Blake Griffin promises, then delivers
Rookie wins dunk contest by not overthinking what his athleticism can achieve
LOS ANGELES -- It is a code, more than a set of rules. An understanding among stuntmen.
Always say, "Yes" before thinking anything all the way though.
Always overprepare to overcompensate for being so rash to respond.
Then just do it.
It was harder still to imagine him topping some of the dunks he already has thrown down in games during a magical rookie season, in Saturday's slam dunk contest.
The expectations for Griffin were both irresistible and impossibly high.
But like any good stuntman, Griffin didn't focus on any of that.
He just said, "Yes" when someone asked if he wanted to be in the competition, figured out how to jump over a car while dunking a basketball, then just went out and did it.
"When they first came to me with the dunk contest idea, they said there were no rules," Griffin said. "I was like, 'So I can jump over a car?' Kind of playing around."
The NBA representative on the other end of the line said that'd be fine.
"I was like, 'Oh, maybe I have to do it now,'" Griffin said.
As you might imagine, Clippers executives were a bit more leery.
This time last year, Griffin was watching games in a suit and tie while recovering from a broken kneecap suffered on the landing of a high-flying dunk.
Thursday evening, front-office staffers showed up to watch him practice the daring dunk.
"I noticed when I went in for my rehearsal Thursday night, everybody from the Clippers was there," he said. "All our upper management. Then I realized, everybody is kind of nervous about this. So I jumped over it and I kind of looked at them. They were like, 'All right, you can do it.'"
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Teammate Baron Davis, the supporting actor in Griffin's classic dunk, was a little more blunt in describing the level of worry among the Clippers' brass: "I think they were sitting on their hands the whole time."
Was it risky?
But so was accepting the challenge of competing in a dunk contest as one of the most overwhelming favorites in years.
"I guess I could've clipped my foot on the side and smashed my face into the car," Griffin mused afterward. "But I didn't really think about it like that. It's just one of those things where I knew I could get over it, so I just did it."
There's a lot Griffin seems to know he can do that others can't yet picture.
As good as he has been as a rookie, he still thinks his game is "not even close" to what it can be. He can improve defensively and with his back to the basket, he can raise his free throw percentage into the 70s and learn to master fall-away jumpers.
But Saturday night wasn't about that kind of growth.
It was about the challenge. Not of living up to the enormous expectations on him to win, but of finding a way to enjoy the moment in spite of the weight of the NBA world that has been placed on his shoulders this weekend.
"You hear a lot of stuff building up to it, that's the toughest thing," he said. "Everybody wants us to do these things that are impossible. People are like, do it between the legs twice. Obviously, I can't do that."
Instead, Griffin played to his natural strengths: power, finesse, daring and athleticism.
His first dunk -- a 360-degree two-handed power slam -- was all about athleticism and power. His second dunk -- a one-handed tomahawk off a pass from Davis that caromed off the side of the back-board -- was a nod to his grace and finesse.
His third dunk -- a one-handed elbow dunk off the backboard -- was an homage to Vince Carter, his first inspiration. Carter made a similar dunk in 2000.
"After I watched Vince Carter win, I think I walked my bike out to the driveway and jumped over it," Griffin said. "For real. Like on the eight-foot goal. I would always do stuff like that as a kid, and I always envisioned myself being in the dunk contest. So it was cool to be able to come out here and actually do it now for real."
His final dunk, over the hood of a Kia Optima and backed up by the Crenshaw Elite gospel choir, was all about his daring and drive.
As he stood near midcourt, preparing for the dunk, the lead singer of the choir asked:
"Blake, Do you believe you can fly?"
Griffin raised his arms to the crowd, inciting them to cheer even though most people were holding their breath.
Then, like any great stuntman, he just went out and did it.
Davis fed a perfect pass through the sunroof of the car, then watched as Griffin rose up and flew by.
The look on Davis' face afterward was one of joy and relief.
"I don't really have words for it," Davis said. "I just have reactions. It was wild."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.