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A rising superstar lifts downtrodden Clippers

January 09, 2011|Kevin Baxter

If you could attend just one of the two NBA games at Staples Center on Sunday, which would you choose?

Would you try to squeeze in alongside the Jack Nicholsons and George Lopezes on celebrity row to see Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Lakers on Sunday night? Or would you opt for the matinee featuring rookie Blake Griffin and the Clippers, a team with one winning season in the last 18 years?

For Charles Barkley, an 11-time NBA All-Star and a basketball Hall of Famer, it's not a tough call.

"If I'm going to see a regular-season game, I'll probably go see the Clippers," Barkley says in tribute to Griffin. "That's worth the price of admission. That's the kind of excitement he's bringing to the table."

Excitement is something the Clippers have rarely seen. Yet just 35 games into his rookie season, the 21-year-old Griffin has transformed the team. Once difficult to watch, the Clippers are now a must-see.

Less than four minutes into his NBA debut, Griffin scored his first points on a thundering right-handed dunk against the Portland Trail Blazers. He rebounded his own miss and threw down a vicious two-handed jam against the Detroit Pistons. He's made half-court drives that he ended by spinning 360 degrees before soaring skyward and dunking. And in perhaps his best play of the season, he appeared to hang in midair before slamming home a basket against the New York Knicks.

Those are just the highlights of the highlights. Griffin is so spectacular on a nightly basis that the home crowd recently booed a teammate who took an easy layup rather than pass to Griffin, who was primed for another slam.

If Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain are Los Angeles' basketball past and Kobe Bryant the sport's present, Blake Griffin could very well be its future.

"I think he's terrific," the Lakers' Bryant says.

"He's everything as advertised," says Malik Allen, a nine-year NBA veteran who plays for the Orlando Magic. "His energy is unbelievable, man. He's strong. He's quick. Plays fearless."

That's why the audience for the local telecasts of Clippers games is 65% larger than it was last season. It's why the average home-game attendance of 16,761 is higher than it has been in four seasons. It's why Griffin has been on the cover of Italian magazines and has been interviewed at length on French television.

Oh, and he's pretty big in the U.S. too.

"Every city we go to all the comments are about Blake Griffin," says Ralph Lawler, the Clippers' play-by-play voice for more than three decades. "All the reporters for other teams, all the coaches, all the players, the first thing they want to talk about is Blake Griffin. I've never seen a Clippers player that brought that kind of attention."

Even ESPN is focused on the Clippers, a team it routinely ignored in the past.

"Oh, yeah, definitely," says Stan Verrett, a "SportsCenter" anchor. "When the Clippers play, people want to know, 'What did Blake Griffin do tonight?' Because it seems like every night there's something memorable."

Some close NBA watchers are calling Griffin a once-in-a-generation talent and the most electrifying combination of size, strength and power to enter the league in more than a decade. That would make him better than perennial All-Stars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But at 6 feet 9 and 251 pounds, Griffin has the physical presence of a dominant center like Howard, the shooting touch of a Durant and the explosiveness and game-changing abilities of a James. From a standing start Griffin's vertical leap is now more than three feet, meaning he can go from immobile to having his eyes roughly even with the top of the 10-foot-high basket in a fraction of a second. Give him a running start and he can get his whole head above the rim.

"He's definitely going to transcend the game," Clippers teammate Baron Davis says. "His only fight is chasing the Hall of Fame."

Ask Griffin, though, and he'll tell you he's not the best player in the league. Nor the highest jumper, the most accurate shooter or the best rebounder.

On the contrary, the power forward leads the team in turnovers and is second in personal fouls. And he's one of the worst free-throw shooters in the NBA.

"My shot's got to get better. Defense has to get better. I can work on everything I do," he says.

Which brings up another rare trait Griffin has displayed: humility.

In a sport defined by ego and self-aggrandizement, he does his best to deflect the praise coming his way.

"Compliments are great," Griffin says. "But they're just words. The mentality when I was younger was I wasn't as skilled as everybody else. So I had to outwork them. I had to put in the work and had to do all this stuff. And that has to be your mentality the whole time."

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