Feb 17, 2011, 3:35 PM EDT
Blake Griffin wants to be just a regular guy.
Not on the court — there he is fully at home on the stage. There he wants to win. He wants to destroy you. And dunk on you ferociously.
But when your dunks electrify stadiums and bring life to a dormant franchise, when you have the kind of athletic gifts Griffin does, there is no being a regular guy off the court.
Especially not in Los Angeles, where people make a career out of latching on to the new, hot thing. Not in a city where Rihanna stops by outside the Clippers locker room to say “hi.” Especially not All-Star weekend, when his viral fame is about to explode into the national spotlight.
But Griffin comes from a different world than the bright lights of Hollywood. He’s an Oklahoma kid, born and raised.
“I miss my family and friends the most,” Griffin said. “Also I miss being just a regular guy – the relative anonymity that being from Oklahoma City brings.”
His ties to those Oklahoma roots were in evidence Wednesday, when media entered the Clipper locker room post game to see Griffin with his head in his hands, distraught. He had just learned an old friend from Oklahoma, a former teammate and Tulsa football player, had died from cancer.
Griffin may live near the beach now, but he is as connected to home as ever. He admits there are things to like about Los Angeles — the restaurants, the weather, the beach — but Griffin is not going Hollywood. He’s still an Oklahoma boy at heart, with a different makeup than many who gravitate to Los Angeles.
“I’ll never change who I am. ‘Celebrity’ is really not who I am,” Griffin said. “That does not motivate me at all. Wanting to be the best player that I can be and help my team win games is all the motivation I need.”
But make no mistake, he is a celebrity. He certainly is in NBA circles. The NBA is already a league of guys who won the genetic lottery, yet his NBA peers see Griffin as a freak of nature. Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James tweet about his dunks. On more than one occasion I’ve heard NBA players ask, as they are dressing after their game, if Griffin played that night because they wanted to catch his highlights.
His powerful, fearsome dunks have propelled him to being a huge favorite heading into Saturday night’s All-Star Dunk Contest. But staged dunks for this exhibition are different than throwing it down in a game.
“I don’t think any of that bothers him. I really don’t,” said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro of the difference. “It’s just his personality, he loves the stage, he’s a competitive kid and loves the challenge of it. This is just another thing for him to excel at.”
Griffin is much more than dunks, though. Other teams are learning that the hard way. He’s got a midrange game that is coming along. As the double teams have started to come earlier and harder this season, Griffin has shown a real patience with the ball and ability to make the correct pass out of the post.
“I am proud of my passing and I really think that my motor is helping out a lot this season,” Griffin said. “I have always prided myself on playing hard every play. I feel I have done that. I would like to improve on my outside shot to make it a consistent weapon and to become a better free throw shooter.”
Griffin was the No. 1 pick in 2009, but missed all of his first season in the NBA due to a stress fracture in his left kneecap, something he injured landing on a preseason dunk, in what seemed an innocuous play at the time. That meant he got to learn some things just watching the NBA up close. He was with the team at every game, in a suit just behind the bench.
But watching and actually playing through the physical and mental grind of a full NBA season are different things. He’s not sure if the physical or mental side is harder.
“Both are extremely hard adjustments,” Griffin said. “I have taken a lot of double teams and have been defended very physically. I am at the tail end of my first extended road trip and it is very tiring. It is hard to recall where exactly you are (literally) at times!”
Somehow you have no doubt Griffin will adjust to the physical on the court challenges.
Off the court, here’s to hoping he never really changes — we don’t need more celebrities in the NBA. We need more guys with a real passion for the game. We need more Griffins.
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