Post Impressionist

Jan. 26, 2009
Jan. 26, 2009

Table of Contents
Jan. 26, 2009


Post Impressionist

Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin is a skilled mimic and practical joker off the court, but on it the sophomore double-double machine does a pretty good player-of-the-year impersonation

BLAKE GRIFFIN ishearing voices. At least he's trying to. As a December wind howls outside, thesophomore power forward sits in a folding chair at the edge of Oklahoma'spractice floor, squinting in concentration, trying to conjure villainy. After amoment, his voice changes from his usual low conversational murmur, and he issuddenly the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight. "Do you want to know how Igot my scars?" he asks menacingly. "My father was a drinker, and afiend." You can practically see the smeared red-and-white clown makeup onthe late Heath Ledger's face, and the knife glinting in his hand.

This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2009 issue

The next momentit's summer in Beijing, and as Griffin does Michael Phelps marveling over hisnew-found popularity—"I got on Facebook and I had, like, 4,000 friendrequests and I was like, Wow, that's really crazy!"—you could swear you hadjust caught a whiff of chlorine.

Griffin'srepertoire includes his teammates and coaches too. When he's not borrowingtheir voices, he's borrowing their stuff. He delights in relocating thecontents of a locker and then sitting back to see how long it takes his victimto notice. "One day I saw him wearing this hat and I said, 'Hey, I have ahat just like that!'" recalls freshman guard Willie Warren. "Of course,it was my hat he was wearing."

Griffin's olderbrother, Taylor, a senior forward for the Sooners, says two words sum up hissibling: aggressive and goofy. It's not a combination seen at the top of theNBA draft board very often, but it's likely to be this June, because Griffin, a6'10", 250-pound banger, can do impressions of well-known people on thecourt too. One Eastern Conference scout, who calls Griffin "the best playerin the draft," says that he has "the quickness of Amaré Stoudemire andthe strength of Carlos Boozer."

That combinationhad him averaging 22.0 points and a nation's-best 13.4 rebounds a game atweek's end for the sixth-ranked Sooners (17--1, 3--0 in the Big 12). Griffin,who has 14 double doubles, is so physically dominant—he plays "with themost force of anyone in college basketball," says Utah coach JimBoylen—that most teams' strategy is to double- and triple-team him or foul himconstantly, or both. (Though he has improved a bit since last year, Griffin hasmade only 60.3% of his attempts from the line this season.) Some opposingplayers just resort to cheap shots to stop him. In the second half ofOklahoma's 73--72 win over USC in Norman on Dec. 4, Trojans forward LeonardWashington hit Griffin below the belt, earning a flagrant foul and an ejection.Nine days later, in the Sooners' 70--52 victory over Utah, Utes guard Luka Drcatripped Griffin as both were running upcourt, a move that earned Drca anintentional foul and a two-game suspension from Boylen.

"To Blake'scredit, he hasn't retaliated," says Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. "Lastyear, there probably would have been some sort of confrontation; it might havetaken him five minutes to calm down. That might be his biggest area ofimprovement."

Griffin spent thesummer working on increasing his range, strength and explosiveness and onbecoming the "puppetmaster." That's a concept San Francisco fitnessguru Frank Matrisciano discussed often in the almost two months Blake and hisbrother spent with him. "Teams want me to do something stupid," saysBlake. "You want to get to the point where nothing affects you; you controlthem."

He has kept hisemotions in check on the court without losing any of his trademark intensity."He's like two different people, on the court and off," says Capel."Off the court he's laid-back, a jokester. When we do certain competitivethings in practice, he becomes really different. It's scary sometimes. It couldbe a four-minute scrimmage, a rebounding drill, a shooting competition. If hemisses shots or his team loses, he gets disgusted and wants to do it again. Healways plays like he has something to prove."

In his mind hedoes. Griffin has been driven his whole life by a desire to measure up, firstto his brother, then later to the flock of superstars—including MichaelBeasley, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose—in his recruiting class. Headmits that as a relative unknown from Oklahoma, a football state, he felteclipsed at the 2007 McDonald's All-American Game in Louisville, even though hewon the slam-dunk contest. "I did feel a little overlooked," he says."But I wasn't mad, because those guys are great and they deserved therespect they got. The good thing is it didn't allow me to become complacent. Iwanted to be better, I wanted to keep working until I was with those otherguys."

GROWING UP inOklahoma City, Blake constantly set challenges for himself, asking his familymembers, Do you think I can jump that fence? Do you think I can run from hereto there in 10 seconds? Time me. "Everything Blake did, he made it into agame, a challenge," says his mom, Gail, a former high school businessteacher who homeschooled Blake and Taylor through seventh grade. Blake wouldrush through his schoolwork and then burst outside to play. Recess alwaysbecame some kind of competition with Taylor. "It could be anything—afootrace, tag—and it would always end in a fight, and most of the time it wasbecause I lost," says Blake. "I was always chasing Taylor, trying tokeep up with him. He was three years older, so he was bigger, stronger andfaster. I was always one step behind." He adds, smiling, "That's whyI've built up so much aggression toward him."

Gail stillshudders to think about the time Blake broke 10-year-old Taylor's glasses whilethey were still on Taylor's face. Taylor eventually grew to 6'7" and 238pounds, and if the two bumped each other in the hall, the whole house shook."They were so competitive, and they'd fight over things, and I'd think, Oh,my gosh, they aren't becoming best friends," she says. "But really theywere best friends."

When they weren'tcompeting, the two made a good team. As a preschooler Blake would wake up andannounce what he was going to be that day—teacher, cowboy, garbage collector.Taylor would help him put together an outfit or find props for his vocation dujour. This was, perhaps, the beginning of Blake's fascination withimpersonation and sketch comedy. Along with the animated series Family Guy, herecords Saturday Night Live. "Oh, man, would I love to host that showsomeday," he says.

For now he ishappy amusing his friends and family, and, of course, himself. His parents sayit's dangerous to sit next to him in church, given his talent for slycommentary. His father, Tommy, a high school basketball assistant coach andmath teacher, has had to develop what he calls his "church laugh"—afaux cough that can mask a sudden guffaw.

Taylor, moreanalytical and reserved than his brother, is often Blake's best audience."We are different in our personalities," says Taylor, "but we havesimilar tastes in music and movies, and our humor is the same. He's the onedoing all this stuff, and I'm the one sitting back and laughing."

They've hadplenty of opportunity over the years to develop their rapport. In addition totheir time together as homeschoolers, they both helped out with the trophybusiness their father ran out of their home on the side. Whenever a big ordercame in, the boys pitched in, assembling trophies and folding ribbons.Consequently the trophies they won often didn't mean much to them. "Whenthe box I kept my trophies in got too full," says Blake, "I'd take themdownstairs and recycle them."

There is somehardware he cherishes, however, including the trophies from the four state highschool basketball championships he helped Oklahoma Christian School win, two ofthem with Taylor as a teammate, all of them with their father as coach. Tommysays his sons' battles under the driveway hoop produced more than dustups."At [Oklahoma Christian], Taylor would throw the ball out, and Blake wouldsuddenly be there to catch it," says Tommy, a former basketball center andtrack standout at NAIA Northwestern Oklahoma State. "That's the kind ofchemistry they had. I've been around basketball a long time, and sometimes evenI couldn't see it coming."

Taylor signedwith Oklahoma in August 2004 and averaged 3.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in hisfreshman year under coach Kelvin Sampson. That March, after the NCAA began aninvestigation of Oklahoma over accusations that Sampson had made illegal callsto recruits, Sampson left for Indiana and was replaced by Capel, a former Dukeguard who had coached Virginia Commonwealth to a 79--41 record in four years.As soon as he arrived in Norman, Capel heard about Taylor's brother, who wasjust starting to draw national attention as a high school junior. When Capelsaw Blake play for the first time that spring, he was wowed by the combinationof size, strength and athleticism Blake possessed. But he also was taken withsomething else. "[Blake] played with a chip on his shoulder; he playedangry," says Capel. "[That] stood out, because you really don't seehigh school kids playing as hard as he played."

Capel decidedBlake was the player he needed to kick-start his tenure in Norman. But becauseof school-imposed sanctions levied over the transgressions of Sampson and hisstaff, Capel was limited to calling high school juniors just once every twomonths. (He could call seniors once a week.) But at the time text messaging wasstill allowed, so Capel texted Blake from the time the latter emerged fromclass to the time he went to bed. They messaged back and forth about Capel'svision for the Sooners program, and they found common ground in a sharedappreciation of rap music and in similar family situations—Capel's dad, Jeff,is a coach, and his younger brother, Jason, was a top recruit who signed withNorth Carolina. As an older brother, Capel worried how Taylor would adjust tohis little brother's drawing more attention. "I worried a bit about thattoo," says Blake. "But I shouldn't have. That's not the kind of personTaylor is."

In fact, Taylorwas busy recruiting Blake too. One night he made the 25-mile trip home fromcampus for dinner and told Blake, "Oklahoma is the place for you. We needyou, and I want to play with you again." He added, "There's nothingbetter than playing for your home state, where the people who love you canwatch you play." Taylor's pitch that night "pushed me over theedge," says Blake, who also had been considering Duke, Kansas, NorthCarolina and Texas. "He hadn't said any of that before."

Blake committedto the Sooners less than two months after Capel took the Oklahoma job, and didso without making an official visit. The coach's joy that day was matched onlyperhaps by Blake's announcement last spring, after the Sooners' 23--12 season(9--7 in Big 12 play), that he would be forgoing the NBA draft, in which hefigured to be a lottery pick, to return to Norman for a second season. Hedidn't feel ready for the NBA, he wanted to play one more year with Taylor,and, he says, "I knew we could have a great team."

So far Blake'simpact on the program has been everything Capel imagined when he first sawBlake play less than three years ago. More top players have signed (Warren, thehighest-rated guard ever to commit to Oklahoma, says one of the main reasons hedid was to play with Griffin), the Sooners are off to their best start in 23seasons, the Big 12 championship is within reach, and a national title is apossibility. There are trophies involved with those last two goals, of course."Those," says Blake, "would definitely mean something tome."

Griffin has been driven his whole life by a desire toMEASURE UP, first to his brother, then to the flock of superstars in hisrecruiting class.



Read Luke Winn's Q&A with outspoken Oklahoma freshman guard WillieWarren.


PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonDOUBLE TEAM Griffin, a 6'10" banger who draws multiple defenders, put off the NBA to play another year with Taylor (32).PHOTONICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTOPETER G. AIKEN/GETTY IMAGESBROTHERS IN ARMS When they weren't competing fiercely against each other, Blake and Taylor always made a good team.PHOTOPETER G. AIKEN/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]THREE PHOTOSCOURTESY OF THE GRIFFIN FAMILY[See caption above]