping directly from the opening whistle and when Griffin gets going above the rim or Eric Gordon drops in a three-ball or Jordan swats one into the rich seats, Clipper Nation gets the house rocking. This didn’t happen last year – hell, this didn’t even happen ten games into this season; even mega-fan Clipper Darrell threatened to go on strike if the team wouldn’t play with more passion. But Griffin has become the unequivocal answer to LAC’s hoop prayers.

“I think that’s part of being an exciting team,” says Griffin. “I think we have an extremely exciting team, and I think that (exposure) helps; it helps people want to come watch an exciting team.” But building a winner takes time and Griffin knows that.

“Change the perception, change the culture,” he continues. “You know (I want to) make it one of those programs that is a winning program every year and not a team that people have to guess about.”

It’s also no coincidence that the team’s slogan this season is “Rise,” considering that’s all BG’s done since coming to town. And it’s not just with dunks, despite what you may have heard – this kid’s the real deal. As of January 1, Griffin had 26 double-doubles on the year, and in late-December passed ex-Clipper Michael Cage with the most consecutive double-doubles for a rookie in team history after his 20th in a row. He has developed a nice mid-range jumper, complete with a face-up game past the block, and a Tim Duncan-esque bank shot. With a field goal percentage over 52 percent and his confidence growing with every game, if there were signs of a rookie wall coming, expect Blake to dunk over it.

Free throws, however, seem to be the only thing that throws off the whole “hardest working guy in the NBA” mantra he’s got going for him. And it’s not that Griffin doesn’t work on his freebies, more the contrary, but for whatever reason things haven’t gone right at the charity stripe thus far. In his first 270 attempts of the season, BG only connected on 158 of them, good enough for just over 58 percent. Success at the foul line ultimately comes down to mental concentration and form, and if the rest of his game is any indication, Griffin will find a way to improve on his weakness.

“My first impression (of Blake) was ‘Wow,'” says Jeff Capel, Griffin’s coach at Oklahoma. “He’s someone that big, that’s that explosive, that runs that fast, that’s that powerful. But then the thing that probably stood out even more than all of those things that are incredibly impressive, was just how hard he played.”

Blake plays every possession of every game with flat out disregard for human life. It’s the best and worst thing about Blake Griffin. He goes hard on every play, every game, no matter the outcome. But for every dunk from the dotted circle or defending rookie naive enough to stay for the charge, lies a very hard hardwood floor beneath. What if the greatest gift Griffin has given the game is his eventual downfall, literally?

This season, he’s tried to dunk over people from a step inside the free throw line, and fallen, like a brick to pavement. That’s 250 pounds of pure muscle flying far higher in the atmosphere than should be humanly allowed, with the potential to crash back to Earth with equal force. But that’s how Griffin plays. He’s not thinking about the negative what-ifs, not because he should, but because he shouldn’t have to. Yes, you must protect the greatest investment in the history of the organization from injury the best you can, but Griffin is best when the beast is unleashed. And the Clippers are best with the beast jumping over every record and everyone he can on their way to a better overall record in 2011. And Blake’s a smart cat. He grew up in a basketball home, had a coach for a father – a veteran of the Oklahoma high school sidelines for over 35 years – and he’s been dunking since he was 13 years old. So he understands his limitations, if there are any.

“Blake’s changing the game,” says Jordan, “he really is. People are frightened by him and he knows that, and so do we.”

“Just from watching him play, he doesn’t care if he misses shots, he doesn’t care about anything but just going hard for 48 minutes,” says Dwight Howard, directly after handing the rookie a 94-85 home loss in mid-December, but not without Griffin ripping the Magic for 27 and 16.

Is going hard every night enough for business? What if the expectations of his ever-growing hype machine don’t align with actual results in the win column? As his national profile continues to increase with excitement and praise, the expectation of it translating into more team success will also increase. But maybe that’s too much pressure to put on the massive shoulders of a player who three years ago was waiting for the bell to ring in freshman psych class.

“No, I don’t think they become too much,” says Griffin. “I don’t really feel the expectations, I have expectations of myself and I set high goals. It’s something that I always want to do; you can’t be afraid to not reach ’em. If you set an extremely high goal and you don’t get it, then you’ll probably still be somewhere up there. I’d rather always set my goals too high or expect more out of myself than I think might be possible.”

“I don’t think anyone puts more pressure on him than he does himself,” says Capel, “and I’ve always felt that way about players, especially really good players. They have very high expectations of themselves and I think Blake has a good ego. I don’t think he has an ego problem, but I think he has a good ego. I’ve always felt that if he can stay healthy, because I know how he works and I know the gifts that he’s been blessed with, I’ve always felt that he can become one of the best. The best at his position, best big, you know whatever it is. I still don’t think people have really seen everything that he can do.”

With great power comes great responsibility, or so it’s said. And if any No. 1 pick of the Clippers is equipped to handle the pressures of increased expectation to win, it’s Griffin. It’s hard to look over everything in his short career so far and think that he’s literally only just begun. He’s captured the attention of a nation and successfully turned them into budding fans of L.A.’s little brother. Now that he has our attention, the spotlight will be hotter than ever to win. Sure, it’s too soon to worry about the how and when of wins and losses, but it’s nothing the new king-in-waiting of L.A can’t rise over.

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As we begin to wrap up our photo shoot with Blake and company, already extending our original allotment of 30 minutes to well beyond the courtesy overlay, I can feel the media relations team rolling their collective eyes and checking their watch-less wrists behind us. Blake waves them off, tells us we’re good to finish up. We wrap shooting, but have to split time on our final chat. And in concluding our talks, I do have one question that I’ve been burning to ask the guy.

When you get the ball, all you want to do is bam it on whoever’s in your way. How’d you instill that aggressiveness in yourself?

“I don’t know. Whenever I guess I started dunking in games and being able to dunk a little better, that was just what I did,” Griffin casually responds, as if it was just another hobby he’d entertain family friends with growing up. “I’ve always liked to jump, always liked to dunk.”

“What’d you do today, Blake?” I assume his parents would ask.

“Not much, just dunked on the neighbor’s kid a few times,” he’d respond.

Casual. It’s just another day, just another dunk. And as he moves closer toward completing his rookie season, that’s exactly how he should approach it, by the dunk of the day – we’ll be watching.

“I just made it a point to just dunk everything – why not.”

See, I told you he was funny.

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