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Blake Griffin stands as Oklahoma's tower of strength

Coaches and trainers rave about the Sooners forward's weightlifting regimen and leaping ability. Factor in his 22.5 points and 14.4 rebounds per game, and he could carry Oklahoma to a national title.

March 24, 2009|Baxter Holmes

NORMAN, OKLA. — Inside the Oklahoma men's basketball weight room, Darby Rich keeps a close eye on Blake Griffin. He has to. If he doesn't, Rich says, college basketball's player-of-the-year-in-waiting will push himself too hard.

"He is a beast. He wants to lift as heavy as he can. He would lift super heavy with his legs on a game day, if you'd let him," says Rich, the team's strength and conditioning coach.

The Sooners don't need that, not now, in March, not two wins away from a Final Four and with Syracuse waiting for them Friday at Memphis.

So Rich watches, and when the sophomore finishes a workout and looks at the sheet of exercises and asks, "Anything else?" Rich gives his broken-record response: "No, Blake, not today."

That's what it's like to train Griffin, a 6-foot-10 forward who is all of 251 pounds, with barely 5% body fat. He is the strongest player for his age -- he just turned 20 -- the team's medical trainer, Alex Brown, has seen in 22 years with the program.

If there were weight-room records, Rich says, Griffin would be in the top three in every category.

If he could, Bob Stoops would borrow him in a minute.

"He'd be an All-American tight end if he wanted," the Sooners football coach says.

Griffin is flexible, thanks to daily stretches since seventh grade.

"His hamstrings go on forever," says Jennifer Sheppard, Griffin's Pilates instructor when he took the course last fall.

A dance instructor at Oklahoma, impressed by the big guy's limber limbs, even thought of casting Griffin in a modern dance piece. "I don't think [modern] is my style," Griffin says, laughing.

But it's his leap that drops jaws. Flat-footed, Griffin will put 38 1/2 inches of air between his size 17s and the hardwood; give him a running start and he'll tattoo the backboard at 12 feet 3 inches, rare air only players such as LeBron James and Dwight Howard -- players Griffin studies -- get to breathe.

"He's the fastest guy on the court, jumps the highest on the court, strongest guy on the court, great skills, great touch, great understanding, great attitude, great demeanor, and a great team player," Oklahoma State Coach Travis Ford said after Griffin had 33 points and 14 rebounds in a Big 12 Conference victory.

Though they say he's the hardest working "freak" athlete to hit Norman since Adrian Peterson, Griffin's work ethic worries his coaches because they fear he could burn himself out before his NBA career hits full stride. And that would be a costly mistake considering Griffin is expected to be the first pick of the next draft.

"He's a kid that would work himself to death," says Rich, "and there are still a lot of miles to go on his body."

Coach Jeff Capel agrees.

"There are times when I have to tell him, 'It's OK to rest,' " Capel says, noting a warning from Griffin's father, Tommy, Griffin's high school coach, that Capel might have to "protect Blake from Blake."

Capel trusts the player, but he and several members of the team's staff say they frequently "butt heads" with Blake Griffin over working too hard. It's a problem they wish more players had.

Griffin hears their warnings, constantly, but doesn't always heed them. The coaches showed him statistics of Michael Jordan to prove that even the greatest ever wasn't perfect, but Griffin seems set in his ways.

"All the coaches tell me to give it a rest," says the nation's leading rebounder (14.4 per game). "The way I look at it is, if I'm not out here working, there's somebody else out there that's working."

That mind-set can develop when you spend your youth playing in the shadow of others, and it began for Griffin on a driveway basketball court in northwest Oklahoma City.

Taylor, his brother, was bigger, stronger and always won, and when Blake got to high school, it was Taylor's show. When Taylor enrolled at Oklahoma to play basketball, Blake emerged and in two years became the best high school player in the state. But he still wasn't as touted as Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo or Kevin Love, who were in the same incoming freshman class.

Taylor, a senior, is a top player for the Sooners, third on the team in scoring (9.8) and second in rebounding (6.0). But the only shadows Blake plays in are caused by the constant spotlight. His season scoring average is 22.5, and he's averaging 31 points and 15 rebounds in two NCAA tournament games.

Could anyone else go No. 1 in the NBA draft? "You never say never, but I wouldn't put my money in that direction," says one scout, speaking anonymously because the league prohibits its scouts from commenting on underclassmen.

"I thought he was a top-five pick last year."

So did a lot of people. But Griffin turned down the millions and spent several weeks in San Francisco last summer with fitness guru Frank Matrisciano and former NBA coach Bob Hill. He came back to Norman more explosive, with 10 added pounds of muscle and 70% more endurance, he says, and then spent the next two months in the gym from about 9 a.m. to sundown.

Even now, he visits the gym between classes.

"A lot of times, when a guy is blessed like he's blessed, they don't work like he works," Capel says.

When Griffin is gone, the staff will pass on legends about his sometimes maniacal training to improve every aspect of his game -- right now, he's working on Tim Duncan's signature 15-foot bank shot -- even though he was as talented a player as they'd ever seen.

They'll say how Blake Griffin was always first on the court, whether for practice or a game, and the last to leave.

And when you ask Brown, Griffin's trainer, about "The Beast," Brown recites a movie line, one of his favorites, from "Chariots of Fire":

"You can't put in what God's left out."

As he recites the quote, Brown, a soft-spoken man, leans forward just slightly, letting you know he wants you to really listen.

Then he adds: "God didn't leave much out of Blake."

--

baxter3d@hotmail.com

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