Blake Griffin evolves on hero's journey
Before he made Mozgov a verb and before the nightly media scrum around his locker swelled to a pyramidal mass, Blake Griffin was contemplating what it would mean to be another in a procession of draft busts. He was killing time at movie theaters on Los Angeles' Westside between rehab sessions on his left knee, cursing the snarl of traffic in his new hometown and basically managing his misery.
Over the spring and summer of 2010, Griffin's patellar tendon became stronger and he gradually regained the range of motion in his knee. He endured that trial -- the lost season, the solitude of the recovery process and the anxiety of having zero control over whether that little piece of broken kneecap would render him nothing more than a footnote. And that autumn, Griffin descended from the basketball heavens like an avatar.
From there, Griffin's legend grew. His dunks sent grown men into delirium. He leaped over a Korean sedan, a Russian center and our wildest expectations. Griffin was the unanimous choice for rookie of the year. When owners locked out the players, Griffin worked on his extracurricular game as an intern at Funny or Die and honed his persona as a snarky, but imminently marketable, NBA star.
Everyone took notice of the full package, including a diminutive point guard in New Orleans who was a talent as transcendent and unimpeachable as Griffin. For the downtrodden Los Angeles Clippers fans desperate for a hero incarnate -- not just some abstract hope the team was heading in the right direction -- Griffin was a savior. Best of all, he renounced the idea that their team was predestined for failure. And they believed him, not because of anything he said, but because they could see the manifestation of that promise every time he soared through the lane.
Griffin's first season was one of pure affection, but the only thing we enjoy more than falling in love with a star is falling out of love with him. Last season, fans wallpapered the Internet with his highlights, but lately Griffin is being seen through a different lens. We still get breathless whenever he gets loose above the rim, but that anticipation brings with it the growing feeling that what was deemed basketball perfection less than a year ago has evolved into something else.
The qualities we use to distinguish a proud warrior from a prima donna are quite subtle. You can almost hear the spirit of John Wooden utter, "Be bold, but don't preen." We beg to be thrilled, but reject any direct salesmanship of those thrills (Unless they occur during a certain athletic showcase on a Saturday in February). We're drawn to charisma, but arrogance repels us -- that's true of rabid dunkers, prom kings or presidential candidates. We're not always good at delineating between those two poles, but we're pretty sure that border is there, even if we can't see it.
For many, Griffin has started to creep across that fine line in his sophomore season. Purists didn't care for his immediate reaction when told Chris Paul was bound for the Clippers: "It's going to be Lob City." Matt Barnes might not be the most judicious arbiter in the world, but when the petulant Los Angeles Lakers forward called Griffin out for posing and flopping after a preseason game, the critique resonated. Some of Griffin's fans whisper among themselves that they wish he'd stop jawing with officials and move on to the next possession. Griffin's constant facial contortions when a call doesn't go his way concern them.
Meanwhile, those who break down the game between the lines have openly questioned Griffin's shot selection. They want Griffin to assume the role of locomotive in a lethal pick-and-roll game rather than pop out to 18 feet to take jump shots. There's nary a kind word for his defense -- his attention is on the other end, he doesn't hustle back, his arms are too short, etc.
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Sports have an untidy relationship with mythology, but none of these takedowns of Griffin come as any surprise. This dramatic turn in perception? It's what we do with young heroes when the excitement of their arrival settles and they reveal themselves to be something less than a demigod. The worship of Griffin in his infancy as a star certainly wasn't rooted in empathy. How could anyone gawking at his thunderdunks possibly imagine having the power to do what he does?! In fact, that was an essential part of the deal -- Griffin would float above the clouds engaged in the miracle of human flight and we'd glorify the achievement.
We want to connect, but we don't want to relate. So when Griffin stares into middle distance with his hands on his head and an incredulous gaze after a no-call, we interpret that as a betrayal of our contract with him. That sort of behavior is what mortals do, and you promised us you were something greater. Don't believe us? We have the YouTube clips to prove it. What are you doing down here with us? Get back up in the heavens where you belong!
We're drawn to athletes like Griffin because they can do what we can't, then we find fault because we would do it differently. Griffin is the first player to the gym and last to leave -- we're cool with that -- but he also plays a confrontational brand of basketball. His competitiveness may not surface in the kind of pathological behavior displayed by, say, Kevin Garnett, but it still isn't endearing to most when he appears to actually want to embarrass an opponent. Summon that spirit of John Wooden again and you can imagine the response.
Are we comfortable with the idea that arrogance can coexist with professionalism in the NBA? Can we accept that basketball gods are saddled with human flaws? If we don't, we risk whiplash, because just when you decide that Griffin is a punk for dogging it downcourt on defense after not getting a call on a foul that may or may not have actually occurred, he'll do something amazing.
"I think we get in trouble in this league all the time trying to manufacture players into someone that you want them to be and not let them be themselves." That was Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman on Friday, talking about a telegenic young phenom who is being asked to restore a dormant franchise.
Ricky Rubio might not be Blake Griffin. The monomyth might read a little differently, but the initiation will be the same.
It almost always is.Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is the editor of the TrueHoop Network.