If the Rich — this One Percent that we’re hearing about lately, this tiny Elite that is the only sliver of American society that has improved its fortune since Reagan — are different from you and me, then so are Elite Athletes (AthElites?).
Kid sports have changed radically, like everything else, with Club teams and trainers. Regular kids no longer hang out and play pick up games, and “playdates” — a term we never had — need to be supervised just to prevent them devolving into separate but equal handheld gaming, simple proximity without interaction.
AthElites stand out from the earliest possible age, as if they were zoo animals walking around in human society (I just mute-watched Zookeeper on a plane ride, which must be fueling this metaphor.) I was listening last night to a story about Messi, the soccer GOAT that I managed to be ignorant of until 10 hours ago, moving from Argentina to Barcelona when he was 11 years old, in order to begin shaping his professional career. So if you’re out there sitting in your state-of-the-art collapsing portable chair surveying the AYSO field, or looking at a gym full of young ballers, know that every single one of them, even the wildly dominant stud with stunning size, skills, and talent, will end up moseying along towards mediocrity. The athElite has already moved to Barcelona.
Blake Griffin is an athElite. His dad knew it, his mom and his brother knew it, and it was obvious at least a decade ago and everybody in Oklahoma City knew it. And now, after a spectacular and NBA-historically significant rookie season in the mega Los Angeles market, the whole world knows it.
So now what? Well, right now, along with the rest of the global NBAosphere, Blake Griffin waits. And the interesting thing is that he has done it before, with staggering results. Blake Griffin understands patience, which is something that all of us are being forced to learn during the lockout. If his history is any guide, what so many of us are viewing as a negative, and massive bummer, Griffin will turn to his own benefit, in ways that are difficult for us to imagine.
The primary example of the patience of Blake Griffin is obvious and easily remembered, and I was oddly sensitive to it at an early point last year. For some reason, taking a moment to reflect on Griffin’s mindset right now, when he should be in the second week of his second season, caused an even bigger picture to pop into my head. It seemed for a moment like I could view current events from Griffin’s Olympian perspective, and there was no hustle and bustle, no confusion or frustration, only familiarity. I must say it freaked me out a little bit, but it was cool. Zhiv would never turn down a moment of zen, of clarity. And Blake Griffin is an extraordinarily good place to look for that type of thing, the fullness of being empty, the everything of nothing.
The first year of Blake Griffin’s patience was 2008-09, when he returned to Oklahoma to play as a sophomore. Given Griffins rise during the 2010-11 rookie season, this decision — such a loaded word now in anything having to do with basketball athElites, and in Griffin’s standard practice the moment he mentioned his sophomore enrollment at Oklahoma undoubtedly must have been lower case — deserves some current reflection.
Start with the idea that RoY extraordinaire Griffin could be starting his FOURTH NBA season. If the 2008 NBA draft is held today, Griffin vs. MVP Derrick Rose is still a tossup — which says a lot about Derrick Rose. At the time, Griffin would have gone in the top five and probably higher, based on questions about No. 2 pick Michael Beasley that have been borne out by his actions. Subsequent picks Westbrook and Love were a nice Westwood tandem, and it would have been really sweet for Bruin fans if they had been as patient as Blake Griffin. No way Griffin falls to the Clips the way that Eric Gordon did — and hey, look! there’s his trusty sidekick DeAndre Jordan dropping to No. 35!
Griffin must have had his own reasons to play a second year of college basketball, but the overarching one now, looking back, is that he was extraordinarily patient. Perhaps he wanted to win a championship, and he probably wanted to go through one more season playing alongside his brother, in front of his parents and all of their friends and fans in Oklahoma. And he knew, what so many current players forget, that he would be better, more mature, that he would know more about not only his game but also himself. And he wasn’t in a hurry, knowing his NBA debut would come in good time.
Except that it didn’t. Griffin’s decision to choose patience after his freshman season was rewarded by his acclamation as a brutally obvious No. 1 pick, something even the uncharacteristically fortunate Clippers couldn’t screw up, and a belated command from the basketball gods — for more patience.
This time it was a true challenge, and it wasn’t a matter of choice. Griffin suffered a complex and somewhat baffling knee injury in the final 2009 preseason game, and he was officially sidelined on the evening before Opening Night, par for the course for beleaguered Clipper fans, while coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. heard the bell of his professional demise tolling loudly all of a sudden. The seeming delay was frustrating enough, as it appeared that Griffin might be back in six weeks, maybe eight, but it became excruciating on a funky January night in Memphis when a water main broke and over a hundred thousand people died in Haiti. It was bad mojo of the highest order, and Griffin was scheduled for surgery and out for the season.
Blake Griffin was forced to be philosophical, and his patience was sorely tested. He came to know patience in a more profound way, which serves him now. He stalked the sidelines, going through an entire NBA season wearing a collection of suits, rather than a uniform, and he received a rare M.A. in NBA Studies that only All-Star player and brilliant commentator and coach Doug Collins holds, similar to the one that Phil Jackson garnered from Red Holzman with the Knicks.
Because of the injury, and perhaps because he was going to play for such a woeful franchise, Griffin’s star dimmed considerably. John Wall, following the Derrick Rose prototype, was a prohibitive RoY favorite. Blake Griffin sat out summer league. He saw Baron Davis come to training camp out of shape, demoralized by the end of the 2009-10 season after all of the work he put in during the summer of 09 to save his career, and Davis went down to injury in training camp.
Griffin’s long awaited NBA debut was impressive and tantalizing, but the young and unformed team had a killer schedule to open the season. 2009-10 All-Star center Chris Kaman suffered a Cliptimely foot injury, and the Clippers limped to a 1-13 record and their starting lineup was a U-23 team. And that’s when Blake Griffin’s patience ended, and he took over and he and Eric Gordon turned the Clippers into must-see NBA TV and he played his way to an All-Star berth. Griffin’s extraordinary rookie season is part of NBA statistical and highlight history, second only to Magic joining Kareem.
And now? What else, more patience. But here’s the thing: Blake Griffin has become very good at being patient. He knows how it works, what it can do, what it means. He showed last year how to turn it to spectacular advantage. Last preseason I had an inkling that Griffin’s focus and patience might produce strong results, that he should be remembered and considered, and he might have a knack for turning negatives into positives. That’s how humility works, I’m told.
And through the lockout I’ve been thinking that the stoppage is a natural matter of course, a routine setback for Clipper fans at the moment of the most eagerly anticipated season in franchise history. Yes, NBA fans, the best explanation for a cancelled season is probably the fact that if the Clippers play they will be good and even spectacular. That can’t happen, and the Fates are at a loss, trying to decide how to save the game and torture the Clippers in one breath, while their aesthetic and Griffin’s beastly strength makes them hesitate to play the injury card again so soon.
But it scares me, as it probably scares them, to look at the moment from Blake Griffin’s perspective. He waits, and that’s something he has gotten very good at, much better than you or me and probably most of the players in the NBA. He grows stronger, better, gains maturity and insight and self-knowledge, just as he did at Oklahoma and carrying a Clipboard on the sidelines. Sadly, I fear nothing less that an NBA apocalypse, either a complete NBA labor meltdown, or Donald Sterling holding the Larry O’Brien trophy, whichever comes first.