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Friday, May 3, 2013
Griffin can't wait to be great

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Blake Griffin needs to know if the story is true. Ever since he first heard it last July, he's been obsessed with it.

"The first night we all got into Las Vegas last summer for the USA Basketball camp, I heard Kobe [Bryant] went on some 40-mile bike ride at night through the desert," Griffin says. "Forty miles? At night?

"You think it's true?"

Before I can answer, Griffin continues:

"When I found out about that bike ride, I was so tempted to ask him if I could go next time."

We have a hundred things to talk about over lunch at this small cafe near the Clippers' training facility. The health of his relationship with point guard Chris Paul has come into question. So has his maturity. The Clippers' once-bright championship aspirations are on the ropes.

We'll get to all of that. But in this moment, all Griffin wants to talk about is whether or not Kobe Bryant really got on a bike and rode 40 miles through the desert last July.

"I love that stuff," Griffin says. "I love all those stories."

The story Griffin heard turns out to be true. And it goes something like this: Bryant told his longtime trainer, Tim Grover, that he wanted to add in bike training to his summer conditioning. Grover researched a trail in Las Vegas, rented three bikes -- one for Bryant, one for himself and one for Bryant's security guard -- and on the night before the first day of practice, they each put on headlamps and headed out to the trail and rode.

Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin
Though they are crosstown rivals, Kobe Bryant is an inspiration to Griffin.

"We finished up around 2 a.m." Grover said. "And we were back in the gym working out by 7:30 in the morning."

Griffin can barely contain himself when I tell him the details. He wants to know more. Where they went … how hard Bryant rode … how often he does stuff like this … what other extreme workouts he does …

You can see his mind racing, visualizing himself doing the same things. He hasn't touched his salad.

"I love the process," he says. "It's like I've fallen in love with the process of trying to become great."



Griffin never did get to ask Bryant if he could ride along with him the next time. He hurt his knee the first day of practice and had to drop out of the Olympics.

It wasn't a serious knee injury, nothing like the fractured kneecap that forced him to miss his entire rookie season. Just a minor setback with a six-to-eight week recovery. Still, Griffin was crushed.

"That's what I was looking forward to the most, just being around all those guys all summer," he says. "Playing with Kobe. Seeing how he works. Playing with LeBron [James] and Dwyane [Wade].

"That's what was most heartbreaking to me."

That summer with the best players in the game was going to be invaluable to him. Who knows what he would have learned? How his game would have grown? What watching guys like Bryant and James and Wade up close -- how they train, how they act, the way they push themselves -- would have revealed to him?

Instead, he spent the offseason back in Los Angeles, trying to make the most of it, reminding himself to be patient, and that his day would still come.

"The hardest thing for me is to be patient and realize that it's not all going to happen right now," he says. "I just have to keep digging away, digging away. Just keep working on my game. "



You forget sometimes that Griffin is still just 24 years old. You forget because it seems like that glorious rookie season was five years ago, not two.

And, because sometimes when you're so good, so young, people don't know how to deal with you.

No one gets to be the golden boy for too long.



For the past four days, Griffin has spent every waking minute worrying whether his badly sprained right ankle will be stable enough for him to play and help his team in this dogfight of a first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

"I've never had one this bad before," he said after the Grizzlies took Game 5 and a 3-2 series lead Tuesday night. Against his better judgment, Griffin had tried to play and give his team something. But after just 19 minutes, it was clear he just didn't have much to give.

His mobility was compromised. His explosiveness was gone. All he really had to offer was guts, which was something, but not nearly enough against the Grizzlies.

The prevailing wisdom going into the playoffs was that Griffin was the key to the Clippers' fortunes. If he stepped up, if he grew up, Paul would take them the rest of the way. Maybe even all the way.

It was supposed to come down to things like controlling his emotions, not letting the frustration of one play carry over into the next three minutes, or making free throws when he needed to.

Not this. Not whether he could come back in two days from a severe high ankle sprain that might have knocked him out for two weeks in the regular season.

But this is where he is now. A game-time decision at best.

"Obviously, it's not ideal timing," he said. "But this is it. Our backs are against the wall. We have to play with a sense of urgency, or obviously everybody knows what happens."



Griffin didn't want to be the golden boy for too long, either. More than anything, he wanted to get on with it, to become what he seems destined to become.

Like now, not in four or five years.

"LeBron is having his best year this year and it's what, his ninth or 10th year?" he asks. "That sounds like forever. That's what's tough, just wrapping my head around that, because I want everything now."

It's why he gets obsessed over things like the story of Kobe's 40-mile desert bike ride.

If that's what he's got to do to get where he's going -- faster -- he'll go do it. He'll start tonight.

Deep down, though, he knows there's more to it.

"There's times in games where I feel like I can manipulate and control the game by doing a lot of things," Griffin says. "And then there's times where I feel like I'm not inside the flow of the game.

"That's my biggest thing. To mentally get to that place every single game.

"If there was a switch you could flip, that'd be like the coolest thing ever."



But boy, in those flashes in which he does get it, Griffin is a sight to behold.

"His ability is unmatched, to be honest with you," Clippers point guard Chauncey Billups said. "His ceiling is just so, so high."

And that's the rub, isn't it? Nobody can wait.

You can talk about faith in the process and hard work and passion and fire, but, really, we all just want to be there when Griffin has his "Neo" moment.

Blake Griffin
Griffin's potential sometimes seems limitless.

When the Matrix stops being the Matrix and he can see it for what it is. When the game slows down for him and he just flat-out owns it.

That day can't come soon enough. For us, for the Clippers, but most of all, for Griffin.

"That's what I'm always searching for -- finding the balance between not caring so much to where I put all this pressure on myself," he says. "But still caring enough to where it pushes me to work exactly how I've been working so far."

All those plays after which it looks like he's going to squish the ball between his hands because he's so angry. Those wild facial expressions. All that rage and fire? That's Griffin wishing a 40-mile bike ride was all he had to do to take the next step.

"It's hard," Billups said. "He's his biggest and hardest critic. I think a lot of times he gets angry with maybe him not playing so great, that it takes him out of it.

"Say he makes a turnover or something like that: He gets so hot and so angry that he takes himself out of the game for two or three plays because he's just so mad at himself."

Billups has always been a cool cat. It's part of what makes him such a clutch performer at the end of games.

In the two years they've been teammates, he's grown into one of Griffin's most-trusted advisers. Griffin tries to soak up everything he says.

"You don't want to lose that fire," Billups said. "But I just always try to encourage him to go to the next play. Having a short memory in this game is key. If you make a great play, you have to forget about it. If you make a bad play, you've got to forget about it.

"After the game you can go back and look at all of it, try to fix it."



Even if he had been healthy, it's hard to say if Griffin actually would have had the courage to ask Bryant if he could tag along on his next late-night workout session.

Most assume he's outgoing because of how comfortable he seems in all the national commercials he does. But really he's actually pretty shy. His ideal night is staying in to watch games on NBA League Pass with a buddy and his dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback named "Chaney."

"Like John Chaney, the Temple coach," Griffin says. "Our assistant coach last year, Dean Demopoulis, used to coach with him, and he'd tell these stories about Chaney like he was Chuck Norris.

"We would always tell stories like, 'Did you hear what Chaney did the other day? He walked on water.'"

Last year, Griffin moved from the beach to a quieter place in Brentwood because he wanted some privacy and for Chaney to have a yard to play in. Yes, really. A 24-year-old superstar with a new $95 million contract, national commercials and a vault of highlights on the basketball court traded in his pad in Manhattan Beach for a quieter place with a yard for his dog.

"At my core, I'm shy," Griffin says. "I'd rather be sitting at home watching games. But like CP [Chris Paul] in a room full of people -- he's thriving. I had to learn how to be comfortable in those situations." Honestly, he still isn't. He's not a media darling; he doesn't love the cameras. He's got a great sense of humor if you know him, but it's sarcastic. He jabs at you. Throws a good counterpunch.

But he's always going to come across better in a commercial than in a postgame scrum. Which is fine, because Paul is more than happy to be the guy out in front.

It's natural to wonder if the arrangement really does suit both of them. Shoot, Griffin got questions about how he'd fit in with Paul before the blockbuster trade was even completed in December 2011.

"Somebody tried to say last year, 'Man, you went from Batman to Robin real quick,'" Griffin says, smiling. "But honestly, to me, it was like, 'Batman and Robin always saved the day.'

"It's not about being the man. I just want to be a winner, and CP is going to help me be a winner.

"If I'm starting this business, I want to bring in this CEO who's been successful in other businesses. I want him on my team, because that's how my company will grow." Do they see eye-to-eye on everything? No. There are arguments over how the Clippers should play. There is frustration and friction from time to time.

Griffin had to change his game to play with Paul, and vice versa. But overall, they have a great relationship.

"When I feel I'm playing at my best, I'm facilitating," Griffin says. "I like having the ball in the post -- not because I need to score every time, but because I like to make plays from there.

"This year, I think I was better prepared because the whole lockout [in 2011], I was working out for what I expected to be our team, with Mo Williams.

"All Mo needs is a foot to shoot. He's throwing it in to me, I'm kicking it back out, he's going up with it. I'm doing a lot of facilitating out of the post.

"Playing with CP has changed the way I play, but for the better. It's still a work in progress, but I think it's making me a better player.

"I want to play with great players. I want to play with guys who want to win like he does."



It's about this point in the story at which people start grabbing their iPhones and tweeting. He's a flopper! He's a diva! Stop complaining!

Griffin sees and hears all that. He checks his timeline and his mentions.

"That's how it is with Twitter," he says. "I could tweet 'I love oranges,' and someone out there is going to be like, '[Screw] you, I love apples."

He's learned to laugh about stuff like this now and let it roll off him. But he's not used to it, and he never will be.

When people say he flopped on a play, he'll watch the video on YouTube to see why they might've thought that.

"There's times that I have [flopped]," he says. "But I definitely wouldn't consider myself a flopper."

OK, so why do people think that?

"Honestly, I think it's slow motion," he explains. "Everything either looks better or worse in slow motion. A cool play looks really cool. But then, when somebody takes a hit, it might not be that hard, but your reaction is going to be to whip your head back because you don't want to get hit.

Blake Griffin
Frustrations can sometimes get the best of him, but Griffin is learning to improve his focus.

"My reaction is always to move away. So then when it's slowed down, and you see somebody didn't get hit that hard, but you like jerked your head back. I'm telling you, that's what I think. Slow motion and instant replays are what do it."

Still, he studied the videos, tried to see if he was doing something that could be corrected. He watched videos of other players to see if they handled things differently.

And yes, he learned a few things. But in the end, the most valuable lesson was simply that not everyone is going to like him.

"I saw the thing that [ESPN commentator] Skip Bayless said after the Serge Ibaka hit," Griffin says, referring to the play on which Ibaka received a flagrant foul for swinging his arm wildly and hitting Griffin in the groin.

"He was like, 'He didn't hit Blake Griffin below the belt. He's just a flopper.'

"It was baffling to me that somebody could watch that -- maybe it's different for me because I felt it -- but it was baffling to me that somebody could watch that and think that I flopped that."

This time he laughs.



Looking back on it now, I suppose we should have seen some of this coming. Griffin was so white-hot as a rookie, so transcendent and likable and wonderful, that there was no way it was going to stay that way for long.

Most comets burn up once they enter the Earth's atmosphere.

Griffin never foresaw any of it, though. He knew people would want more from him and that he would want more from himself. But the backlash? The hatred on Twitter? The reputation as a flopper and a complainer? No, he didn't see any of that coming.

"I just didn't realize so many people would try to attack you and bring you down," he says. "I guess I was naive, but I didn't expect it."

You can tell there's a part of him that is wounded by the way it's gone. He's not motivated by proving people wrong. He doesn't need a chip on his shoulder.

He simply wants to be as great as he can be and not one inch less.

The Clippers gave him a personality test as a rookie. He came back as a classic perfectionist.

It surprised him at the time. He's fastidious and organized. He runs early to meetings, never late. But he lets things slide all the time. Now he sees it, though.

"I was talking to [Clippers shooting coach] Bob Thate the other day and he was like, 'You know what I've realized about you? Even if you shot 90 percent from the free throw line, you're going to be pissed that you didn't shoot 93 percent,' " Griffin says.

He smiles a little, recognizing that Thate has nailed him.

Every day, he smiles a little bit more. He is better able to see himself now, where he really is and where he needs to go.

It's coming. It's just never going to be soon enough.