Few NBA players were more bummed out by the lockout than Blake Griffin, a 22-year-old native of Oklahoma who just wants to dunk basketballs, if only unfortunate circumstances would stop getting in the way. Griffin was the much-ballyhooed first pick in the 2009 draft, but then broke his kneecap while playing preseason ball and had to sit out an entire regular season.
It was an inauspicious start that he made up for in style once he was healthy and unleashed upon his peers. In 2010-2011, his first season with the Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin was Rookie of the Year, Slam Dunk champion, and an All-Star. He is arguably the most popular and dynamic new big man to enter the league since Dwight Howard.
And Blake Griffin was just getting started when one bunch of rich guys (the owners) locked the doors on another group of slightly less rich guys (the players), putting a second season in three years at risk for the kid from Oklahoma City. And because one young man can only nap, snack, play video games, and lift weights so much, Griffin did what very few of his fellow stars bothered to do -- he went out and got a job.
So began Blake Griffin’s second act as the world’s tallest and wealthiest copy boy.
For weeks last summer, Griffin printed resumes and licked stamps and wore the soles off of his shoes on the hot pavement of Los Angeles in search of an opportunity. He begged, he cajoled, he called in favors until finally someone opened a door.
That someone was Will Ferrell, who took pity on the unemployed giant -- one tall man helping another -- and offered Griffin a job at his successful humor website, Funny or Die. It was an unpaid job, but a job nonetheless. So began Blake Griffin’s second act as the world’s tallest and wealthiest copy boy.
Hold on a minute. I hope you didn’t actually believe that. I mean, yes -- parts of it are true. Blake Griffin did hurt himself, and win all those awards, and there was a strike, and he did end up interning at Funny or Die, but the truth is that someone there who wasn’t Will Ferrell thought it would be a funny stunt if Griffin became an “intern,” so that person asked and the offer was readily accepted. Also, the internship lasted only four days.
“Actually, three days,” Griffin clarified, and laughed. He was sitting in a photo studio in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles awaiting an event to announce his second new and surprising summer job, which shall remain secret for at least a few more paragraphs.
The strike at that moment seemed intractable, and no one had any idea that less than two weeks later salvation would be snatched from the jaws of apocalypse -- what Commissioner David Stern ominously called “the NBA’s nuclear winter” -- and pro basketball would be back. At that moment, in that photo studio, the season felt almost certainly foiled, and you could’ve bet $1,000 on the spot that if Griffin played basketball in 2012 it would be in Uzbekistan or some other place.
Griffin looks younger in person, like someone still growing into himself. He is graceful on the court, and there’s nothing tangibly clumsy about the way he carries himself off of it, but he has a quiet, disarming manner -- and none of the chest-thumping menace you find in many young players -- so he seems innocent in a way that a 6-foot-10, 250-pounder whose every dunk seems likely to tear the basket from the backboard rarely does.
That could all be an act, because, certainly Griffin is well in control of his faculties.
If he had nothing else going for him, he would be one of the NBA’s most marketable young stars for his dunking alone. He is, in the eyes of most fans, the most exciting dunker since Vince Carter -- a flattering notion that he quickly dismissed. “I’m not worthy of Vince,” he said. “He was one of the best dunkers ever.” (And also an inspiration; as a kid, young Blake would get up and watch the latest Vince Carter dunk highlights on ESPN before school.)
But dunking prowess, or shot-blocking, or prodigious rebounding isn’t why Funny or Die reached out, or why he’s the star of a whimsical Kia ad campaign, or why he’s the player comedians Jimmy Kimmel and Norm MacDonald called when they needed a famous athlete to do funny on their shows. It doesn’t explain why he was there, wearing a slightly-too-small suit and a bow tie on a fake stage in West Hollywood. That’s all because he’s a genuinely funny dude with the willingness to act silly on command.
“It’s not really a plan,” he explained, when asked if this was a calculated effort to become a basketball-player-slash-comic-entertainer. “It’s just how I’ve always been.”
Already, Griffin has developed a style. He is a deadpan absurdist, a steely professional at absorbing ridiculous questions and delivering even-more-ridiculous answers without cracking.
“That’s what’s funny to me,” he said. “I have kind of a twisted humor. I think the funniest stuff is off the top of your head. When you’re actually trying to answer a question in a joking way that you try to make sound serious.”
For instance, in the “Narrow World of Sports” online series by former “Seinfeld” writer Peter Mehlman, Griffin was asked if, being bi-racial, he is resentful that his white half might have complicated his black half’s path to the NBA. Griffin listened, nodded just slightly and said, in a quiet voice full of regret that, yes, he was. “At night I’d cry myself to sleep,” he went on. “Just thinking, ‘Why? Why did I have to be half white?’”
Or -- in another digital short, a send-up of those puff pieces shot through soft-focus camera lenses -- when the stand-up Ben Gleib visits Griffin in his home and asks him what sorts of things he enjoys aside from basketball. Again, Griffin is quick to answer. “I keep a mean garden. It relieves stress, you know? Those plants don’t care about anything. They just want their sunshine and their water. It’s not about the plants, it’s about me.”
Griffin is a student of comedy, at least insofar as that’s what he consumes in his spare time. He is surely the only NBA player who was star-struck by writer/producer/comedy nerd Judd Apatow when he saw the man out to dinner with his family (“I stopped in my tracks”) and admits that his favorite TV shows “have always been comedy shows.”
But the idea of pursuing comedy, even in miniature, never once occurred to him until he got to Hollywood. “There’s just so much of it here,” he said. “And I became friends with some comedians and directors and writers and it took off, I guess.”
Honestly, I’m sure part of the reason Blake Griffin is so readily celebrated for his personality is that we reside in a world where the corporate culture of sports demands a certain kind of athlete. For the most part, that athlete is discouraged by sponsors, team, and family (probably in about that order) from speaking out on anything other than grit, teamwork, perseverance, or how they will learn from that day’s effort.
Even those capable of being colorful typically won’t be because the risk of getting in trouble far outweighs the benefit of being considered something more than just a tremendous player. And most players are probably fine with that. Look at Gilbert Arenas. Agent Zero was every writer’s favorite player for his eccentric behavior until said behavior made him a pariah.
There’s little risk, however, of Griffin bringing a gun to the locker room unless that gun is the kind that shoots out a tiny flag reading “bang” when you pull the trigger.
“A pet peeve of mine is when people take themselves too seriously, and think what they’re doing is more important than it really is,” he said. “I mean, we play basketball for a living. That’s awesome. I enjoy it, and take it seriously, but it doesn’t put me on a pedestal or anything.”
Of course, being overly self-serious is basically a prerequisite of today’s professional athlete.
“Unfortunately,” Griffin answered, and then got up to go play ping-pong.
For the duration of the strike, with the exception of his grueling four-day internship, Griffin’s daily schedule resembled that of the average high school kid on summer break. He’d wake up, hit the gym, eat lunch, take a nap, watch some TV, and then “wait for some people to get off work or something.”
There was also the occasional world-class pick-up game featuring a rotating cast of NBA stars, but for the most part Griffin woke up every morning with no idea how to fill his days.
“I don’t really know,” he said, a week after his first NBA paycheck failed to arrive on the 15th of the month for the first time. “I gotta play basketball some time. If the season does get canceled, maybe I’ll go overseas.” There was little enthusiasm in the thought. “And there’s ping-pong, obviously.”
Now the reason for Griffin’s presence in the studio -- wearing short-shorts, a headband, two wristbands, and striped socks pulled almost to his knees -- can be revealed. He planned to occupy himself by taking up competitive table tennis, Red Bull’s first athlete in that sport.
“I’m looking for something to spice things up and give me that competitive edge again,” he explained, as the camera rolled on his first-ever interview as an aspiring professional ping-pong player. “Ping-pong has been a huge part of my life ever since I got my first iPad,” he deadpanned. (None of this was rehearsed.) “It was love at first sight. Eventually I bought a real table -- last week.”
The crew snickered, but he only intensified his stare at the interviewer, who asked him to describe his crowning achievement, so far, in the sport.
“I’d say winning my first match at age 22 was big.” (He is currently 22.) Asked to describe his attributes, he said: “I think I bring a lot of athleticism, a lot of jumping, a lot of intimidation.”
In a little more than an hour, he was to put his skills to the test against one of the world’s top players, a beautiful Korean named Soo Yeon Lee who was loitering nearby in the shadows in the intimidating ensemble of a tiny black dress and stiletto heels. (A former member of the Korean National Team, Lee remains a competitive table tennis player and works as a model, which isn’t surprising when you see her.) Has he seen his opponent play?
“I play at the highest level in basketball. Ping-pong is not so different,” he answered. “But honestly, I’ve never actually played against a real ping-pong player before. This could be a good test before I take it to the pro tour.”
The interviewer attempted one more question, but Griffin raised a large hand. “I’m done,” he snapped, pretending to be annoyed, and then stood, ripped off his mic and stormed out of the room, bonking his head -- hard -- on a beam affixed with a sign reading “Watch your head” on the way out. When I found him in his dressing room a few minutes later, he was still rubbing his head.
That was a great touch, I told him -- classic physical comedy. He laughed. “I wish it was on purpose.”
Here’s the thing: For a guy who’d only owned a ping-pong table for a few weeks, Griffin wasn’t bad. Sure, Lee thrashed him, but the rallies were long and in some cases heated, and the NBA star was easily the model-actress-ping-pong-champion’s match in both game face and willingness to dress ridiculously for the cameras.
It’s hard to imagine, say, Kevin Durant dressing intentionally dorky, let alone looking excited to be doing it, and it struck me, watching that little ball dink and donk back and forth, that what makes Blake Griffin funny, at least in part, is his willingness to let go of the very normal young male desire to seem cool.
It was hard to watch his exaggerated neck rolls and faux gasps of disgust, and especially the tiny shorts and headband, and not think of Will Ferrell. That isn’t to say that Griffin is a comic talent on that level, but rather that, being so obviously at ease, he has the raw material that all good comics must have. He’s very comfortable in his skin -- and yet still at the core, an athlete.
And then, like that, Griffin’s ping-pong career was killed in its infancy -- or at least put on cryogenic hold until retirement -- because over the Thanksgiving holiday, the players and owners settled their differences, and the 2011-2012 season was brought back from the dead. Griffin had his day job back.
The new season, which crams 66 games into 120 days, began on Christmas Day, and players reported to official practice for the first time on Dec. 9. Less than a week later, they played the first of two preseason games. A week or so after his ping-pong debut, Griffin sounded relieved to be playing basketball. He said he thought that, “the players deserved a little better, but it’s one of those things where you have to make sacrifices. We wanted to play.”
The lack of preseason wasn’t a big concern. He was, unfortunately, accustomed to unplanned hiatuses from the game. His daily workouts, as well as the regular pick-up games, had him feeling ready. “I’m as close to game shape as I can be without having played.”
This season’s goals are simple. Griffin wants to help the Clippers make the playoffs and to “step more into a leadership role. Last year was kinda weird because it was my first year, and I had to learn the ropes a little bit.”
Griffin was making no bold promises about a deep playoff run, though admitted that once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. “I’m excited about the guys we have coming back,” he said of his young, talented, but inexperienced Clippers teammates. “I think the good thing about us could be the bad thing. We have a lot of young guys, with energy and athleticism. But at the same time youth doesn’t always prevail.” He cited Dallas, the reigning champions, who were one of the oldest teams in the league. “Youth is always fun to watch but you really need older guys there to step up.”
With the season finally on his doorstep, Griffin was coy about furthering his reputation as the league’s top dunker. It seemed like now that the season was a reality and not just an abstract, the idea of being known for his dunks above all else made him uncomfortable. He sees this reputation as a bit of a misunderstanding, because in his mind the players who deserve those plaudits are the smaller guys who jump like kangaroos. But there’s probably something else to this.
Talking too much about Griffin’s dunking is reductive, because his game is so much more than rattling rims. For a big man, he is unusually skilled at ball handling and passing, and he is already one of the game’s best rebounders. Last season, Griffin averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds and nearly 4 assists a game, had a 27-game double-double streak (the longest for a rookie since 1969) and became the first rookie to score at least 40 points twice in a season since Allen Iverson way back in 1996-1997. His all-around game won him all six Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards.
So you can kind of understand why Griffin would deflect talk of a repeat in the dunk contest. “I’m not really sure, man,” he replied. “I don’t think the dunk contest is really my thing.” To keep people from inviting him, he said, “I might lock myself out from dunking in games.” He was joking. I think.
In the background, someone was dribbling a ball. Where are you? I asked him.
“We’re shooting some video stuff,” he said, and then lowered his voice to nearly a whisper. “Some dunks, actually.” He laughed.
“I guess I’m not done yet.”
Check out the rest of the February 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine on newsstands January 10. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.