The NBA’s Franchise Player?

by David J. Leonard / @DR_DJL

After watching yet another commercial, seeing yet another magazine advertisement, and trip to Subway, both my 4-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter noted that Blake Griffin seemed to be everywhere.

No matter where they turned, no matter what was on the television, it is almost impossible not to see Griffin, all of which is emblematic of the power of the NBA’s marketing machine. Despite winning nothing of substance to-date and only putting up very good numbers over his short career (20 and 10), Blake has ascended as the face of the League.

Celebrating for his ferocity, his spectacular dunks, and his purported right attitude, Griffin has filled the hero gap left by LeBron’s “Decision,” Dwight Howard’s “Indecision,” Melo’s “New York State of Mind,” and Kobe’s “Baggage.” Griffin, on the other hand, has consistently been represented as a “breath of fresh air,” a throw back player, and someone who fans can cheer for.

Celebrating his balance, the media narrative consistently depicts Blake as a competitor on the floor and a good guy off the floor. For example, TJ Simers highlights the difficulties Blake must endure and the grace that he has shown under this pressure:

“That almost speaks to a sensitivity one would never consider Griffin possessing, given the way he imposes his physical will on opponents. But he is still young, and when asked about the highlight of his summer, surprisingly it was his brother’s wedding rather than the Hollywood treatment he received.”

Similarly, Justin Verrier offered explanation and, in some regards, an excuse for Blake’s “antics” as a means to celebrate him:

But Cousins and Gasol aren’t entirely wrong, either: While it’s hard to argue that Griffin is “babied” by refs, given the game-by-game punishment he takes in the post, he certainly benefits from his share of favorable calls (in particular, the one that sent Cousins off the deep end to begin with). And Griffin has made a habit of forcefully dropping his off-hand on some of his more memorable dunks, creating both a way to propel himself higher and return some of the force applied to him on his way up (a natural reaction with unintentional consequences, he’s said in the past).

But these are only minor squabbles in a season full of them, throughout the League. Their comments certainly put a national spotlight on Griffin’s on-court demeanor—Cousins’ comments alone overshadowing recent ugly performances by the Heat and Thunder—but they may end up saying more about how players around the League perceive the rise of young stars like Griffin.

You have to crawl before you walk. You’re supposed to intern before you get that big job. And in basketball, like all other professional sports, you’re supposed to pay your dues.

This represents the crux of the Blake the narrative: great kid, whose passion, competitiveness and work ethic at times get the best of him. What could have been a criticism thus becomes a way of celebrating Blake Griffin as unique and special.

“He’s a highlight at any second of the game, but he’s also smart enough to know that the fundamentals are the part that will make him better and help this team,” noted his coach Vinny del Negro. “He handles it very well. He has great humility and great character.”

Evident here is how the Blake Griffin story is very much a figment of the media/NBA imagination. Shooting free throws with the precision of Shaq and Chris Dudley, possessing only two moves—the dunk and a 20-foot, pick-and-pop shot—and of course playing no defense are not the markers of a fundamentally-sound player. The description of Blake as humble doesn’t match his on-court persona of talk trashing in the tradition of Bird and Payton, and relishing the opportunity to embarrass an opponent with a poster shot.

Yet, humility is what defines Blake Griffin, often pitted in opposition to other NBA players. Unlike many NBA ballers, he lacks any visible tattoos and plays with tremendous energy; yet he is soft spoken off the court.

None of this to say there haven’t been criticisms directed at Blake, from NBA writers to DeMarcus Cousins, who recently called Blake “babied” and an “actor.” Yet the overall media narrative and the treatment from the NBA and its media partners makes it clear how they feel about Blake as player and person.

Compare the praise mixed with a bit of contextualized criticism (“although he may have some ‘growing up’ to do on the court, he is young, he has a lot of pressure on him, and he is still better than those other players”) to the treatment from Andrew Bynum, whose excellence on the court has been mediated and undercut by constant criticism of his behavior on and off the court, and we see the power of the NBA media.

Criticized for technical fouls, ejections, suspensions and shot selection, Bynum has received none of the national celebration afforded to Griffin. While certainly attributable to the injuries that have plagued Bynum’s career (Blake did miss an entire year as well), the differential treatment reflects the very different narratives and identities afforded to each player.

Bill Plaschke, who is most likely the president of the Bynum Hater Society (BHS), offered a recent column where he lamented his failure to play defense on every play, his propensity to cherry pick, and a missed dunk (none of those things ever happen in the NBA, college hoops or the local recreation league). Yet, the criticism wasn’t simply about Bynum’s on-the-court struggles since it is hard to hate his dominance this year (18 and 12). Instead, Plaschke uses those basketball-related criticism to criticize Bynum’s character:

“In recent weeks, the 24-year-old has behaved like an entitled child with little regard for authority and no sense of team, yet he is never held publicly accountable. No matter what he has done, he has not been punished beyond a fine that was apparently so meaningless to his $14.9 million salary, Bynum initially claimed he didn’t even know he had been dinged.”

Lamenting his attitude and immaturity, and the failures of the Lakers for “watering the weed” Plaschke warns fans about the cancer that is Andrew Bynum. Not to be out done, TJ Simers, likely the VP of BHS, furthered the narrative of Bynum as an uncoachable kid, a “punk,” using the Kobe comparison to highlight the destructive selfishness of Andrew Bynum:

“He’s Kobe—he’s bulletproof. How often has Kobe gone ball hog, a victory squandered and no apologies forthcoming?

Like Kobe, Bynum is on his way to owning Los Angeles any way he sees fit.

And you’ll probably fall all over yourself cheering for him.

The other day Kobe was suggesting everyone go easy on Bynum, no doubt seeing himself.

How crazy does this sound? If only we were talking Shaq and Kobe here, both players taking their opposite corners.

But as one observer noted, Bynum watched Bryant go his own way in not fully participating in All-Star weekend festivities and then wondered why he had to comply.

Why shouldn’t Bynum be who he is, with Bryant as role model?

But aloof doesn’t even begin to cover it with Bynum. As tall as he is and wearing oversized headphones as he does, he really can go through life acting as if he’s listening to no one.

You would hope the Lakers would explain to him what it means to be a pro, but teams shy away from such accountability for fear it might affect a player’s performance.

Who is going to tell Bynum to grow up? Jim Buss?

Spend five minutes with the Clippers’ Chris Paul, and as friendly, thoughtful and human as he comes across, it’s a waste of time hoping Bynum and Bryant might deign to speak.

Simers makes clear Bynum is a bad guy with a bad attitude; while his play has been excellent it is “fool’s gold.” Comparing Bynum to Kobe’s attitude early in his career, Simers seems to predict that Bynum will sow the deeds of dysfunction in the tradition of Bryant.

There is so much wrong here, from the failure to acknowledge Bryant’s five rings and the efforts to get in Bynum’s head. What is most telling, however, is that whereas Bynum and Bryant embody an aesthetic, a swagger and a demeanor that is pathologized and demonized, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin function as points of comparison, depicted as humble, team-oriented and likable. The constant criticism directed at Bynum becomes the basis of Blake Griffin’s popularity and marketability.

What is most clear is that Blake Griffin gets an endless pass to talk trash, commit flagrant fouls, and put himself in front of the team without much criticism and impact (Subway and car commercials will continue), whereas Andrew Bynum cannot even miss a dunk or jaywalk without the L.A. media demonizing and denouncing his actions and demeanor. It is telling and so is the Lakers’ 2.5-game margin over the Clippers.

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.