CP3 is in Houston. Lob City is a thing of the past. L.A.'s fate now rests solely in the hands of a reluctant dunker and wry comic whose new weapon —A LETHAL J— is no laughing matter for the rest of the league
BURGLARS ON the west side of Los Angeles are versed in NBA schedules, not injury protocols, so the masked intruders who broke into Blake Griffin's three-story traditional in Pacific Palisades at 3 a.m. a year and a half ago did not expect to see the 6'10" power forward asleep in his upstairs bedroom. The Clippers were on the road, but Griffin was at home, rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery on his left quadriceps. His two-year-old son, Ford, dozed in a room down the hall. When the three-man crew spotted Griffin under the covers, they cleared out faster than the Suns' front line, rushing through the kitchen and out the back door, setting off motion-detector lights as they went. They paused only to snag Griffin's wallet from a small table. Video cameras showed them scampering in hoodies and sweats past the pool and the sport court.
Two months later Griffin adopted Rook, a black German shepherd trained by instructors in body suits at an abandoned warehouse in Westlake Village. Rook patrols the Griffin residence, responding to 30 commands in his native tongue. Sitz!, Griffin says, when he wants Rook to sit. Fuss!, when he wants him to heel. Bleib!, when he wants him to stay. But there is one word Griffin cannot say out loud, at least not with a guest present, because there is a decent chance Rook will drag the stranger across Sunset Boulevard by the inner thigh. "If we're just sitting here like this, and I say the word, he won't attack you," Griffin reassures, lounging on a living room sofa, Rook at his side chewing a deflated soccer ball. "I don't think."
Recently, a couple of Griffin's childhood friends from Oklahoma City visited L.A., and one pretended to record him surreptitiously with a cellphone. Rook bodied up the wannabe paparazzo like Patrick Beverley on Lonzo Ball, retreating only at the sound of his master's laughter. "He is reading me at all times," Griffin says. The 28-year-old is a fascinating study, a stoic consumed with comedy, a pitchman wary of exposure, a flier reluctant to dunk. He is a far better player than the spring-loaded prodigy who once hurdled that silver Kia, a gospel choir providing the soundtrack, yet his profile has diminished as his skill set has grown. No one in the NBA takes more extreme measures to fortify his body, and no one suffers more untimely ailments.
Griffin's career to this point can be divided into two parts: The first, when he transformed basketball's most futile franchise into its most endearing upstart, and the second, when Lob City's skyscraping trajectory turned flat. The Clippers experienced the full life cycle of a would-be contender—excitement, expectation, disappointment, dissolution—in six years. "You felt a heaviness at the end," Griffin says. "There was so much negativity outside, everybody saying, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' It weighs you down. It wore on all of us." Griffin's stony facial expressions can be hard to interpret—"I feel like people believe I'm thinking a different thing than I am, because I have this look about me"—but the game appeared a grind. "I think I looked like I wasn't enjoying myself as much, and maybe I wasn't enjoying myself as much," he says.
Part 3 is under way, with point guard Chris Paul departed to Houston, and it's too early to call the Clips a factor (they started 5--4) or restore Griffin to the MVP conversation (he was averaging 23.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game). But he is again levitating over centers and dangling from rims while now running the offense and spacing the floor. He is not cracking jokes on the court—he saves those for unannounced appearances with improv troupes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre—but he acknowledges that some lightness has returned. "I used to play with a lot of passion, good and bad, and I tried to work on that," Griffin says. "I thought, If I just stay very even, my emotions won't range and I won't ever get pissed or yell. But I'm realizing I can't play contained like that. It drains the fun. It drains the joy. I have to relax and be myself. It's O.K. to laugh and smile and enjoy these awesome moments."
Before training camp Griffin rented a house in San Diego on Airbnb and invited the team to join him. Rookies doubled up in rooms. Griffin grabbed a twin bed, ceding the master to homesick first-year Serbian guard Miloš Teodosić. By day the Clippers practiced at the University of San Diego, and by night they hung out on a deck, a peekaboo view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. "It felt like we were taking all our bulls---, putting it in a trash can and dumping it in the water," recalls guard Austin Rivers. "The dynamic with Blake and Chris was weird. I don't know why. It was just strange. No one knew who the leader was, and if you had something to say, it would turn into an argument. I think people were sometimes scared to say something to Blake, because you didn't know how he'd react. [Now] he's a whole different person, more approachable, and I think it's because we've embraced him. We know who our leader is. We're all in with Blake Griffin."
THE LOB CITY ERA was disastrous for the Clippers only if judging it without any historical perspective whatsoever. A franchise that never won 50 games broke that threshold in five straight seasons. They earned more playoff berths than in the previous three decades combined. They sold out 280 consecutive home dates. They employed real stars and birthed actual fans, not just Lakers contrarians. A generation of Angelenos has no memory of a time when the Clippers were a joke.
The run ended, appropriately, in a hospital room in Salt Lake City. The Clippers were facing the Jazz in the first round, and Griffin was undergoing tests for an injured plantar plate in his right big toe, the latest in a series of maladies that could fill a small medical journal. "I broke down," Griffin recalls. "I've never broken down after an injury before. But this one was different. I said to the doctor, 'I'm doing everything I possibly can.'"
Body assessments, sleep studies, food sensitivity tests. He owns a hyperbaric chamber at home, which he avoids on game days because it makes him drowsy, along with a hot and cold tub for contrast therapy. ("Three minutes hot, one minute cold, three minutes hot, one minute cold, three minutes hot, one minute cold.") A pre-health and exercise science major in his two years at Oklahoma, Griffin peppers his speech with words like "modalities" and "loads," and he can offer a dissertation on the difference between Firefly and Marc Pro, two devices he uses to stimulate circulation in his legs. He is waiting on a BioMat, an infrared heating pad, which a hockey player told him can reduce inflammation. He has discovered that his IT bands and hip flexors are unusually tight, making him prone to overcompensation in other areas, and he tailors workouts as a result. He does not eat gluten during the season and avoids microwaves.
"He reminds me of Jerry Rice," says Clippers head athletic trainer Jasen Powell, who once worked with the 49ers. "He likes to know." In Griffin's home office he simultaneously watches Synergy cut-ups on his desktop computer and four games on his 90-inch TV, so he can monitor the Clippers' upcoming opponents. Before he takes the floor, he lies down on a training table in the locker room and visualizes sets he believes will be most effective: Right block attack, left block attack, pick-and-pop.
Comedy is an outlet, but he's typically serious about that as well. Growing up, Griffin watched I Love Lucy, The Cosby Show and Saturday Night Live. His parents listened to Brian Regan in the car. In high school he graduated to Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Richard Pryor, burning their acts onto CDs. Once he moved to L.A., he befriended Neal Brennan, cocreator of Chappelle's Show, who taught him how to construct jokes. Brennan would email Griffin a rough draft of a bit—the first one involved Jon Hamm and Sesame Street—with instructions to "punch it up." Griffin would sit over the computer at his home in Manhattan Beach, as hopeless as Brennan in the low post.
Griffin is not funny in the slapstick way that translates to press conferences or even locker rooms. His humor is dry and observational. During games Clippers center DeAndre Jordan plays off Griffin, and afterward, the opposite. Jordan will jabber for five minutes about his abiding affection for his hometown Houston Astros, to which Griffin will quietly reply, "I've literally never heard him talk about the Houston Astros until right now." Griffin keeps a notes folder in his phone with jokes he is incessantly polishing. His line of work provides plenty of material. Take, for instance, the tweeted trade request of Suns guard Eric Bledsoe: I Dont wanna be here. "What was funnier, to me, was his follow-up tweet," Griffin says. "Good morning. That's like getting in a huge argument with someone, yelling 'F--- you!' and then coming back in the room and saying, 'Good night.'"
He initially did not want to write about basketball, until he listened to an interview with Seth Rogen, who started on the stand-up circuit as a kid. "He was doing all these adult jokes, and one of the comedians was like, 'How old are you?'" Griffin recounts. "Rogen told him, 'I'm 13.' The comedian said, 'Write about being 13.'" So when Griffin did stand-up for five nights last summer at Just for Laughs in Montreal, he introduced himself as "a big dumb stupid athlete" who "can't talk good" and cracked up the crowd with tales of trades, sideline interviews and duffel bags of $1 bills at strip clubs. "I had this line, 'I'm not very good at going to strip clubs, and I always blame my mom for giving me too much attention as a child,'" Griffin remembers. "I sent it to Neal, and he told me to rework it. 'What makes it funny?' The line ended up being, 'I always blame my dad for showing my mom too much respect.' I think that was better."
For Griffin, comedy and basketball are equally painstaking crafts, though he approaches them much differently. "His presence on the stage," says Griffin's older brother, Taylor, "is more in tune with his personality than his presence on the court." He plays with a fury simmering just below the surface, fueled in part by past misfortunes. Those close to Griffin say he changes when he is hurt, growing somber or irritable, and he doesn't disagree. In January 2016, Griffin expected to return from a partially torn quadriceps on an East Coast road swing, but he re-aggravated the injury the day before the Clippers left. In New York City, trainers ruled him out for the trip and Griffin asked if he could fly back to L.A. to rehab at the practice facility. But a snowstorm was approaching, and officials feared Griffin would get stranded, so he accompanied the team to Toronto.
The next day he broke his right hand in a fight outside a restaurant with Matias Testi, a friend who was the club's assistant equipment manager. "I never want to make excuses about that because it was my fault 100%," Griffin says. "I think about it all the time, and I still feel really, really bad, for a lot of reasons. I let so many people down. But I'm not going to lie. I wasn't in the best place mentally. It took a very unique certain set of circumstances for that to happen, and part of it was not being able to play. That set wheels in motion." After the quad, he was angry, and after the toe, he was melancholy. He underwent surgery in Charlotte and waited for the best team the Clippers had ever known to disintegrate.
BY THE second week of June the front office knew Paul was gone, spiking the stakes for their summit with Griffin. He too was an unrestricted free agent, and if he followed Paul out the Playa Vista door, it was back to the days of Loy Vaught and Charles Smith. For nine months Lawrence Frank prepared what he'd say to Griffin. Frank had experience as a coach, but he was a rookie general manager, and he quizzed contacts in the entertainment and business world for ideas. Frank understands that all players—heck, all people—are living out a story, and most carry a vision of how they want it to unfold. "What's Blake's story?" Frank asked, over and over. "What's his North Star?"
As Griffin entered the Staples Center concourse on the afternoon of June 30, he stepped into a visual depiction of that story: pictures from childhood, when he worked in his family's trophy business and built most of the hardware he won; from high school, when he played for his dad and alongside his brother; and from college, when he revived a local program leveled by NCAA sanctions. After going back in time, he was taken forward, led into the darkened bowl where the public-address announcer bellowed, "Tonight, we're honoring a lifelong Clipper!" It was 2029, according to the P.A. guy, and Griffin was attending his own jersey-retirement ceremony. "So you're much, much older," Griffin explained to Ford, now four, and obviously confused. "You might be grounded."
Sarcastic and self-deprecating, Griffin probably didn't need to see number 32 lifted to the rafters or hear Andra Davis sing "Rise Up" with a choir that recalled the dunk contest. But he savored the sound of "lifelong Clipper," a phrase that hasn't been uttered much over the past few decades. "That was the sell," Griffin says. "'This is where you've been. This is your home. You've been here for 17 wins and you've been here for 50.' It made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. I couldn't be the guy who was like, 'Well, everything that went wrong here is the team's fault, so I'll just leave.' I wanted to take ownership."
When Griffin committed to Oklahoma, he was casually watching a NBA game on TV with Jeff Capel in the Sooners coach's office and blurted out, "I don't want to go anywhere else." He canceled his other recruiting visits. When he agreed to a $173 million extension with the Clippers, he did the same, calling off meetings in Phoenix and Denver so he could recruit small forward Danilo Gallinari over lunch at Doc Rivers's house. The Clips had found Griffin's North Star. A clue happens to be tattooed in small block letters on his left wrist: STAY.
The tattoo is a nod to his parents, Gail and Tommy, who seemed to put that verb in front of every sentence: Stay focused. Stay hungry. Stay humble. When Gail and Tommy arrived in Los Angeles after the 2009 draft, they knew only one thing about the Clippers. "The curse," Gail laughs. "You kept hearing that word."
Then their son suffered a stress fracture in his left knee before his first game, an injury that cost him the entire 2009--10 season. While Griffin fretted over comparisons to injury-riddled center Greg Oden, picked first by the Blazers two years before, new GM Neil Olshey treated the prized rookie more like Tim Duncan, consulting him about personnel moves and facility upgrades. Olshey purged the roster of everybody except Jordan, Griffin's closest friend on the team apart from the video intern who lived with him. Olshey believed Griffin was the uncommon Clipper who could single-handedly reverse perception of the franchise, and he did, using Timofey Mozgov as his first prop and a Kia Optima as his second.
"My plan for the dunk contest was to jump over a convertible with four teammates inside," Griffin says. "The NBA kind of messed up that plan. They wanted me to jump over a Kia, because it's a league sponsor, but the Optima is a huge car. I could only do the hood, so it didn't look as cool." No one at Staples Center in February 2011 was disappointed, and shortly thereafter Kia signed him to an endorsement contract. "People thought I did the dunk to get the deal. I was bummed about that." Griffin insisted on creative input and agreed to ads only where he could make fun of himself. "I can't be driving to the arena with some voice-over going"—he lowers his voice to a melodramatic baritone—"The game doesn't drive me. I drive the game."
Kia and Griffin filmed hit commercials, featuring jean shorts, track suits and bricked free throws, but the experience left him conflicted about his marketability—as well as his vertical. "I wanted to be a complete player, and I felt like the dunks started to overshadow other parts of my game," Griffin says. "I felt like that's all that was being showcased. That's why I shied away from it a little over the years. I kind of had a love-hate with it." The high-wire act made him famous but left him unfulfilled, too many facials being delivered during defeats. Opposing big men tried anything to ground him, from wrestling matches with Zach Randolph to groin strikes from Serge Ibaka. One vet told him, "You're too light-skinned to be tough." What a whack thing to say, Griffin thought, as he trudged silently upcourt.
He paid for the posters, but without that glossy evidence of progress, the Clippers might not have lured Paul from New Orleans or enticed Doc from Boston or moved Steve Ballmer from Microsoft to pay Donald Sterling $2 billion for the team. The change in perception led to change in everything else.
"YOU CAN'T be a dunker your whole life," Rivers told Griffin in their first meeting, in 2013. The coach braced for resistance, but Griffin was way ahead of him, already retreating to a corner of the practice gym every day with a notebook-wielding, Diet Coke-- guzzling shot doctor named Bob Thate. There, Griffin filled his daily prescription of 500 shots, which only counted if Thate deemed them "mechanically correct." That meant Griffin had to jump straight up and down (instead of back and to the left), lift his right arm toward the sky (instead of the rim), position the ball even with his forehead (instead of over his head) and release it at the apex of his jump (instead of the descent).
For Griffin, who was barely a 50% free throw shooter and rarely hoisted a three when he started with Thate, "mechanically correct" was a mystery. "He wanted everything done in a day," Thate laughs. It took four years and 325,000 mechanically correct shots, plus another 75,000 flawed ones, as Thate supplied commentary: No, that's too far back. No, that's too low. Butt's not out far enough, shoulder isn't on the chin. Keep your hands up, freeze your arm.
One summer they shot for 17 straight weeks at Mira Costa High School, including days when Griffin fumed and Thate fretted. "You have to let me be frustrated," Griffin explained. He yearned to see the ball drop through the net, but Thate rarely even looked at the basket. He brought bags of M&Ms to remind Griffin: Mechanics, not Makes. "I know, I know, I'm in a hurry too, Pops," Thate would tell Griffin, quoting Red Pollard in Seabiscuit. "But you know what Hadrian said about Rome. Brick by brick, my citizens. Brick by brick." Thate stood in the tunnel during games, and if Griffin missed a couple jumpers, he'd holler, "What do you got? What do you see?" If Thate pointed at his head, Griffin needed to shoot higher. If Thate clasped his hands and pulled them apart, Griffin needed to release sooner. If Thate formed a "V" with his thumb and index finger, balance was the problem. "Castle of jump shots, brick by brick," became their mantra. One day in the gym, with Griffin's free throw percentage all the way up near 75%, he told Thate, "You know what a great feeling is? Not being afraid to get fouled anymore." But Thate looked beyond the stripe. "Someday you'll be the best shooter on this team, and then one of the best shooters in the league." The full results of their labor would not be evident for years.
Last February, on the bus to the arena in Toronto, Rivers texted Griffin, "I want you to start spacing the three." Griffin was giddy. No one had ever told him that before. He is now shooting 5.0 threes per game—before last season his career high was 0.6 attempts—and hitting them at a 42.2% clip. Over lunch at Baltaire Restaurant in Brentwood, he pantomimes his form. "Butt out ... chest forward ... arm up," he says, between bites of salmon and sips of black tea. Griffin is no Dirk Nowitzki, but his newfound marksmanship draws out defenders, opening driving and passing lanes he's never seen before. Guards report that they're enjoying more uncontested layups because helpers don't want to leave Griffin.
With six seconds left at Portland on Oct. 26 and the Clippers trailing by a point, Austin Rivers drove for a game-winner. Referees called a blocking foul—Rivers dislocated his right pinkie finger on the play—before changing it to a charge. The Blazers' C.J. McCollum sank one of two free throws on the other end. "It was one of those situations our team used to get so f------ riled up about," Austin says. In the last timeout Doc drew up a pin-down for Griffin. "Before, Chris never knew if he should give it to Blake, or Blake should give it to Chris, and if one missed the other guy was like, 'Maybe I should have shot it,'" Austin recalls. "Things were so complicated. This was simple: We're going through Blake." Doc's plan was for a two-point shot, but Griffin could not duck inside, so he dribbled to the left wing and drilled the buzzer-beating three.
Of course there will be plenty of similar situations when the Clippers wish they could clear out for Paul. Without him, they are no longer a threat to the West elite, though it can be debated if they ever really were. "We were front-runners," Griffin says. "When things were going great, the ball was hopping around. But when we felt resistance in games, we splintered. I just want to make sure, even when we have down moments, we don't splinter." Sure enough, after Portland, the Clippers were toppled by the Pistons and decimated by the Warriors.
Three years ago, when Griffin felt mute in Paul's commanding presence, he called Tim Duncan for counsel. "He said, 'The leader isn't the guy yelling the loudest or talking the most,'" Griffin recounts. "It's the guy everybody looks at in the end and knows, 'I'm following him.'" Griffin mimics Duncan in ways big and small, like how he gently taps opposing post players after they jostle, to let them know there is nothing personal about the battle. He is proud that some referees have told him his body language has improved.
Griffin has one other tattoo, a quote from high school teammate Wilson Holloway inked on his side. When Holloway was a junior in college, he needed a new computer and Griffin sent him one. Holloway wrote him a thank-you note that included the advice: "Just keep smiling." A couple weeks later, three days before the dunk contest, Holloway died of Hodgkin's lymphoma. Griffin thinks about him often. He does smile—when he's reviewing scripts for the production company he cofounded, Mortal Media; or pounding his drum set, which he's played since elementary school; or swimming with his kids, Ford and one-year-old daughter Finley, who split time with Griffin and his ex-fiancée in Manhattan Beach.
Griffin may be loosening a bit on the court as well, but make no mistake, Staples Center is not the Laugh Factory and basketball is brick-by-brick work. Building trophies and breaking hexes takes strength and science, the domain of a renowned rook and an uncommon Clipper, trained to stay.
Rivers says teammates used to be scared to talk to Griffin: "He's a whole different person, more approachable, and I think it's because we've embraced him. We know who OUR LEADER is."