'By No Means Hollywood'

Blake Griffin could have sulked after he was traded last season, but, instead, he's become the leader the Pistons needed to get back to the playoffs and has found Detroit feels a lot more like home than L.A. ever did.
photo of Ric BucherRic Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterApril 13, 2019

The bubble tea cafe where Blake Griffin wants to meet is the kind of place that would seemingly appeal to someone marooned in Michigan and pining for a cup of cutesy SoCal funk. The walls are painted flat black, the ceiling covered in gold metallic tile. Big black canisters of tea with names like Rooibos and Silver Needle sit on shelves behind the counter. Quilted pillows are scattered on the benches, and pennies, trapped under a layer of silicone, cover the circular tables.

The place is packed. If anyone recognizes the 6'10" star of the Detroit Pistons, they don't show it. And if going unnoticed bothers Griffin, he doesn't show it, either. He orders a large iced vanilla berry tea, which has neither caffeine nor sugar, and suggests a walk down the street to a quieter spot, The Townsend Hotel, where visiting teams often stayed before the Pistons moved from The Palace at Auburn Hills to a new arena in downtown Detroit. "Forgot it was spring break," he says of the cafe. "There's usually nobody there, maybe one student in the corner on a laptop."

Add the notion that Blake is pining for anything in SoCal, other than time with his two kids who live with their mom, Blake's former girlfriend Brynn Cameron, to the long list of misconceptions and titillating rumors that hang on Griffin the same way defenders do when he makes a move to the basket. Example: A visiting media relations executive, upon hearing that a writer is working on a Griffin story, casually says he heard Griffin had bought a 200-acre parcel in the area. "I have good yard space, but…no," he says, offering a taste of his deadpan sense of humor.

Here's something that is true: leaving behind a life of movie roles (The Female Brain), dating celebrities (Kendall Jenner), producing TV shows (Comedy by Blake), making commercials (KIA) and doing stand-up (Laugh Factory) has not been a struggle. At all.

"As far as getting settled and feeling at home here, it was so easy, because it feels so much like Oklahoma," he says. "You live 20 miles from somewhere, it takes you 20 minutes to get there. It's not like L.A., five miles takes you 30 minutes. I'm used to this type of flow, this type of feel. For the first 19 years of my life, this is all I knew until I went to L.A. And even then, when I needed to get away and really recharge, I'd go home to Oklahoma. I don't think people saw that.

[In Detroit], people always say, 'We appreciate what you're doing.' No one ever said that in L.A.
— Blake Griffin

"I've always described it as everybody comes to L.A. to see a famous person, so it's almost like everybody is on the lookout. I truly believe that. Everybody is, like, 'OK, we could see somebody at any second.' And when one person sees you, it doesn't matter if people know you or not. It's 'Hey, can I get a picture—and who are you?'

"Here, people always say, 'We appreciate what you're doing.' No one ever said that in LA. Which is a really cool thing to hear."

Perhaps that's why helping the Pistons squeak into the playoffs on the final day of the season seems to mean as much or more to him as being part of the high-flying Lob City crew that led the Clippers to six consecutive postseason appearances, thereby shedding a long-held reputation as one of the league's most miserable franchises.

"People believe me now; they didn't believe me at the time," he says. "I was looking forward to a fresh start, doing something different. It was time ... I still feel pride in being part of the group of players that went to six straight playoff appearances. And that's the same way I look at this situation. Even if they traded me this summer, I always like that challenge and it's something coach [Dwane] Casey and I talk a lot about, which is building the foundation of this franchise."

His run with the Clippers ended midway through last season when he served as the centerpiece of a trade that brought them Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a protected first-round pick and a future second-rounder. If that sounds like a haul, well, the Pistons were getting a six-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA second-team selection and slam dunk champion. The all-around dynamic kind of star that generally doesn't choose to go to franchises with long, frigid winters, especially ones with one playoff appearance in a stretch of nine seasons.

With Blake Griffin's arrival via trade in January 2018, the Pistons felt they had acquired not just a star but a team leader.
With Blake Griffin's arrival via trade in January 2018, the Pistons felt they had acquired not just a star but a team leader.Brian Sevald/Getty Images

"We were looking to acquire a leader, a star, a player who could move us forward," Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem says. "Blake, in all aspects, has exceeded our expectations."

Still, his arrival in January of 2018 wasn't enough to get the franchise back into the playoffs last season, leading to questions at the start of this one about whether he had the desire and ability to turn around the Pistons' fortunes. Casey found an answer to the first part when he went to visit Griffin in L.A. after being hired to replace Stan Van Gundy last summer.

"I knew he was a great athlete," Casey says. "But I went to see him and he had six or seven guys simulating what he'd see handling the ball against different coverages. He was trying to replicate situations he'd face for us in the role we had in mind for him as a primary ball-handler and playmaker. His basketball IQ is what struck me. His basketball acumen is off the charts."

Griffin's Hollywood image, though, raised concerns in the locker room. "Having been in the limelight for so long, yeah, we wondered how he'd adjust," point guard Reggie Jackson says. "It's very different here, but he came in and embraced it. I was actually shocked by it."

Tellem is also an L.A. transplant. "He lived two blocks from me in the Pacific Palisades," Tellem says. "I was afraid he was going to get a call in the middle of February and be told it's 70 degrees there and it would be 15 degrees here and they'd be talking about a polar vortex. But having seen him over a year now, he is by no means Hollywood. To me he's more Detroit."

Those remarks, relayed to Griffin, inspire his trademark smirk and grin. After growing up on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, he'd heard similar notes of curiosity about how he'd handle a big city when the Clippers made him the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft.

Early on, I did what I did because that's what I was really good at. Just because people would say, 'Oh, he can't shoot,' I wasn't going to stop dunking. You have to stop me from doing that first.
— Griffin addressing critics who said his game wasn't well-rounded

"People would ask, 'Where are you from?' and I'd say, 'Oklahoma,'" he recalls. "They'd be, like, 'Oh, wow, how is it here?' I'd be, like, 'It's a city. It's different.' What I find interesting is how people pre-determine who you are based on where you're from. As if everybody from a certain place are all the same."

Preconceived notions have plagued Griffin in more ways than one. With a physique that Jackson compared to the Marvel Comics character "The Thing" and one of the best vertical leaps recorded for someone of his size, Griffin is the precursor of Duke's dunking phenom, Zion Williamson. What has vexed him is hearing that bullying his way to the basket and hammering the ball home is all he can do.

"I always heard I wasn't a good basketball player, that I was just a good athlete, and it bothered me so much I held ... grudges against people who put me in that box because I was so desperately trying to get out of it," he says. "Early on, I did what I did because that's what I was really good at. Just because people would say, 'Oh, he can't shoot,' I wasn't going to stop dunking. You have to stop me from doing that first. But all the while, after my second year, I was working with my shooting coach, hours upon hours. That whole time I felt like I was being shit on for this one thing and I was desperately trying to be a well-rounded player and not a weak link."

The acquisition of point guard Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets at the start of Griffin's second full season with the Clippers—he missed his entire first year with a stress fracture in his left knee cap—prevented him from showcasing his superior ball-handling and passing. A misconception grew from that as well. Paul is known for being a no-nonsense floor general and is not shy about barking at teammates who stray from what he wants done; his exchanges with Griffin left the impression that the two were wrestling for control of the team, especially after Griffin flourished as a playmaker during one of Paul's extended absences due to injury.

Blake Griffin says he wasn't vying for leadership of the Clippers with Chris Paul but that he was trying to allow Paul's vision to steer the team.
Blake Griffin says he wasn't vying for leadership of the Clippers with Chris Paul but that he was trying to allow Paul's vision to steer the team.Alonzo Adams/Associated Press/Associated Press

"When we got CP, everybody tried to make a thing out of it, like, 'Whose team is it?'" Griffin says. "I don't think as many guys care about that as they try to make it seem. If somebody said the Pistons are Andre Drummond's team, I don't care. We both know I appreciate what he does, he appreciates what I do, so it's never going to be a thing we have to think about. We both hype each other up and feed off each other. I think it was the same way in L.A. But when you get one of the best playmakers of all time and a great basketball mind and passer and leader, you're not going to take that away from him. I was fine with, 'We're going where you take us, how you see the game,' especially now. Me, now, knowing what I know now, I see how important that was. I probably fucked that up, but it wasn't intentional, I just didn't know better.

"There are times I tell Andre something, like, 'When we do this, do this.' And I can tell he's never thought of it before. I was in that same position with Chris. The magnifying glass of L.A. and people trying to make something of that turned it into what it was."

Questions about Griffin's temperament spiked when he broke his hand punching the Clippers' assistant equipment manager, Matias Testi, in a Toronto restaurant in 2016. "We were very, very close," Griffin says. "We'd hang out in the offseason, off the court, go on vacations together. He was older than me, but it was a brotherly relationship."

The previous spring, the Clippers had blown a 3-1 best-of-seven second-round series lead against the Houston Rockets. At the time of the incident with Testi, Griffin had been out nearly a month with a torn thigh muscle. The team had gone 10-1 without him, including an overtime win against those same Rockets. He had been scheduled to play on the team's five-game East Coast swing that included a stop in Toronto, but a setback in a workout right before the team left put that in doubt.

"Everywhere I looked I saw people saying the Clippers were better without me," he says. "It was something that was weighing on me, but I was supposed to play on that road trip. I was working out right before we left and they said, 'All right, we want to see you do this.' I felt like I was doing too much, but they made me do this one thing. Whatever it was, I felt something again and had a setback.

"I was supposed to play in New York but I didn't. I remember texting my trainer and saying, 'Hey, am I going to play on this trip?' And he said, 'No, I don't think it's a good idea.' And I asked, 'Well, can I go home and get good workouts?' I was having to work out in hotel gyms, and in L.A. they always left you back unless you were close to playing, so you'd go in and work out every day at the practice facility. He said, 'No, I want you to see this guy in Toronto.' So we went to Toronto. I woke up that morning to work out. I got on the (stationary) bike and I couldn't bike. My leg was killing me. We went out to dinner and basically, all this, mixed in with the wrong thing said at the wrong time—and it just happened. One punch. Broke my hand. It was just the wrong time."

Injuries, self-inflicted or otherwise, have put a damper on his last five seasons. After missing all of 2009-10, he played all 82 games, winning Rookie of the Year handily, and missed all of four regular-season games through his first four years while earning five All-Star berths in a row. Over the next four years, however, he missed 107 games.

Which is another reason this season, his ninth, looked to be so rewarding. He regained his All-Star status and played 69 of Detroit's first 72 games. Playing point forward allowed him to show off both his three-point range (36 percent on seven attempts a game) as well as his passing and decision-making. But a nagging knee issue forced him to miss four of the last seven games and measure every step even in the games he played. He will certainly face Milwaukee Bucks forward and MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo at less than full health.

With the ball in his hands more in Detroit than it was in L.A., Griffin has become the Pistons' primary facilitator this season.
With the ball in his hands more in Detroit than it was in L.A., Griffin has become the Pistons' primary facilitator this season.Nick Wass/Associated Press/Associated Press

However this season ends, Griffin has won over some of his toughest critics. From afar, he was cast as a tough guy who played soft, a bully who pummeled opponents but griped when he got the same treatment. Rick Mahorn, a bruising power forward with the Pistons' two-time champion "Bad Boys" of the late 1980s, wasn't sure Griffin had the grit to be a Piston, especially one expected to lead the team back to prominence.

"My perspective has changed," Mahorn says.

Griffin clinched Mahorn's stamp of approval on January 23, coincidentally the third anniversary of the night he punched Testi. The Pistons had just won on the road against the New Orleans Pelicans, 98-94, and Griffin had a game-high 37 points. But in the postgame interview, he criticized the team's attention to detail. As if to underscore Griffin's point, Jackson veered in and out of the camera frame with a goofy look on his face, Griffin stone-faced behind him.

"That's when I knew he was the right guy to lead this team," Mahorn says. "I like that shit."

When Jackson's antics were roasted across multiple media outlets, Griffin took him to dinner and told him he had his back but he had to cut out the antics.

"The thing he brings to the table is his understanding of what it takes to win," Casey says. "The good thing is that Reggie took it the right way."

Jackson went on a tear, as did the Pistons, winning 13 of their next 18 games.

"I had a dislike for him when I played against him," Jackson says. "He was annoying. He punishes you all day and then he gets calls. But you play with him, you see the beating he takes. It's almost disrespectful. He doesn't get enough foul calls.

"You also see how hard he works and his attention to detail. He's a guy who memorizes the schedule the day it comes out. I take it day-by-day myself."

He's like a quarterback. He's always studying.
— Pistons assistant GM Malik Rose on Griffin's approach to the game

Griffin's focus on maximizing his game applies to everything. He doesn't drink caffeine during the season. He employs both a personal chef and personal therapist and trainer. He has his blood routinely tested, and after finding out he had unusual levels of arsenic, he pinpointed it to his consumption of Fiji-brand water (which reportedly had once been found to contain the element in some small amounts). He now has shipments of a new brand of water sent to his house. Anytime he heads to the bench during a game, he will have assistant coach Sean Sweeney hand him an iPad to review video of certain plays to see if there was something he missed in reading the defense's alignment.

"He's like a quarterback," assistant GM Malik Rose says. "He's always studying."

Credit the diet, bookish habits and natural curiosity to his parents, both teachers. His mom had him and his older brother, Taylor, on a healthy diet as kids.

"My brother and I were drinking barley green juice every morning," Blake says. "My friends would come over and we'd always say, 'All right, let's give 'em some,' and none of my friends could drink it. And my brother and I would just down it every morning. Or, like, fish oil. We've taken fish oil for so long. Nobody in Oklahoma in the '90s was doing that. I don't see eating healthy as a chore. I'm like, 'Oh, those Brussels sprouts sound good!'"

His dad was their high school basketball coach but also had them try every sport imaginable—golf, baseball, soccer, swimming. Blake played the drums, Taylor learned how to play guitar.

"I feel like I'm comfortable doing a lot of different things because I've always done a lot of different things," he says. "We had to learn how to apply information. And I think that's a much bigger thing. People might know the mitochondria of a cell, but what is the job of the mitochondria? I'm very, very thankful for that. It allows me to relate to a lot of different people. I can sit down and talk to whoever, and I'm not that talkative of a person."

Zaza Pachulia, who joined the Pistons this season after winning back-to-back championships with the Warriors, traded his share of elbows with Griffin when they were both in the Pacific Division. As a teammate, he compared Griffin's combination of talent and humility with the stars of his former team—Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. Pachulia and Griffin share a fondness for the same Greek island, Mykonos, and plan to vacation there together this summer. "There are superstars you can't even talk to or joke with," Pachulia says. "You're just a co-worker. He's one of the coolest and best teammates I've had."

If there's anyone Griffin doesn't have much to say to it's the Clippers' brain trust—not because they traded him but how. As a free agent in the summer of 2017, they asked him to sign his contract extension sooner rather than later so they could turn to pursuing other free agents. They then asked him to help recruit, even going so far as having him cut short a family vacation to meet with fellow free agent Danilo Gallinari.

Griffin has tried to make the Pistons understand the serious effort needed to win, leading Detroit to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Griffin has tried to make the Pistons understand the serious effort needed to win, leading Detroit to the playoffs for the first time in three years.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press/Associated Press

Seven months later, when a friend first alerted him there were rumors he could be dealt to Detroit, Griffin approached GM Lawrence Frank, who Griffin said promised if anything went down he'd be the first to know. Shortly after leaving Frank's office, Griffin heard from his friend again that the deal was being finalized. Reports on social media soon followed. By then he'd picked up his kids and was playing with them on a trampoline. When he saw Frank's name appear on his phone, then coach Doc Rivers, he declined to pick up.

"By that time I was fully with my kids," he says. "My reaction was more about how it went down. I spent time on the phone with different guys trying to convince them, 'Hey, come to this place.' I did that, gladly. I wanted to help our team. So I just saw it going differently. If they had called me or called my agent and said, 'Hey, we're going to move some things around,' I would've been, 'I get it.' It's just the way that it went down left a bad taste in my mouth."

The feelings linger. Asked if Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, Rivers and Frank were in shark-infested waters and who his choice would be if he could only save one of them, Griffin laughs. "I've got a boat?" he asks. "I'd probably just say, 'Guys, swim here, whoever gets to the boat first, I'll help you in. That's an honest answer. I don't know that I'd start going out of my way and I'm not jumping out of the boat, for sure."

For the most part, though, Griffin is at peace with whatever misperceptions remain about what kind of player, or person, he is.

"I'll look back at this as a pivotal year for me in terms of being comfortable and letting go, no matter how it turns out," he says. "At the beginning of the year I was thinking of a word for what I wanted this season to be all about. I always felt like I was on a good trajectory for my career and a couple of injuries here and there plateaued me. ...  I do everything in my power not to have those injuries but sometimes they just happen. So this year it was more about re-establishing rather than transforming."

Griffin turned 30 in March, a milestone, particularly for athletes, that looms large. He admits that age has mellowed him, but he can't help but laugh when his friends ask how turning 30 feels.

"That question always gets me," he says. "I always feel like I'm at my best whatever age I am. I've applied what I've learned. I'm very comfortable and willing to live with exactly who I am because I feel much better when I am just myself and I don't have to hold back. As I've gotten older, I don't hold as many grudges and I don't have to feel I have to hold back. You say what you say and live with the consequences. I hope I'm never one of those people looking back and saying, 'Man, I wish I was (a certain age) again.' Being in this moment is always fun."

Who he is, where he is and what he's being asked to do—Griffin is comfortable with it all. Leave it to a jokester to find his Hollywood ending in Detroit.

     

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.


Former Los Angeles Times and ESPN columnist J.A. Adande (now the Director of Sports Journalism and an Associate Professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism) joins Howard Beck on The Full 48 podcast to discuss Magic Johnson's sudden resignation as president of the Los Angeles Lakers.

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