Blake Griffin, the best player and biggest star in tomorrow’s NBA Draft, is a genuinely nice guy. But when he wants something, he will destroy anything in his path to get it.
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Blake Griffin looks out of place in a kitchen. Appliances aren’t made for 6-10, 255-pound incredible hulks, especially in University of Oklahoma student housing. It must be all the more jarring to see the consensus No. 1 prospect in June’s NBA Draft, a steak-and-eggs guy on looks alone, pull a sheet of chocolate chip cookies that he made from scratch out from the oven. But even when he’s wearing oven mitts and baking his favorite vice, he can still be badass.
That’s because Griffin, after gently removing his perfectly bronzed creations from the tray, will single-handedly down this entire batch of cookies on his own.
“If one of us catches him baking them, he might share one with us,” says Blake’s roommate, Oklahoma forward Beau Gerber. “But just one. Otherwise, he’ll just take them into his room or something and eat them all.”
Griffin has a short list of cravings. But for each one, he has a voracious appetite. He and his roommates don’t ever miss an episode of “Family Guy” or “The Office.” They’ve seen the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly comedy Step Brothers over 40 times.
“Any time we’re having a conversation,” says Griffin, “if you haven’t seen the movies we’ve seen or the TV shows we watch — it’s really tough to keep up.”
But beyond cookies and pop culture, there is one passion about which Blake is hungrier than anything else: becoming the most dominant basketball player imaginable. He goes all out in every way possible to realize his limitless potential. He seeks out the most rigorous training and forces himself to endure its pain until it becomes habit. Except for the occasional tray of cookies, Blake treats his body like a temple. “Falling in love with the process of being great,” as Blake puts it.
“I’ve never seen a kid more driven than he is,” says Sooners coach Jeff Capel. “I’ve never seen a person work as hard as he does on his game.”
“I work out with him in the weight room and he literally will not give up,” says Gerber. “Blake won’t let the bar go. He’ll find some way to get the bar up as far as he can or his arm will give up. Either he’ll get it or his body isn’t going to let him do it.”
Griffin’s determination is all the more impressive considering the prodigious physical gifts at his disposal. Blake might have Amar’e Stoudemire’s natural athleticism and explosiveness, but he plays every possession more like Dennis Rodman. He’s a blue-collar basketball player hidden underneath layers of jaw-dropping talent.
Consider his actions against Texas Tech on Feb. 14 this season. Blake dominated the Tech front line so thoroughly that Tech coach Pat Knight called him “The Terminator” for his 40-point, 23-rebound beasting.
“That kid has no facial expressions,” Knight told reporters after the game. “He just plays and it’s like every kid out there on him is like Sarah Connor, and he’s just going to take his time and kill him. That kid is good.”
One week after the Texas Tech game, Oklahoma was playing Texas when Blake caught an errant elbow UT’s Dexter Pittman, forcing him to the locker room with a concussion. Though he was still seeing stars, doctors almost had to restrain Griffin from playing two days later against defending national champion Kansas. So when he finally returned against Texas Tech again on Feb. 28, the entire OU community was on edge, hoping their superstar wasn’t rushing back too soon.
Those concerns were only made worse by a series of real scares. Blake narrowly missed spiking the back of his head on the hardwood after taking some contact mid-air on an alley-oop, but he stayed in the game. Later on, he was raked across the face fighting for a rebound, drawing blood, but was back in as soon as the bleeding was under control. And then with about 12 minutes left in a close game, Griffin went sprinting after a loose ball towards the sideline. Without hesitating for a split-second, Blake dove straight over the scorer’s table and onto the base of a staircase. He wrapped the possession-saving pass around his body — it would have been a perfect lead for teammate Austin Johnson if Blake’s toes hadn’t touched the out-of-bounds line — but no one bothered to look at the rock. Everyone was in awe of the National Player of the Year candidate laying out horizontally. Pretty much everyone in the United Spirit Arena put their drinks down and applauded the kid’s heart.
“I got over there as soon as I could,” said Taylor Griffin, OU’s senior forward and Blake’s older brother, in the post-game press conference. “He kind of had that pissed-off look on his face, so I knew he was alright.”
Blake was angry then. Pat Knight approached to lend Blake a hand, but he wouldn’t take it to get up — Blake never allows the opponent to help him off the ground, even if it’s their head coach. But he wasn’t pissed at Coach Knight. He was angered by the fact that he couldn’t get the job done. For someone who is so immensely talented and even more determined to succeed, failure doesn’t sit well.
“Sometimes it’s tough to help him,” says Gerber, “because if you’re trying to help him, that means that he wasn’t perfect. That gets him pissed.”
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Ultimately, Blake has learned how to channel his anger. He uses it to push himself to be even more motivated, to want it even more, to be even hungrier.
“Sometimes I definitely do play mad,” says Blake. “That’s not something you want to do. You don’t want to make me mad.”
Using that emotion as a springboard, Griffin tore some of college basketball’s best competition apart on a nightly basis. His dominance this past season was so complete at 22.7 points, 65.4% FG, and 14.4 boards per game — the highest rebounding total since Tim Duncan in 1997 — that he cleanly swept through the Associated Press, Sporting News, Wooden and Naismith Player of the Year awards. He had 30 double-doubles, hit the 20-rebound plateau five times, and scored at least 24 points on 15 occasions.
“He simply couldn’t be guarded one-on-one,” says former St. John’s coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. “He was that intimidating and dominating. That’s the reason he took so much punishment — both legal and cheap shots — because he’s so physically overwhelming. Opponents tried to cheap shot him, but it didn’t really faze him.”
Whether it was taking an intentional below-the-belt punch against USC, or literally getting body-slammed by a frustrated Morgan State opponent in the NCAA Tournament, Blake had to learn to walk away.
“It’s kind of a mindset that I have now,” Blake says. “Nothing is going to get me to lose focus from what I’m trying to do. I’m always the bigger man now.”
“What I like the most about him is that he tries to play the game the right way,” says Davidson forward Andrew Lovedale, who took the brunt of a 25-point, 21-rebound gutting from Griffin in November. “He goes through a lot and keeps playing basketball. He doesn’t go to get retribution. He just plays on like nothing happened, like whatever you just saw didn’t actually take place. Even when he got mad, he wasn’t taking it out on me. He was just trying to do his absolute best.”
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While Blake’s sophomore-year highlights — Dominique-esque windmills, putbacks with two defenders hanging off his shoulders, actually hitting his head on the side of the backboard on his way to an exclamation-point dunk to finish off Syracuse in the Big Dance — will be replayed over and over leading up to and on Draft Night, what really made him the player most likely to shake David Stern’s hand first at MSG happened last summer, far away from TV cameras.
Feeling the sting of an 8-point, 7-rebound outing in a 30-piecing (78-48) at the hands of Louisville in the ’08 NCAA Tournament, Griffin dropped off the map after his freshman year ended. He resurfaced on the hilly beaches of Northern California along with his brother Taylor, where the duo enrolled in a training program as close to Batman Begins’ Ra’s al Ghul’s “League of Shadows” as imaginable.
If Blake was Bruce Wayne before the summer, trainer Frank Matrisciano pushed him to transform into Batman. Like Batman’s fictional trainer, Matrisciano is also shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Literally. He won’t let a camera flash before his face without disguising himself, and he doesn’t do interviews. Dubbed “Hell’s Trainer” in a San Francisco Chronicle article, Matrisciano’s calling card is the ability to re-program his students to blow through thresholds of pain with a body-numbing workout on his Bay Area beaches.
“Everything we did was on the sand, wearing a weight vest while carrying bags of sand, running up and down the sand hills,” says Blake. “It’s like nothing else I’ve ever done before. There’s a place called Moraga Hill — it’s just wooden stairs all the way up, 116 stairs. We have a weight vest on, carrying sand bags or a med ball up and down. Frank pushes you like no one else can.”
The physical torment of these workouts helped Blake become one of the most explosive 6-10 specimens the college game has ever seen. But more importantly, the physical dominance that Blake gained through this process helped to free his mind. And while Blake was eating up the daily challenge of workouts that could make even the most well-conditioned athletes puke, Matrisciano also drilled him on the concept of being the puppet master on the basketball court.
“Either you’re the puppet — the one being controlled by other people,” says Blake, “or you’re the puppet master, and you’re making people do what you want.”
While Matrisciano was the first person to give it a name, the concept wasn’t new to Blake. His father, Tommy Griffin, preached the same principle to his second son from a very young age. Long before Tommy coached his two boys at Oklahoma Christian School (Edmond, Okla.), Blake absorbed this lesson while his dad and brother worked together in the driveway.
“From an early age, my dad told me the best way to react is just to walk away,” says Blake. “It shows that you’re in control of the situation.”
Those important teachings fermented in Blake’s head from an early age simply by virtue of following his brother Taylor. The younger brother eagerly credits his older, wiser (and admittedly stronger) brother as shaping him into the person and the player that he is today.
“My parents are two of the hardest working people that I know,” says Blake. “They both always stressed working hard and doing things right, but also doing it the right way, not cutting corners, and not using other people to propel yourself. Obviously that rubbed off on my brother. And I just copied whatever he did. I just wanted to emulate him, so I guess it also rubbed off on me.”
That’s why, when Blake pursues something, he goes after it with all he’s got. Since deciding that he wanted to get serious about basketball in the ninth grade, he’s been doing it the right way. On Blake’s high school senior trip to Disney World, OCS headmaster Dallas Caldwell realized how that burning desire to be the best played out in a day-to-day context.
“The kids were going to theme parks during the day and they’re up late at night too,” remembers Caldwell, “so they usually don’t get up until about 9 o’clock the next morning to hit the parks again. I’m the older guy, so I’m up at 7 a.m. to grab some coffee, read the paper. I’m sitting out on the ledge at the hotel, and I look up and see a figure come running down the road. It’s a big figure. It’s Blake Griffin coming in from a three-mile run at 7 a.m. I’m saying, ‘Blake, you’re on vacation — it’s May!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, well you know Coach gave me a regiment and I want to work on some things…’ That was always what he said, ‘I want to work on some things.’ Then he goes over to an open court area at the hotel to do agility drills.”
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Though NBA teams are drooling over the possibility of getting someone with Griffin’s one-of-a-kind blend of speed, strength and agility, they should be even more excited to get a player who wants it as badly as he does. Soon after leading Oklahoma to the Elite Eight, where they lost to eventual national champion North Carolina, Griffin announced he was entering the Draft. With the Lottery drawing around the corner at press time, he’s already back in San Francisco working with Matrisciano to make sure that his transition from the college game to the pro-style is seamless. However, as crazy as it may sound, his game might be even better suited for the League than the NCAA.
“I think the NBA style of spacing will allow him to have more freedom and show off more of his ball handling,” says Capel. “The college game is so congested. You can zone, you can pack everyone into the lane. The NBA has much more space. I think people will start to see how fast and how quick he is. You can’t really appreciate it until you see him blow by people off the perimeter.”
“That’s how I want to play,” says Blake. “But no matter what types of plays are called, I’m still going to be the same guy on the court, playing hungry.”