LOS ANGELES -- The 2011 Kia Optima, silver with tinted windows, was parked in the tunnel beneath Staples Center on Saturday afternoon. The sedan was surrounded by three black barricades and two men in blue logo shirts who hovered around it like a motorcade. They rubbed it with pink feather dusters, buffed it with white shammies and coated it with polymer sealant. Blake Griffin walked by the car on his way to the locker room, gave it a quick glance, then a double-take. He was checking out his ride to royalty.
For most participants the dunk contest is supposed to be a sideshow, entertaining but ultimately insignificant. For Griffin, it was billed as a coronation. After 137 dunks this season, most of which were over unsuspecting victims, he would finally show what he could do against no defense. Never has a Clipper been such a prohibitive favorite. The expectations were so high that Griffin would have had to jump over a car to clear them.
Which he did. The Kia rolled onto the court late Saturday night, Clippers point guard Baron Davis in the front seat. The Crenshaw Elite Choir bounded onto the floor, singing "I Believe I Can Fly." The scene was outrageous even by All Star Weekend's excessive standards. With the choir bellowing behind him and the Kia parked in the paint, Griffin started his dash. You could almost hear the Clippers front office let out a collective gasp. A franchise that has lost a legion of players to freak injuries, Griffin included, was now tempting fate in a most unfathomable way. Davis flipped the ball through the sunroof. Griffin hurdled the hood. He made the catch, threw down the two-handed dunk, and most remarkable, came down with all of his knee ligaments intact. Clippers officials exhaled.
A quick check of the Kia website revealed that the car is 72 inches wide, though not nearly as tall as the power forwards Griffin has scaled this season. Specifications aside, Griffin cleared expectations once again, even when they were up at the rafters. Every time the Clippers play, fans come to see a mind-bending Griffin dunk, and he delivers. On Saturday night, they came to see a mind-blowing dunk, and he delivered again. He is one phenomenon who does not disappoint. His legend continues to rise.
Griffin was 10 years old when Vince Carter won the 2000 dunk contest, and at the end, he mounted his bicycle under the hoop outside and tried to jump over it. So he always had a fascination with obstacles on wheels. When first informed this season that the dunk contest had no rules, he asked: "So I can jump over a car?" He was joking, but only partly. On the Clippers last road trip before the All Star break, head coach Vinny Del Negro summoned Griffin to his hotel room and asked what he had planned. Griffin played dumb. "I don't know," he said. On Thursday night, when Griffin tried his automotive acrobatics for the first time, he noticed that every member of Clippers upper management came to the audition. "I was afraid I would clip my foot on the side and smash my face into the car," Griffin said. That's what his employers were afraid of, too.
Griffin survived the rehearsal, but on Saturday, the car almost didn't make it out of the tunnel. Griffin took more than a minute-and-a-half to execute his second dunk, an ally-oop off the side of the backboard, which seemed pedestrian compared to JaVale McGee dunking into two baskets at once. The only people under more pressure than Griffin were the judges, to usher him into the finals, and prevent a civic revolt. Julius Erving gave Griffin a generous 10, and as a result, the guys from Cosmetic Car Care in Orange County will now be able to see their handiwork on highlight shows for years.
As usual, Griffin's reaction was the most subdued part of his evening. He has dedicated his busy weekend -- he is participating in the Rookie Challenge, the dunk contest and the All Star Game -- to former high school teammate Wilson Holloway, who died Wednesday after a long battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Griffin could imagine Holloway watching. The jaded will always find fault with the dunk contest, its props and contrivances. But the fact is that Griffin jumped over a car and dunked an ally-op thrown from a sunroof; McGee dunked three balls on a single jump; Serge Ibaka dunked after snatching a stuffed animal from the basket with his teeth. These are not meaningful feats, but they are impressive nonetheless. Griffin admitted afterward that he worried about meeting the astronomical expectations. Just think what they will be like next year.
"I have to come up with something else," he said. "Maybe a boat."