When he was not allowed to walk, Blake Griffin would sit in a folding chair five feet in front of the basket and shoot floaters from his backside. When he was allowed to walk but not run, he would pace the perimeter of the court and dribble tennis balls with both hands. By the time he was finally cleared to run and jump, the season was over and all of his teammates were gone, off on vacations he did not believe he had earned. So he stayed behind, and whenever Clippers officials heard sneakers squeaking on the floor of their practice facility, they knew the soles belonged to their young power forward.
Sixteen months have passed since the Clippers drafted Griffin with the No. 1 overall pick and still he has not given them a point, a rebound, even a minute of service in a regular-season game. "And yet," said Clippers general manager NeilOlshey, "I think every day how lucky we are to have him."
Griffin's contributions have been made behind closed doors. When Clippers rookies came to Los Angeles after this year's draft and saw Griffin going one-on-one against his own shadow, they realized they should probably stick around as well. Center Chris Kaman returned from his honeymoon in mid-July to work out with Griffin. Backup center DeAndre Jordan cut short his offseason at home in Houston and joined them. By the end of August, no fewer than 13 Clippers were on site. "That kind of thing," said Olshey, "did not happen here before."
The Clippers used to train at the Spectrum Athletic Club in Manhattan Beach, Calif., ideal for budding models, not professional basketball players. "Chicks would be running around half-naked," Kaman said. "It was hard to concentrate." Two years ago, the Clippers moved into a shiny new $50 million practice facility spread across 42,500 square feet of prime real estate in West Los Angeles, assuming that players would work harder if they had a dedicated space. But on many summer days, the big building felt empty. "We still had veterans who were more interested in being other places," said Olshey.
Like many L.A. power brokers, Olshey had already been an actor and workout guru when the Clippers promoted him to general manager last March, after six years with the organization. Olshey studied the clubs he wanted to emulate -- the Bucks, the Blazers and the Thunder -- and took the same premise from all of them. "Culture wins," Olshey said. "Those teams aren't a bunch of individuals. They brought in good people and instilled a culture of character and commitment."
Olshey had the catalyst for a culture shift in place. He just couldn't unveil him publicly yet. Griffin broke his kneecap in the final preseason game last year, went through two fruitless months of rehab, then a two-part surgery in which his patellar tendon was repaired and reinforced, and then three more months of rehab after the operation. The Clippers were devastated by the injury but inspired by the way Griffin responded to it. During practices, he worked to remake his outside shot, one of few areas he needed to polish. During games, he sat on the Clippers' bench, issuing small personal challenges to teammates. "He'll tell you, 'Give me three blocks before halftime,' or 'Give me five rebounds before the game is over,' " Jordan said.
The Clippers insist that Griffin is fully recovered from his injury and better off for having overcome it, which sounds like typical training-camp spin, except the surgery did alleviate tendinitis that bothered Griffin at Oklahoma and also gave him a chance to absorb the pace of the NBA game. "I watched him last year and he was like a kamikaze," Olshey said. "He was going 100 miles per hour. You can tell the game has slowed down for him. He would have been a physical force if he played right away, but now he'll be a basketball force as well."
When the summer began, the Clippers were eyeing the big-catch free agents, hoping to build around one of them. They wound up settling for a new acquisition already on their roster. Griffin is the second No. 1 pick in the last three years to miss his debut season -- Blazers center Greg Oden the other -- and he is wrestling with some of the same awkward questions: Is he eligible for Rookie of the Year? (yes); Is he still hazed by veteran teammates? (no); At All Star Weekend would he play for the rookie or sophomore team? (rookie).
Griffin did not come across like a rookie even when he was one. He is 6-foot-10 and 251 pounds, with what teammates call the strength of a power forward, the speed of a point guard and the mentality of the last man on the bench. When Griffin was a sophomore in high school, playing for the Athletes First AAU team in Oklahoma, his older brother Taylor told him: "The only way you will get playing time and earn respect is by doing the little things." So in his first tournament, Griffin concentrated solely on blocking shots, rebounding and running the floor. "I decided that would be my deal," Griffin said. He would be a grinder, even if he someday became a No. 1 pick.
"Blake is going to be a tough matchup for anybody because who else is that big and that strong and that quick?" said Kaman. "The guy is already a monster and then he comes in here and works harder than anybody else." Kaman believes that he and Griffin could immediately form one of the top-five power forward/center combinations in the league, reminiscent of the Kaman/Elton Brand duo that led the Clippers to 47 wins and the second round of the playoffs five years ago.
For coach Vinny Del Negro, making the playoffs in consecutive seasons with the Bulls was not enough to save his job. If he can duplicate the feat in Los Angeles, he may be in line for a lifetime contract. His security depends on Griffin, who never once associated his injury with the Clippers' long history of hard luck. He has been brought in to change that pattern and will not allow for the possibility that he is another victim of it.
Griffin feels the culture changing -- "You can see the shift," he said, "in the way we work and the way we talk" -- but he knows such proclamations have been made many times before. They will be greeted with eye-rolls until they are followed by progress. "Nobody wants to play for the team that people always talk about negatively," Griffin said. "I don't want guys to hear all summer that we're never going to make the playoffs. We have to earn respect. The best way to do that is to work for it."