Originally published in SLAM 178

by Chris Palmer

Blake Griffin stood on the top row of the rickety bleachers at Oklahoma Christian School. Perched on the edge, 10 feet off the ground. He steeled himself and leaned forward. He couldn’t let his 9-year-old older brother beat him again. Not this time. Taylor beat him at everything. So it was now or never. Time to prove this son, too, also rises. The coast was clear. There were no grown-ups around. He sprang from the bleachers and hung in the air for an eternity. It was just a sibling rivalry. He was just a boy. But when he touched down it would reveal everything about who he would one day become.

Who is Blake Griffin?

You know the guy with all the commercials who dunks? The power forward with a crazy blend of size, grace, skill and hops having a break-out season? The one who your girl can recognize despite being buried in fashion mags on the couch next to you? You know, the game’s future doing the impossible by turning a purple and gold town on its head and arguably becoming the NBA’s most recognizable face in the process.

Oh, him. Yeah, that’s the guy. So who is he?

Tricky question. Ask around and the answers are many. The future. Misunderstood. A great teammate. Kinda soft. Crazy talented. Just a dunker. A funny-ass dude. From another planet. Future MVP. My brother.

Man, that just complicates things. So let’s start with what he is: a four-time All-Star who’s landed on the All-NBA Second-Team the last two seasons and is the anchor to the Clippers’ Championship hopes. With season averages of 24.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 3.9 apg, he’s also a—minus KD and LBJ—legit MVP candidate. Let’s not forget February Player of the Month after averaging 30 and 10.

“He’s not human,” says Clips point guard Darren Collison. “He’s not human at all.”

Ace sixth man Jamal Crawford tracks his origins to a planet only he and LeBron James are from. “I don’t know what planet that is, but we’re trying to figure it out,” says Crawford. “They see each other up there sometimes.”

Up until recently much of the fascination with Griffin has centered on that otherworldly athletic ability, the basis of some of the most GIF-inducing highlights in recent memory. But he’s simply not content with being the latest in a line of skywalkers merely here to entertain.

This season through constant study, self-evaluation and a merciless work ethic, Griffin has transformed himself and the whisper of his top five status has been pumped up to a low roar.

He’s consistently hitting the midrange jump shot (even using the window), commanding double teams all over the floor and making plays as a facilitator in the open court. He talks more on defense and is finally settling nicely into a leadership role.

Given his youth, untapped potential and pairing with the current generation’s best PG, Chris Paul, rarely has a power forward positioned himself this well at such an early stage to capture a ring and the place in the game that comes with it. 

Griffin’s come a long way from the injured rookie made to wear a Dora The Explorer backpack and light blue tux two sizes too small. Hard to even remember the days when then-teammate Steve Novak would look out his window to make sure the Clips’ savior’s lights were off and he was sound asleep before midnight.

So who is Blake Griffin? Or rather, who is he destined to be?

The story starts on those bleachers. And in the driveway of a split-level home 15 minutes away in Edmond, OK. He is the product of Tommy, a high school basketball coach, and Gail, a former high school teacher, who preached discipline and hard work as the pillars of success.

He is his mother’s son. He is a chip off the old block. A product of an environment in which he had a long list of chores, a curfew and church all while being home schooled until high school. He loved his mother’s strawberry cake and she encouraged his early penchant for creativity. He led his father’s Oklahoma Christian High to a 106-6 record and four state titles.

He competitively knocked heads endlessly with his older brother Taylor, while building an unbreakable bond that persists to this day. Every driveway one-on-one showdown, card game, chore or made-up competition ended in a fight.

“Usually because I would win,” says Taylor, now 27.

 But every loss made him stronger as if part of the plan.

“When I see him intense on the court today,” Taylor says, “I see the same look in his eyes he had against me.”

***

After scoring a season-high 43 points on March 10 against the Suns he lets out a sigh and folds himself into a black swivel chair in front of his locker. He’s used up his intensity for the day and is dressed in fashionably form fitting clothes with warm tones. He leans over to slip socks on his bare feet.

“Superstar!” shouts best mate DeAndre Jordan from across the room as he adjusts his tie.

There’s an easy look on his tired face. The face with the high cheekbones, square jaw and freckles you’ve seen dozens of times even if you haven’t forked over $159 for League Pass.

His commercials are on a constant loop. The art of blending power dunks and self-deprecation is his creation alone. The bizarre juxtaposition has made him one of the most visible athletes on the planet.

But in the mid-’90s he was just a boy hanging in the air. Trying to jump farther than his brother off the top of some wooden bleachers. Pay dirt was a large cushy gym mat like pole-vaulters use that someone left out. After each jump they pushed the mat back a couple feet.

Taylor had already completed the jump. He was bigger, faster and stronger. He was the leader. Every competition for Blake was an uphill battle. But the kid had some spunk.

Blake soared but fell way short crashing down on the unforgiving gym floor breaking his wrist. Taylor won again. But this time he started to freak. Just as he was about to run for his father, the younger Griffin stood up.

“I want to go again,” he said.

En route to the hospital Taylor thought, “That kid is tough.”

Griffin’s defining quality isn’t his sublime athleticism or his irreverent wit. It’s his motor and his toughness. The midair artistry gets airtime but it’s the battering ram mentality that simply won’t cease that makes Blake Griffin who he is.

“He never stops coming at you,” says Taylor, who has relocated to Los Angeles to be near Blake while rehabbing his ankle. “He goes 100 miles an hour every play.” Most opponents don’t mind giving up dunks. Just two points. But getting beaten to a pulp stays with you. Hurts, too. 

Those bleachers, that gym mat, the mistimed jump and a competitive older brother were all part of the plan. The Boy Who Fell To Earth was just getting started. #quote

There are few places Griffin spends more time at than the Clippers practice facility. When Crawford took his official visit in July of 2012 he was surprised to see a lone figure in the gym. Griffin was working on post moves at 10 in the morning.

“I’m a firm believer in the more work you put in, the more you get out,” says Griffin.

Few things inspire Griffin more than tales of the game’s greats, both past and present, working their fingers to the bone to improve even the tiniest aspect of their games.

“I love hearing the stories of Kobe, LeBron and back in the day even Michael Jordan,” says Griffin. “How they worked and how it made them unique. That’s definitely something I want to embrace.”

Griffin has heard dozens of Kobe workout stories about late night shooting sessions and murderously long bike rides. One of his favorites, though, is the time Mamba was in Italy one summer and couldn’t sleep. He called Marco Belinelli at 2 a.m. looking for a gym to get up some shots. Belinelli found him one and met him there 30 minutes later. By morning the Italian guard was exhausted. He thought Kobe just wanted to shoot but instead lured him into an intense three-hour workout.

“Now that’s work ethic,” says Griffin.

That same work ethic had Griffin at the practice facility five days a week last summer. Had him hoisting thousands of shots under the tutelage of shooting guru Bob Thate. Made him obsessed with footwork. Drove him in summer pickup clashes at the Clippers practice facility against the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden to prevail in those intense games of seven.

“He’s put in a lot of deposits,” says a smiling Rivers, “and now he’s getting some cash back.”

But a funny thing has happened on the way to greatness. Griffin has become the player opponents love to hate. Or at least hate to play against.

After a game two seasons ago a visibly frustrated Lakers forward Josh McRoberts shook his head and bit his tongue when asked about Griffin’s physical play. “I don’t want to get myself in trouble,” he said.

Zach Randolph, less concerned with Griffin’s feelings, famously called him an “actor” during a 2012 Playoff matchup. (One Grizzlies blog features “The Top 5 Fights between Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin.”)

Last season Serge Ibaka delivered a shot to his groin. Suns bruiser PJ Tucker pulled Griffin to the ground on March 10 and promptly hit him with an elbow to his chest, drawing an ejection. Two days later, still smoldering 30 minutes after a game from a snarky comment, Warriors center Jermaine O’Neal tracked Griffin down in the hallway.

Of course there was the nationally televised Christmas Day game that ended with the Clippers forward being ejected after which he called the Warriors “cowards.”

After that March 10 Suns game Rivers paused, collected his thoughts, careful not to cross a line that could end up with a call from the League office or at least a nasty bout of regret.

“Blake gets hit as much as anybody in the League and it gets old,” said Rivers. “I’m not going to say what I really want to say. I just think he’s playing really well right now and some people don’t like that.”

With that Rivers deftly got his point across and dropped a taboo bomb that has scarcely been touched by anyone: jealousy in the NBA.

“Every other second Blake is on TV,” adds Crawford. “I guess you get tired sometimes of always hearing about the same person. Blake is a lot of people’s favorite player. Who knows what family members are saying too?”

One player has no such qualms when it comes to facing Griffin. “To me it’s fun,” Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried told ESPN prior to a March 17 grudge match with L.A. “He’s an All-Star.…all themagazines, all the commercials, so it’s fun to me.”

Whether it’s the bruising style of play or frustrated opponents with envious eyes, those skirmishes are an everyday part of BG’s world. Through discipline and self-control, he’s managed to bottle his reactionary rage and turn the other freckled cheek.

“He’s doing the right thing,” Rivers says. “If he reacts like people say he should he gets thrown out and it hurts the team.”

His running mate Chris Paul concurs. “He could easily punch back and get to fighting,” says Paul. “But no. I don’t know how he does it. That’s pretty selfless.”

As with many things in BG’s life, handling the nightly frustration circles back to Taylor.

“When I was little and playing my older brother and he was whooping me, I used to fight,” remembers Griffin. “I used to get mad, grab him and swing.”

Those battles with Taylor planted the seed to deal with the extracurricular rigors of the game’s cheap shot artists. The dustups send Taylor’s heart racing from his courtside perch at Clippers home games.

But Griffin’s refusal to retaliate has unfairly branded him as soft. Teammates scoff at the word. The growing sentiment is that he has to do something soon. But to what end?

“You don’t have to swing back,” says Taylor, “but you have to stand your ground.”

Ask those who know, and they say The Boy Who Fell To Earth, who now soars far above it, is anything but soft.

After five years, life in SoCal is of course different for Griffin now that people spout catchphrases and are ready to Instagram him at Whole Foods. But Griffin keeps a tight circle of folks who knew him before he jumped over that Kia.

Taylor and his wife, Marieka, often make the 15-minute drive to Blake’s house to hang out in the backyard, play pool or table tennis. “Somehow he got really good at ping-pong,” says Taylor. “He must have a tutor. I’ve beat him once in 75 games.”

My how things have changed.

Blake’s Rhodesian Ridgeback, Chaney, frolics with Taylor’s eager year-old Weimaraner, Humphrey, on the grass, as the brothers reminisce about life in Oklahoma City or laugh about some viral video. For Blake’s 25th birthday last month, Marieka made him his favorite strawberry cake, just as his mother has each year for his birthday. The brothers get together at Blake’s a couple times a week to eat dinner or watch League Pass.

In social situations Blake is the center of the room, always ready with a joke or an impression. Taylor prefers the anonymity of the background. “We’re both kind of quiet until you get to know us, then we open up,” says Taylor. “He just opens up more.”

The boys check in with their parents regularly by phone—they still can’t tell their voices apart. Dad still coaches. Mom still worries. Lessons learned in that house still resonate.

“I never wanted to be famous,” says Blake. “I just wanted to be a basketball player.” 

And then it becomes clear. This is who Blake Griffin is.