Blake Griffin is ready to dive in
Back from an injury that delayed his NBA debut, the Clipper aims for the top
There really is no way to tell this story without making Taylor Griffin look at least a little bad. I can, however, remind you that:
First, we all do things when we're 8 years old that might not seem so distinguished when we're 24, and second, his younger brother, Blake Griffin, has now completely recovered and says he wouldn't be the man he is today without his older brother.
OK, so you kind of know how this story is going to end. That's fine. The end isn't the important part.
It was a weekend, and Taylor and Blake were at the gym. Taylor was 8; Blake was 6. Their father, Tommy, had just finished basketball practice with his high school team.
At this point, most boys would grab an extra basketball and start shooting on the high school rims until it was time to go home. Unless of course someone had left out some blue gymnastics mats and it was easy enough to drag them onto the court and start doing stunts onto them.
"We turned it into a competition," Taylor said. "Because we always turned everything into a competition.
"We started jumping off the bleachers onto the mats. Like who could jump the farthest off the bleachers? Doing tricks in the air. Stunts. That kind of stuff.
"We got farther and farther out. Like maybe 10 feet from the bleachers. Up pretty high, too. And I convinced Blake to push it out even farther, to the point where he was really not wanting to do it."
Taylor was in Belgium on the other end of a Skype connection, and I could feel him wincing before he continued.
"I, being the big brother, start egging him on," Taylor said, laughing a little. "I finally get him to jump. ... And he breaks his arm."
I don't want to be just a good player; I want to be one of the best and I know for a fact that you have to do all this to be one of the best.” -- Blake Griffin
Of course he jumped.
He'd jump again if they had the same competition today.
Because even at 6 years old, he knew that not jumping and not knowing whether he could have made it to the mat was worse than the broken arm.
"For me it's about being the best," Griffin said when I asked about his goals. "I don't know if it's a fear of not being the best. I just have this feeling that I don't want to be just one of the guys who just gets by or is just a good player.
"I don't want to be just a good player; I want to be one of the best and I know for a fact that you have to do all this to be one of the best."
I began this story very early one morning in mid-September. Training camp was still a few weeks away. The morning marine layer clinging to the roof of the Clippers' training facility was an hour from burning off.
I'd heard that Blake Griffin arrived every morning before the sun broke through the fog and wanted to see for myself.
He was there -- alert, ready and completely unaware that this was not standard behavior for a 21-year-old with a $16 million contract and two weeks of summer vacation left.
Over the next six hours, Griffin lifted weights, ran, worked on his post moves, worked on his outside shot, played in a pickup game, shot extra free throws and did skill work with Clippers assistant coaches.
General manager Neil Olshey gets in around 7:30 every morning to run on a treadmill before putting on a suit for the rest of the day. Most days this summer, Griffin beat him into the office.
He's special. Things aren't contrived with him. And when you're building an organization, that's what you look for. It's more than he's a plus-athlete and he works his tail off. It's the kind of person he is.” -- Neil Olshey, Clippers general manager
Olshey has spent the past eight years trying to turn the Clippers into a winner. It is a gargantuan task. The team has made the playoffs just four times since moving to Los Angeles for the 1984-85 season. Its history reads like the lyrics to the saddest country-western song you've ever heard. Its karma is not just killer, but cosmically bad.
And then one day, four pingpong balls popped out of machine. Each ball had a number between 1 and 14 on it. The Clippers had been randomly assigned 156 of 1,000 possible combinations of the numbers 1 through 14. This day was their day. Blake Griffin would be theirs.
Not only was Griffin the consensus No. 1 pick in 2009, but the Clippers were ecstatic to take him. Team president Andy Roeser had even worn a jacket to the draft lottery with Griffin's college number, 23, stitched into the lining.
"He's special," Olshey said. "Things aren't contrived with him. And when you're building an organization, that's what you look for. It's more than he's a plus-athlete and he works his tail off. It's the kind of person he is.
"When you have an opportunity to get a character guy like Blake, you build around that and you create a culture that emphasizes people like him.
"Because what he has and what he does, those are the kind of things where when it's a Tuesday night in the Midwest and it's a game you don't feel like playing and you've been on the road for 11 days, you still go out and compete and you get a win because that's who you are as a person."
They'd never met and never spoken, but Robert Pack knew who Blake Griffin was and Griffin had heard Pack's name a few times before, even though he was 5 when the former USC star finished second to Isaiah Rider in the 1994 dunk contest.
Over the summer, Griffin heard Pack's name again. New coach Vinny Del Negro had hired Pack to be one of his assistant coaches. It was a great accomplishment for Pack as he transitioned from player to coach. But it also was one of the worst times of his life.
A few days before he flew to Los Angeles for his interview, his father had died of a heart attack.
"The day he died, he and I had spent an hour together talking about the interview," Pack said. "We didn't know what they were going to ask me, but my dad was excited about it. He said he had a good feeling about it and that it'd be a good deal for me to come out for this job.
"We talked for an hour, and then maybe six hours later he passed away. He was 66. I almost didn't come out for the interview. But my mother thought my dad would want me to go, so I went."
Del Negro told Griffin what had happened. Griffin's heart sank.
"Do you have his number?" he asked. "I want to call him."
The conversation was short, but it meant the world to Pack.
"For him to be that thoughtful at a time like that. For him to reach out " Pack said, his voice trailing off as he finished a thought he did not need to complete.
"I just wanted to offer my condolences," Griffin said. "I just felt so bad for him. We literally hired him a few days after his dad died. I couldn't imagine having to play a game or doing anything like that if something happened to my dad."
But why call a guy you don't know?
"I just felt like he was part of our organization now. He's a part of what we're trying to do, and we've got to look out for each other. That's just how I saw it.
"Any good team I've been a part of has always been a close group, and you really have to care about the people that are working with you."
Griffin has been on a lot of good teams. He won four state championships at Oklahoma Christian School, going 106-6 in four seasons on the team coached by his father, Tommy. He chose Oklahoma over college basketball's blue bloods Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas, because it was home and it was where his older brother, Taylor, was.
"People always would come up to me and ask why I went to Oklahoma. Why I didn't go to Duke or Kansas. I didn't have a great answer," he said. "I mean, I knew why I wanted to go to Oklahoma. But I didn't have a great answer. So I'd just tell people, 'You'll see in a couple of years.'"
They did. In addition to winning just about every major national individual award as a sophomore, Griffin led the Sooners to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament just four years after the program had been hit with a series of recruiting violations.
"Honestly, there's not a lot of greater feelings than being a part of something when it's at a low point and then helping to take it to a high point," Griffin said. "That was what my college coach [Jeff Capel] always talked about. Being a part of something bigger than yourself and being a part of changing a culture."
It would be easy to take the next cognitive leap, to say that Griffin's background makes him the perfect guy to make the woe be gone, once and for all, from the Clippers.
It would be easy. Too easy.
People whisper when they talk about what Blake Griffin can become. Last season, when they talked out loud, things didn't work out so well. After having one of the most dominant NBA summer leagues ever and leading the Clippers to a 6-1 preseason record, Griffin landed funny on a dunk, broke his kneecap and was seen only in a nicely tailored suit along the sidelines ever after.
Or what Chris Kaman said: "I know for sure he's going to be successful. That's not even a question in my mind."
Or what Craig Smith said to Cook one day in the locker room: "You gotta see it; Blake jumps like Hancock!"
But they whisper because of last season and the suit.
The thing is, Griffin always talks in a full voice.
He didn't whisper when he got drafted by the Clippers or when he got hurt or when I asked him about returning to the court after his injury.
"I don't know what kind of word I'd use to describe it," Griffin said. "Not boring. It was almost torture."
Home games were the worst. Being so close to the game but not being in it. He tried to watch, tried to study and get something out of it, but it was hard. His mind would wander. His stomach churned. He would yell encouragement at his teammates from the bench and chew sunflower seeds into a pulp during tense moments. His foot would thump anxiously against the hardwood.
"It killed him not to play last year," Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said. "You could tell he was trying to keep upbeat, but it was definitely hard for him."
When the team was on the road, it was only awful, not torture. Griffin watched every game on television. Most nights he would start out at home on the couch but end up at the practice facility shooting free throws and watching the game on the flat screen TV that hangs just behind one of the baskets.
His knee wasn't well enough to put much pressure on it, and it certainly wasn't well enough to bend on each free throw attempt. So he shot only with his massive arms and hobbled, carefully, for every rebound.
"It wasn't fun," he said. "But doing something, shooting, whatever, just to take my mind off of it was better than home games."
Chris Kaman is protective and, for once, patient. He's been near where Blake Griffin is now. Not at the same level, but near enough that he knows what Griffin is looking at in the mirror.
Like most of the Clippers' first-round draft picks, Kaman was a lottery pick. He came to training camp in 2003 as a project at center but finished the season as one of the franchise's budding young stars. In 2006, the team signed him to a five-year, $52.5 million extension a year before it had to, a huge leap of faith for a franchise with a reputation for making its stars wait and twist uncomfortably in the free-agent wind.
So he gets it, the pressure on Griffin, the expectations.
He gets the injuries, too, having missed 83 games over the past three seasons.
"I think it starts from being the No. 1 pick," Kaman said. "Everybody expects so much out of the first overall pick, especially this No. 1 pick because he's a special player.
"You got the owner, you got the GM, you got the coaches and the trainers. ... Everybody's always asking about him or checking on how he's doing, making sure he doesn't do too much because they don't want to have another incident where he gets hurt again.
"He's getting pulled in a lot of directions."
So Kaman watches Griffin closely but saves his comments for the right moments. As good as Griffin is and as good as he can be, he's still a rookie.
"I know for sure he's going to be successful," Kaman said. "That's not even a question in my mind. It's just about how long it's going to take to slow the game down and see everything.
He needs to just let it happen. Let things take their course, on their own. Because you can't rush that. You need that experience.” -- Chris Kaman, on Clippers teammate Blake Griffin
"He's a really well-rounded basketball player. He can post up, he can shoot the jumper, he can take it to the basket off the dribble, he's going to be good in the pick-and-pop.
"It's just that he wants it so bad and he works so hard, I know he wants it all right now.
"He needs to just let it happen. Let things take their course, on their own. Because you can't rush that. You need that experience."
And you need to watch. Not from the sidelines in a suit like last season. Not in the video room. But every day, minute to minute. You need to watch what people like Kaman do.
"When I was coming in, I watched Elton Brand a lot," Kaman said. "Some of it I could do more than he could do; some of it was too hard for me. Each person is different, and you have to figure out what's best for you."
Griffin already has figured out a few things. The injury forced him to.
When something hurts, you tell someone even if it doesn't hurt that bad and even if you don't want to. And, just because you can play, doesn't mean you should.
If he'd had to, Griffin probably could have played at some point last season. But no one, in the end even Griffin, thought he should.
"It took a lot of restraint on our part to say to him: 'You being a part of this organization is bigger than one year. This is Year 1 of a 15-year career,'" Olshey said. "But we said it, and it was for the good of the organization as much as for his good."
Over the summer he took another leap. USA Basketball had invited him to try out for its FIBA World Championship team. He was dying to play. And he could have. Medically, he was cleared to play basketball by that point.
The Clippers preferred that he not push it but did not tell him what to do. It was his decision.
He went to the gym instead.
Willie Warren isn't buying this responsible version of Blake Griffin just yet. He's known him too long.
They played in the same AAU organization growing up. Then Warren went to Oklahoma because Griffin went to Oklahoma. Then this June, the Clippers drafted Warren in the second round because they knew how good he could be playing alongside Griffin.
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"I think he's always going to be Blake," Warren said. "I mean, I remember when he sat out two games in college and the whole time he was trying to make them let him play. He'd try to remember all the questions they'd ask you in the concussion test so they'd let him play.
"Then he comes back after two games -- which we lost -- and we're playing Texas Tech. Right away he dives headfirst over the scorer's table trying to save a loose ball.
"He's just a guy that's always going to want to play through the pain. He doesn't know what pain is."
But Griffin knows what pain is. He just doesn't know where his boundaries are. So he constantly tests them.
For the first part of his life, his older brother, Taylor, was the measuring stick.
"It was competitive from day one," said his mother, Gail. "I'm pretty sure that as soon as Blake was old enough to realize he had an older brother he wanted to be able to do the same things his brother did and he wanted to do them better."
Everything became a competition: chores, schoolwork, basketball, soccer.
From the time they were old enough to do chores around their house in suburban Oklahoma City, Taylor and Blake would race to see who could empty all the trash cans first or get all the dishes washed and dried fastest.
Games of one-on-one on the court their father stenciled onto the driveway ended in wrestling matches.
"Not just sometimes," Tommy Griffin said when I asked how often his sons fought at the end of a basketball game. "Sometimes would be an understatement. Both of them are very competitive.
"I was the official, I had to referee. ... If I didn't referee, we'd have some problems."
It took until the middle of high school for Blake to finally beat his brother. And it didn't happen once and then always happen. Every practice, every game of H-O-R-S-E or one-on-one was a battle.
Blake was taller but Taylor was quicker. They both were strong and solid.
It was about this time that Blake got serious about basketball. It was his first love and now his only love. He stopped soccer around 12 or 13. He quit football after his freshman year of high school because the seasons overlapped too much and he didn't like the feeling of playing catch-up to the rest of the basketball team.
He got serious about lifting weights and about nutrition. Gail tried to cook him healthy foods, lean meats, fruits and vegetables, lots of protein. He would work on his shooting in the driveway for hours every night.
"Blake has had things come pretty easily to him," Tommy said. "You could see that regardless of what sport he played. God blessed him with a lot of ability, and he knows that.
"Once he became really interested in basketball and focused just on that, we pushed him a little harder. He was very receptive to all of it. He wanted to be challenged. He wanted to be pushed."
The Griffins started with a rough outline, values and ideas about parenting more than plans.
They wanted their sons to act selflessly and morally. They thought of ways to teach them responsibility and humility. And when Gail didn't like the way the public school system in Oklahoma City was evolving, she left her job as a teacher and homeschooled her children from elementary school to high school.
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Tommy coached his sons most of their lives, but he had just one specific rule.
"When we started something, we had to finish it," Blake said. "We weren't allowed to quit. It didn't matter what it was.
"Like, I took drum lessons. I played the drums for a while and I wanted to quit once, but he made me finish out my commitment.
"Another year, I wanted to stop playing soccer, and he made me finish out the year, finish out my commitment."
It was a matter of principle, not a show of pride or power.
"It's so easy for people to walk away from things," Tommy said. "There's nothing wrong with walking away from something. If you've really committed to what you're doing, and if you feel that after you've finished it, you don't want to do it anymore, that's OK. But if you start something, you should finish it."
It was long, tedious work -- simple, but tedious. They glued on nameplates, attached tops to bottoms, boxed up thousands of trophies, stapled strings onto ribbons.
The Griffins started their trophy-making business as a side job after Gail left her job as a teacher to homeschool the boys.
"My parents did most of the work," Blake said. "But we all had to help out. I mean, not flirting with child labor laws or anything, but at least four or five hours a week and more during the busy times like the fall when we'd always have a huge Little League order to get through.
"I'm pretty sure I could still put one together in a minute or two."
But something happened to Blake Griffin all those nights working in the garage, something more than muscle memory and deeper than perseverance. The journey became the trophy. Day in and day out, minute to minute, from before the sun burns through the morning fog to the last free throw late at night.
It was never what a kid would consider fun. It was work meant to teach them responsibility and develop their work ethic. He and Taylor would make games out of it and race through orders to see who could finish first. Still, it was work.
But something happened to Blake Griffin all those nights working in the garage, something more than muscle memory and deeper than perseverance.
The journey became the trophy.
Day in and day out, minute to minute, from before the sun burns through the morning fog to the last free throw late at night.
"I could care less about trophies," Griffin said. "For me, it's about the accomplishment. A trophy looks cool, but it just sits there. I don't need reminders of what I did. I'd rather just have it in my mind. I'd rather just know what I did and think about what it took to do it."
Each day he stretches a little more than the last, pulling the mat out farther and farther away from the bleachers. Taylor is in Belgium now, half a world away, too far to egg him on or measure himself against.
It comes from inside him now, the will to be great, the determination to push himself up against his limits and peer into what comes next.
He's not ready for it yet. These things take time. But he's close enough to see it.
And he's close enough to jump.Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.