Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers is so important

When he comes to Portland, go and see him. Atlanta, too. Hell, if he comes to Tootgarook, he’ll pack the house.

I’m waxing lyrical about Blake Griffin, the NBA’s standout rookie of 2010-2011. Astonishingly, he plays for the Los Angeles Clippers whose name has been the shorthand for crap in American sports for the entire length of their existence.

After spending all of his first year in the league injured, Griffin is making up for those lost minutes this season. He’s currently averaging 22.5 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest, about on par with the all-time greatest modern-era rookie seasons (by Michael Jordan and David Robinson). The last twenty-seven straight games he`s tallied double figures in both points and rebounds, while his 47 points against Indiana on Martin Luther King Day were the most by any player this year.

Not only do his skills get results, but those results come in the most incredible manner. Griffin’s game is predicated on his nonpareil athleticism and his first thoughts are to dunk on his opponent, whoever it is, time and again. Even the increasing numbers of hoop-o-philes who think the dunk is overrated love seeing Griffin cram it down on yet another big fella. This has led him to be the most searched basketballer on YouTube and his three dunks on the New York Knicks in December have become the stuff of legend. He’s got “Dunk of the Year” all sewn up, and probably the minor placings as well. Blake Griffin would throw it down on a T-Rex.

(Hint: watch the clip, it’s going to be important later on)

And he’s the most important player in the NBA right now.

This young man, who displays all the likeable aspects of Shawn Kemp’s early years (before the before the sulking-about-Jim-McIlvaine’s-contract era, well in advance of the dozen-ish paternity suit era and definitely pre the “Why is he wearing a fat suit”? years) and none of the sass that has come to characterise today’s NBA players could represent the most marketable force that David Stern has at his command for the next decade.

The NBA is in a tough place right now. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement finishes at the end of this season and Players Union and the Owners Collective seem too far apart in negotiations as to the division of the $4 billion revenues of the NBA is shared between players and owners. If they can’t agree on a new pay scale, it will result in a “lockout” where owners shut down the league until a compromise is reached. The players aren’t paid, the owners don’t get the crowd/concession dollars and it’s eminently possible the 2011-2012 NBA season just won’t happen.

When the NBA resumes –before or after the new season is called a wash – it’s going to need to market itself as new, exciting and most importantly of all, able to keep its own house in order. It’s only now the NHL has recovered from their 2004-05 lockout behind concepts like the Winter Classic, a new All-Star Game format and most importantly, marketable stars who can be divided along comic book lines into heroes and villains. For the heroes, Canada’s Own Sidney Crosby is the man every mother wants their daughter to marry; while the villains sport the Washington Capitals Russian sniper Alex Ovechkin, who looks like a Bond villain and loves to be the enemy. Younger guys like Steven Stamkos, Milan Lucic and John Tavares are the next generation in hockey’s goodies-versus-baddies evolution.

The NBA are going to promote heavily to reattract attention to a league, which while still in good health, hasn’t been able to cope with Michael Jordan’s 1998 departure from Chicago. Major market teams – with the exception of the Los Angeles Lakers – have slumped over the past decade: New York’s revitalisation this year is their first whimper of competitiveness in ten years, Chicago have had a few good teams but many years of heartache. Despite a recent revival, the same could be said for the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets. The LA-based Clippers have been a laughing stock their entire existence.

One potential league-defining player after another has come into the game – first Shaq, then Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and now Blake Griffin – and none of them have managed to excite and capture the imagination of fans and mug punters alike like MJ. Several have had major and public flaws which decrease their market potential: Kobe his much-publicised run in with the law in Colorado; Allen Iverson was perhaps too “ghetto” for White America; Vince Carter’s career highlight was this dunk in the 2000 Sydney Olympics – and hasn't been the same since, quitting on every pro team he's ever been on. LeBron James’ 2010 was the greatest heel turn in Pro Sports history as he ditched hometown Cleveland for the sun, women and decreased responsibility of Miami. Durant – still plies his trade in Oklahoma City, perhaps the league’s smallest market and is, like Griffin, a low-key guy so execs are faced with the unenviable task of selling a small-town, low-key Midwest guy to New Yorkers or Southern Californians.

With LeBron now joining the “baddies” of Miami, the NBA needs a star in a big market who the crowds can get behind and support; the type of guy where people tune into SportsCenter just to see what amazing stuff he’s done. LeBron was the league’s best hope to be that amazing, likeable fella but when he “took my talents to South Beach”, his heel turn was rivalled only by American Hero Hulk Hogan joining the nWo. Griffin is David Stern’s best hope to be the frontman for The Rebel Alliance against the dark tyranny of a LeBron/Wade/Bosh led Empire.

Why can he do such things? Going back to the video clip, did you see how he reacted after posterizing the Knicks’ Center Mozgov? He was fully aware of how incredible he’d just been, but celebrated only mildly with his teammates, then went and sank the free-throw he’d earned by giving Mozgov a groin to the face. No crazy spinning in circles, no screams. Contrastingly, Carter’s dunk over Weis led “Half Man, Half Amazing” to scream like a monkey on heat. There’s no comparison. People get behind Blake Griffin because he doesn’t strut – “strutting” and “Oklahoma” seem mutually exclusive, don’t they? He just wants to play basketball. And if he plays basketball, he gets to dunk on chumps.

Much like the guy whose aggressiveness he resembles (Kemp), he’s also a Hall-of-Fame type talent, only Griffin seems grounded enough to not let the fame, floozies and transfats go to his head – or arse, delete as appropriate. He could average 24/14 for twelve years and with his talents combined with those of SG Eric Gordon, there’s the chance he could win one of the toughest battles in sport and lead the Clippers – the Clippers! – into respectability. Should he stay healthy – touch wood – Blake Griffin, his dunks and his simple ordinariness is what the NBA can build around when the coming lockout ends. Not quite 22 years old, he can be the face of the league as the NBA battles to regain popularity in the crowded US sports market.

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