Three-and-a-half years elapsed from the day Shaquille O'Neal left Los Angeles to the day Pau Gasol arrived, a dark interlude in the city's basketball history. The Lakers still had Kobe Bryant, of course, but they surrounded him with Smush Parker, Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown. They seemed to be conducting an experiment, with Bryant as guinea pig, to determine whether a player could actually succeed one-on-five.
The results were startling. In three seasons Bryant took more than 5,200 shots. He scored more than 7,000 points. He scored more than 50 in four straight games. He touched 60 against Memphis, 62 against Dallas, 65 against Portland, and famously, 81 against Toronto. In one season he scored more than half as many points as the rest of the roster. Purists, who value ball movement and team play, were disturbed. Casual fans, who just want to witness what they didn't think possible, were enthralled. The question "How many did he get?" replaced "Did they win?" Bryant was as spectacular as the Lakers were mediocre.
With the acquisition of Gasol and the maturation of Andrew Bynum, Bryant has gone nearly two years without a 50-point game. He is still the best player in L.A., but has ceded the role of primary entertainer, and Blake Griffin has flown into the highlight void. Griffin's style is nothing like Bryant's, circa 2005, but the phenomenon is similar. Every day, win or lose, he does something that has to be rewound. For Bryant, it was usually an improbable fall-away jumper. For Griffin, it is usually an indescribable double-pump jam. His force is as captivating as Bryant's grace and his team is just as immaterial.
The interest in Griffin is national, but the mania is local. The theme of this Lakers season has been boredom, among players who have won consecutive championships, and fans biding time until April. Since there is nothing the least bit boring about Griffin's repertoire, he has actually gained popularity in the Lakers shadow, strange for a Clipper.
L.A. is an entertainers' town, celebrating individual performances of any kind. Much of the city's sports history is characterized by crazes: Bo Jackson and Reggie Bush, Fernandomania and Mannywood. Appropriately, All-Star Weekend will be held in two weeks at Staples Center, where Griffin's legend could soar to another stratosphere. The expectations for him in the dunk contest are astronomical enough that he will have to hit his head on the rafters to reach them. In the game, point guards might get booed if they don't throw him ally oops from three-quarters court. This event was built for Griffin, just as Griffin was built to handle it, along with the inordinate attention coming his way.
Griffin is not a product of the highlight generation, which sounds preposterous, considering how many of those highlights he contributes to the airwaves. His personality is understated, his sense of humor dry. The only part of him that's flashy is his game. During a conversation in training camp, before he went viral, Griffin explained that he will always think of himself as a grinder more than a dunker, dating back to his early AAU days in Oklahoma, when he wasn't fully trusted to take shots. "I had to be about the little things," he said. When Griffin rehabilitated from knee surgery last year, he dribbled a tennis ball around the practice facility to work on his handle and took free throws from a folding chair. The way he coped with initial adversity assures the Clippers that he will also be able to deal with premature success. Humility is a crucial part of his skill set.
Few athletes have been lavished with more praise in a shorter time, thanks largely to Griffin's internet appeal. A 25-year-old marketing and advertising executive in Minneapolis named Patrick Hodgdon started a blog called
In that way, he is reminiscent of Bryant in 2005, must-see in a city that loves to watch. But he is not nearly as polarizing as Bryant was then, which explains why there is a blog about him based in Minneapolis. The mania is spreading from the epicenter.