Usually, we sophisticated NBA blogger types try to avoid superlatives, those words like “most” and “best” and “worst” that indicate the ultimate degree of something. Good writing and good analysis both favor the qualified over the absolute, the carefully parsed over a whitewashed generality. After all, the basketball blogosphere (at least as imagined by guys like John Hollinger, Henry Abbott, Bethlehem Shoals, K.A. et al) is supposed to offer a countermeasure to the mainstream sports-media hyperbole machine. One day the Butler Bulldogs are on the verge of being The Greatest Underdog Story Ever Told, and the next they are culpable participants in The Game So Ugly It Shamed Dr. Naismith and The Sport of Basketball Itself. But not over in this corner of the interwebs, where we putter along making reasonable arguments, trying, whenever possible, to stick to, and elucidate, the facts.
Except that Blake Griffin coming to the Los Angeles Clippers and proceeding to throw down one of the greatest and most electrifying rookie seasons in the history of the NBA is straight up one of the weirdest, greatest, unlikeliest juxtapositions of talent and franchise legacy that we’ve seen in the history of basketball. Period. And furthermore, his stratospheric rookie campaign sets up a group of future possibilities that are intriguing because they are so likely to be measurable in superlatives, either the best or the absolute worst imaginable scenarios for Clipper fans, with precious little middle ground. Starting next fall (assuming there’s basketball), and continuing for as long as Blake Griffin is healthy and a Clipper, there will be high expectations surrounding Blake, more time worrying over his mechanics and his free throw percentage, and, ultimately, his ability to lead the team to wins. All of which means there will be less time for appreciation. This is a totally normal and understandable thing. “Stunned disbelief,” is not a permanent state even for (literally) lottery winners. But before we get there, let’s just take a few moments to appreciate just how strange a trip this has been and will likely become with the help of a few superlatives.
1. Your Los Angeles Clippers – The Most Wretched Franchise In Professional American Sports.
I spent 20 minutes with the thesaurus, and I’m still not completely happy with “wretched.” I was trying to find a word that somehow connotes hapless, wrong-headed, ill-fated, and mis-managed. A word that covers every botched draft pick, every heart breaking knee injury (Danny Manning, Shawn Livingston, Elton Brand), Larry Brown leaving when it became clear the team had no intention of resigning Ron Harper or Mark Jackson, the 800 pound front line of Stanley Robertson and Hot Plate Williams, the continuing flow of embarrassing disclosures from the Elgin Baylor lawsuit, freaking Daniel Ewing on Raja Bell, the Dunleavy Sr./Baron Davis fued, PLUS all things Donald Sterling.
Oh and losing. It needs to be a word that connotes continued and historical losing. In 27 years in Los Angeles, the Clippers have had two winning seasons. Two. TWO. Sure, the true Clips connoisseur can wax eloquent on the differences between the subtle charms of Bill Fitch’s gutty but talentless squad that rode Brent Barry and Loy Vaught to a sub .500 8 seed versus, say, the utter futility of the D-league level squad (Charles Smith excepted) Fitch would coach in his final year. But basically, unmitigated losing. If the Clippers were a landscape, they’d be the moon. So, maybe wretched is not the perfect word, but whatever that word is, the Clippers are the most of it.
2. Blake Griffin – The Most Exciting Rookie Campaign Of My Life
Blake’s rookie season has been analysed, parsed, hyperbolized, honored etc. exhaustively, so I won’t bore you with much of a recap here. He was off from his first play of his first game – a monstrous alley-oop against Portland in the season opener – and never looked back. Maybe LeBron’s or Shaq’s rookie seasons stack up statistically, but thanks to youtube, DVR, basketball blogs, 8 Sportscenters a day, and the media saturation of Los Angeles, Blake Griffin’s rookie year become a worldwide phenomenon practically overnight. There were, like, three weeks in November when Clipper fans played Isaiah, heralding the coming, begging their friends to “Check this guy out!” Then the Knicks game happened, Mozgov happened, Gallinari happened, and the whole world got hip real quick.
The way Blake handled instant superstardom was somewhat remarkable… in that he handled it at all, and with flair to spare. He always seemed to stay a step ahead of the accepted wisdom of the talking heads on Sports Screamers or the professional doubters among our local columnists. This was true both in his development as a basketball player and as a Clipper. When the talking point was “Just wait until a few seasons down the line when he’s more than just a Shawn Kemp dunking machine,” Blake quietly started knocking down jump shots and displaying a scarily honed arsenal of post moves. While the national broadcasters were all agreeing that Blake was a “defensive liability,” he kept collecting charges, ending the season 9th in charges taken (ahead of, for instance, Derek Fisher) and ranked high on Syngery’s list of iso-defenders at power forward.
More meaningful to me as a fan was the way Blake seemed unusually attuned with the meta-story, the way he fit into the story of the Clippers. Taking on history is a scary thing. It’s the rare Pedro Martinez who threatens to plunk Babe Ruth in the rear. Two moments in particular stand out for me, both from that January stretch when the Clippers played their best ball of the season. First, the Clippers beat the villainous Heat at Staples Center, hanging on to a hard fought victory after nearly blowing the Heat out of the building during a first quarter punctuated by so many dunks and alley-oops it reduced Ralph at one point to insensible giggling. In the locker room after the game, Blake was asked if the victory “surprised” him.
“No,” he said. “We expect to win. You can’t come into Staples Center and punk us anymore.” You can’t punk us anymore. It was an affirmation that, yes, Blake knows what’s gone on here in the past, and you know what? He doesn’t care. That was the past. This is the Blake Griffin era. And in the Blake Griffin era things will be different.
The response was depressingly predictable. Listening to the Sports Screamers, you would have thought the captain of the Washington Generals had guaranteed a championship. I remember the next day one of the talking points on one of the shows – you know theones – was Are The Clippers For Real? Not only did all four panelists give resounding “No”s (obviously), none of them even took the question seriously enough to support their answers with evidence, maybe something like “Not yet, the team is too young,” or “I worry about the lack of production from the 3.” “It’s the Clippers” served, as it so often does, as its own rationale, the same way you might cite gravity or friction or some other inarguable law of nature. If anything was mentioned beyond the Clips being the Clips it was Donald Sterling, who you would think, from the way he was discussed, was stalking the sidelines like a WWF heel, looking for his chance to brain Blake with a folding chair.
I don’t know Blake Griffin. I don’t know if he watches those shows. But if the few pro athletes I’ve talked to are representative, then he does, because these guys watch everything, read everything, know exactly how they are being portrayed and, often, misconstrued. Two days later, the Clips beat the Lakers in a game that played as physical as a playoff game. This was the game where Lamar Odom took offense to Blake’s effort in the final seconds and threw him to the ground. When asked about it after the game, Blake said something like (I’m paraphrasing) “I go hard for every rebound at every moment of the game.”
Those two games were a microcosm of how quickly one player can change the reputation of even the most unlikely franchise. Winning, talent, effort, and character will trump “culture” every time… because winning, talent, effort, and character are culture. The Clippers have never had a talent like Blake Griffin, much less one who was also unafraid to take on the mantle of leadership, and embrace the vast challenge of leading this team – TWO winning seasons in 27 years. TWO! – against the league’s elite.
3. Basketball – The Sport in Which One Star Has the Largest Impact
This one almost doesn’t need explanation. With the possible exception of top flight QBs like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, no other athletes have the potential to define their franchises for up to a decade like NBA stars. On a basketball level, it’s a numbers game: A star player might eat up 1/6th of the total minutes available and control the ball on upward of 60% of crunch time possessions. More profound, the best NBA stars lend and ultimately meld their personalities with the persona of the franchise itself. What are the Spurs if not Tim Duncan’s careful professionalism? What were the 2008-2010 Cavs if not a reflection of LeBron’s exuberant, and ultimately skin-deep, playfulness? What was Showtime without Magic?
Basketball fans, I believe, understand this instinctively. My favorite current example is what’s happening in Oklahoma City. Before 2009, I had never in my life heard anyone refer to Oklahoma as “basketball crazy” or a “basketball hotbed.” Is there something in the Oklahoma water that churns out fanatical fans in a way that, say, Charlotte or Toronto don’t? I tend to doubt it. I think what happened is this: Kevin Durant, one of the NBA’s elite young stars, put his money where his mouth was, and, by signing an extension that locks him into OKC for the next 6 years, instantly legitimized the franchise. It doesn’t matter to Thunder fans that their team doesn’t have history – Durant is going to write one. That’s the thing about having one of the league’s 5 best players on your team – it’s as close to a viability guarantee as there is in professional sports.
It’s more than that as well. (I warned you there would be a lot of superlatives. I should have also mentioned the pop-sociology). We are hard wired for story. We continue to love and follow sports even as free agency continues to make that cliche about “rooting for laundry,” truer every season. No matter how much owners like Donald Sterling and Frank McCourt remind us that pouring our hearts into their franchises is “fundamentally ridiculous” (to quote Free Darko’s Shoefly), we stubbornly do it anyway. Sports offer finite outcomes in our otherwise ambiguity-filled lives, and so we find story lines in even the most hopeless seasons, whether its a game against a rival that could “redeem” a bad season, or a veteran turning in one last gritty effort, or the development of a rookie. Whatever.
Following one star NBA’s player’s career is the purest “story” fix in sports. Talk to Mavs fans about Dirk Nowitski or Spurs fans about Tim Duncan. It’s like discussing a cousin they all have in common. Spurs fans watched Duncan develop, grow, overcome, lead, struggle, overcome again, and finally (it appears) begin to submit to the rigors of time. It’s a life cycle in 15 years, a rise and fall we all go through to some extent. What I think makes OKC fans such unabashed crazies is that Kevin Durant “gave” them his story. A Thunder fan can ignore that little cynic in his head, the one that warns him against caring too much. That’s a powerful freedom.
In “Three Uses of the Knife,” David Mamet’s eloquent essay on the nature of drama, he begins by asking the reader to thinking about (appropriately enough) the Perfect Ballgame.
What do we wish for in the perfect game?
Do we wish for Our Team to take the field and thrash the opposition from the First Moment, rolling up a walkover score at the final gun? [Ed. Note: Yankee/Laker fans are nodding their heads vigorously]
No. We wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended towards a satisfying and inevitable conclusion… each act of the game following the paradigm: “Yes! No! But wait….!”
In other words, the story is the thing. The larger the obstacles, the higher the stakes, the more satisfying the conclusion. In a weird counter-intuitive way, Clipper fans are lucky. Decades of suffering are necessary to create the conditions for Ultimate Redemption. If this isn’t true, how can we even explain the existence of Met fans, Jet fans, Clipper fans etc? There’s a reason the 2004 Red Sox are Krazyglued to the collective unconscious and the 2003 Marlins, well, just the 2003 World Champion Marlins. Blake Griffin leading the Clippers to an NBA title – even typing the words is giggle inducing – would truly be Mamet’s Perfect Ballgame.
Only in sports, of course, that conclusion is far from “inevitable.”
LeBron and Cleveland is a cautionary tale example of the ugliness that results when a narrative fails to come to fruition. Cleveland’s post-Decision levels of animosity towards LeBron may or may not have had undertones that touch race, socio-economics, and geographic paranoia, but ultimately it was the anger over LeBron’s refusal to play his role. It was narrative failure. The story was a simple (perhaps simplistic) one – Hometown hero saves moribund franchise, redefines Cleveland’s doomed sports history, and doesn’t abandon population dwindling Rust Belt metropolis for sexier alternative. And, of course, it emphatically turned out not to be the story LeBron wanted to tell. (And again, I don’t want to rehash LeBron. Many many more qualified people have already articulated their opinions at great length. But what was the Decision, and the “8 championships” prediction, and the WWF smoke machine intro-hysterics all about if not a nullification of the story Cavs fans had hoped was “inevitable?”)
So where does all this get us? I don’t know. No one does. One of the challenges of being a star in 2011 – the one that maybe LeBron never fully appreciated – is the difficulty of reconciling your meta-narrative, much less fufill it. For instance, there are already at least three distinct Blake Griffins.
There’s the one “we” (Clipper fans) care about – Clipper savior Blake Griffin. The fact that he’s a “first guy into the gym,” a “son of a coach” guy (his family practically lived on Clipper telecasts this season), a determined “motor” guy, these are all facets that only the die-hard Clips fan cares about at this point, along with tracking every minute improvement Blake makes to his game like proud parents.
Then there’s Dunk Contest Blake, youtube Blake, highlight Blake, the Blake that “casual fans” look forward to gracing the Top 10 every night. Which is inextricably tied to Blake #3 – the Future of Crossover Marketability in the NBA. Blake has quickly become the face advertisers covet and for good reason. He’s dynamic, funny, and wholesome. People can say what they want about L.A., but you can’t knock our tacos or our publicists. Witness the savvy commercial persona on display in Blake’s two current national ads. There’s the deification of the Kia Dunk ad, with its Wagnerian backdrop and solemn quote, reminding us that “Most of the stuff that’s possible has already been done.” Then there’s that phone ad where Blake displays his chops for a bunch of YMCA shlubs, before rakishly giving himself a kiss from a downloaded lady on his phone. While Blake has been more circumspect than LeBron about talking about his “brand” (I suspect future players have learned from past mistakes at this point) it’s pretty clear that he’s not exactly a babe in the woods when it comes to marketing.
How will he balance the basketball player with the celebrity? How will the later effect his decisions as the former?
Again, I don’t know where this story is going. No one does, not even Blake. It’s too soon to have a Unified Theory of Blake; at this point there’s just a bunch of disparate elements. But I know that there are too many superlatives here for anything other than epic or tragedy. And so, before you get back to skimming lists of free agent small forwards, or debating the merits of Chris Kaman as a 6th man, just take a second to appreciate this extraordinary crossroads of talent, history, and expectation. On the one hand, Blake could do the impossible (which in this case also doubles as Mamet’s “inevitable). On the other hand, maybe we are totally screwed. The “Clipper Curse” could raise its head from the murky bogs of statistical improbability and bring disaster in some, at this point, unforeseeable and particularly terrible way. Either way, we’ve finally lucked into a new story.