Wednesday, January 13, 2010
By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN Los Angeles
Blake Griffin would never admit it, because entitlement isn't part of his mental makeup, but he deserves to be playing professional basketball right now.
When prognosticators said he'd be a lottery pick after his freshman season at Oklahoma, Griffin bucked the current one-and-done trend and stayed for his sophomore year. The millions could wait because there was work to be done on his game.
When he was chosen by the Los Angeles Clippers with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, Griffin adamantly rebuffed any and all suggestions that he was going to be playing for a cursed franchise -- not because it was the company line to debunk superstition, but because he deeply believed that whatever ailed the Clippers could be cured with commitment.
When he was told that 12-foot range wasn't going to cut it for a big man in today's NBA, Griffin spent his entire spring working on his stroke from long distance. By the time Summer League rolled around, Griffin was knocking down 15-footers with ease and even draining bombs from beyond the arc.
When Griffin wasn't in the gym refining his skills, he was running up sand dunes at dawn in a workout routine teammates describe as "crazy." He's one of those guys who subjects himself to the rigors of exercise not because he's obligated to, but because he actually enjoys it.
When he fractured his left kneecap in the Clippers' final preseason game, Griffin pushed his body even harder to recover. Even though the rehabilitation process was excruciating and monotonous, Griffin never missed a session and never voiced a complaint.
When the schedule for his return got pushed back beyond the team's initial prognosis of six to eight weeks, he kept at it.
His reward for that diligence?
Griffin will have to undergo season-ending surgery on that left kneecap. The new timetable for his return is four to six months after that surgical procedure.
Days before Christmas, in what Griffin assumed were the final weeks of recovery before his NBA debut in January, he described the rehabilitation process as a prison.
"I want to break out of this jail," Griffin said. "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."
Life just extended that sentence. Like fellow No. 1 draft pick and big man Greg Oden, Griffin will be a redshirt rookie. He won't suit up for his first regular-season NBA game until a full 16 months after being drafted.
Griffin is an interesting study in contradiction. His physical regimen and work ethic suggest he's a hardened believer that success comes through self-determination. Work hard, eat right, apply yourself and you'll succeed. Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy was asked recently which players over his 20-year career on the sideline demonstrated the greatest commitment to studying defensive schemes.
"Sounds crazy to say it because he hasn't even played a game yet
but him," Dunleavy said, pointing across the Clippers' practice floor at Griffin, who was fully engaged in a dribbling drill.
But as much as Griffin subscribes to the you-make-your-own-luck school, that left kneecap has been a sobering reminder that there are events over which even the most dogged individuals have little control.
As he navigated the mental hurdles dotting the landscape during his initial recovery, Griffin kept coming back to his belief in fate, uttering chestnuts like "bad things happen to good people."
NBA history is littered with highly touted big men who never achieved their potential -- or even relevance -- because of injury. Last month, Griffin confessed that he'd given a teeny bit of thought to the "B" word, the one that tarred Sam Bowie and threatens to sully Oden.
"Everybody's afraid of failure," Griffin said. "I don't want to be [a bust]."
The fact that Griffin would consider a career-threatening injury a personal failure might be his best insurance it won't be the end.
But nothing -- not early morning workouts, expanded shooting range, mastery of defensive rotations or even a steadfast belief in oneself -- can guarantee success.
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is the author of the True Hoop Network's Clipper Blog.
Blake Griffin is learning that the hard way.