Blake Griffin is alone. While his teammates are back east on a six-game trip, the first overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft is at the Los Angeles Clippers' training facility rehabilitating the fractured left kneecap that braces his hulking 6-foot-9 frame. He has the whole place to himself, and that solitude gives him a lot of time to think. On this day, a week before Christmas, he's measuring his faith in destiny.
"I'm a believer in 'Everything happens for a reason,'" Griffin says. When you ask him what reason could possibly exist for being deprived of starting a career he's rightfully earned, he becomes politely defiant. "Honestly, I feel like good things can come out of situations you're put in. Maybe it's the lives you affect and the people you meet when you're in that situation."
Fate is a tricky concept for an athlete, particularly one as insatiably competitive as Griffin. If happenstance dictates events, then why bother to sculpt yourself into an indomitable physical specimen, as Griffin has? If your rookie season can be derailed by a perfect sequence of basketball, then why drive yourself to mastering the skills that enable that perfection?
Griffin has spent the past eight weeks grappling with these questions. Over that period, he's watched another No. 1 pick with an unimpeachable work ethic, Greg Oden, lose his season to injury. "That was kind of scary," Griffin says. Scary because it confirmed that commitment doesn't ensure success, and that there are factors out of an athlete's control, no matter how steady that resolve. For a 20-year-old like Griffin, whose physical regimen and unyielding desire to get better are all about commitment and control, that's a cold dose of reality.
"It's one of those things where you don't know what's going to happen and you can't control what's going to happen," Griffin says. "So you worry, but not to the point where you're consumed by it."
What consumes Griffin instead is the paralysis of not being able to play basketball with brute force. "He's antsy," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy says. "He wants to get out there. He does everything to the nth degree, which is a great thing. But I think he understands that it's a serious injury that you have to take care of the right way."
The right way is a routine Griffin describes joylessly, even as he pursues it, by every account, tirelessly. He starts early in the morning at a rehab facility where he gets treatment on the knee for a couple hours. He then drives over to the training facility, where, for a couple more hours, he lifts weights (both upper and lower body), does cardio work on either the elliptical machine or a bike, and then shoots between 100-200 free throws. In the afternoons, he often kills time at cineplexes on Los Angeles' westside. "I've seen a lot of movies lately," Griffin says. "I've seen everything." Some nights he returns to the training facility for more shooting practice, or heads down to Staples Center in his street clothes, or maybe grabs dinner with a teammate or two.
The monotony of his rehab schedule isn't what's bothering Griffin. Even when he's healthy, he subscribes to a strict program. It's the isolation that's killing him. "It's good that it's killing me," Griffin says. "It's making me work harder. It's making me stay focused, especially these last two or three weeks. I've been able to do more and more."
A cruel irony accompanies that progress for Griffin. "At the same time, the more I can do and the closer I get -- it's harder mentally," he says.
Griffin is a literal guy who rarely speaks in metaphors. So he pauses for a moment to see if he can relate this personal revelation in a way that makes sense. "It's like I want to break out of this jail," he muses. "And I'm tunneling my way and I'm getting closer and closer, but I just can't bust out. I can almost feel it, but at the same time I'm still in jail."
Jail is a lonely place to spend the holidays, but fortunately for Griffin, the Clippers have a Christmas date in Phoenix, where Taylor Griffin, Blake's big brother, plays for the Suns. The entire Griffin family will convene in the desert and celebrate Christmas. Griffin's folks own a small trophy company in Oklahoma City, and growing up, Christmas was a modest affair.
"We didn't have a lot of money," Griffin says. "I never really bought things before this year."
The enduring Christmas gifts of his childhood are the Dallas Cowboys uniform kit replete with jersey, pants and shoulder pads, and a Nerf hoop the Griffin brothers mounted to a beam between the den and the dining area. "The Nerf basketball and mini goal lasted several years and survived major abuse," Gail Griffin says. "They loved it."
Gail was Blake's first call the night before the Clippers' regular-season opener when he learned that he'd be missing his NBA debut, and they speak regularly. But there are days Griffin doesn't want to talk to anyone, when tunneling between his prison cell and daylight demands far too much resolve to be wasted on conversation. "Sometimes, I just want to come in, get my work done, go home, be away from everyone and just chill," Griffin says.
Other times, when the team is home, when he can hear the fraternal ruckus of practice from the weight room, he craves the unity and order that come with being part of a team. "To not be out there with your teammates, you just don't share the same experience," he says. "When you guys are going out there practicing, go through walk-throughs, you do these things as a team. You have this sense that you're all going through this stuff together. And you're closer for it. For me, always sitting on the sidelines ... it messes with you mentally."
In a few weeks, Griffin will move into a new phase when he suits up for his first regular-season NBA game. The event will receive some fanfare, but it won't be the pageant it was scheduled to be when the Clippers faced the Lakers on national TV on opening night in October. Though Griffin was the presumptive rookie of the year headed into the season, Sacramento's Tyreke Evans now seems the most likely candidate to win the award. The Clippers, who were regarded a possible playoff team with Griffin, have hovered below the .500 mark in his absence, and will probably have a representative in Secaucus, N.J., for the lottery drawing.
Griffin doesn't imagine the moment he first takes the floor next month will be any big deal. "I'll probably be coming off the bench," he says.
The picture he paints when he enters the game seems extremely incompatible with what we know about Griffin. "I've told people that when I come back, I'm not going to try to do too much," he says. "I'm just going to do what I do: play hard, rebound, defend. I'm not going to try to go one-on-one and create a lot of shots."
But the idea that Griffin wouldn't size up a slower defender and explode past him to the rack doesn't compute. When challenged about that comment, Griffin cracks a smile, chuckles, then revises his remarks. "If that's what's happening later in the game and maybe if I'm feeling it, starting to pick up and get into the groove, then all right."
In the meantime, Griffin will keep digging that tunnel to freedom and look forward to Christmas in Phoenix. He's got plenty of shopping to do before Friday. The Clippers have a secret Santa exchange planned, and there are gifts to be purchased for his parents and Taylor. "My brother is a big electronics guy," Griffin says.
What does Griffin want for Christmas? "I don't want anything," he says. "When people ask, I say, 'Nothing.'" One of those people is Clippers second-year center DeAndre Jordan, Griffin's best friend on the team.
"Blake wants to play for Christmas," Jordan says. "But I can't get him that."
Kevin Arnovitz writes the ClipperBlog for the TrueHoop Network.