Blake Griffin becomes the NBA’s reluctant new celebrity

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Blake Griffin wants to be just a regular guy.

Not on the court — there he is fully at home on the stage. There he wants to win. He wants to destroy you. And dunk on you ferociously.

But when your dunks electrify stadiums and bring life to a dormant franchise, when you have the kind of athletic gifts Griffin does, there is no being a regular guy off the court.

Especially not in Los Angeles, where people make a career out of latching on to the new, hot thing. Not in a city where Rihanna stops by outside the Clippers locker room to say “hi.” Especially not All-Star weekend, when his viral fame is about to explode into the national spotlight.

But Griffin comes from a different world than the bright lights of Hollywood. He’s an Oklahoma kid, born and raised.

“I miss my family and friends the most,” Griffin said. “Also I miss being just a regular guy – the relative anonymity that being from Oklahoma City brings.”

His ties to those Oklahoma roots were in evidence Wednesday, when media entered the Clipper locker room post game to see Griffin with his head in his hands, distraught. He had just learned an old friend from Oklahoma, a former teammate and Tulsa football player, had died from cancer.

Griffin may live near the beach now, but he is as connected to home as ever. He admits there are things to like about Los Angeles — the restaurants, the weather, the beach — but Griffin is not going Hollywood. He’s still an Oklahoma boy at heart, with a different makeup than many who gravitate to Los Angeles.

“I’ll never change who I am. ‘Celebrity’ is really not who I am,” Griffin said. “That does not motivate me at all. Wanting to be the best player that I can be and help my team win games is all the motivation I need.”

But make no mistake, he is a celebrity. He certainly is in NBA circles. The NBA is already a league of guys who won the genetic lottery, yet his NBA peers see Griffin as a freak of nature. Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James tweet about his dunks. On more than one occasion I’ve heard NBA players ask, as they are dressing after their game, if Griffin played that night because they wanted to catch his highlights.

His powerful, fearsome dunks have propelled him to being a huge favorite heading into Saturday night’s All-Star Dunk Contest. But staged dunks for this exhibition are different than throwing it down in a game.

“I don’t think any of that bothers him. I really don’t,” said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro of the difference. “It’s just his personality, he loves the stage, he’s a competitive kid and loves the challenge of it. This is just another thing for him to excel at.”

Griffin is much more than dunks, though. Other teams are learning that the hard way. He’s got a midrange game that is coming along. As the double teams have started to come earlier and harder this season, Griffin has shown a real patience with the ball and ability to make the correct pass out of the post.

“I am proud of my passing and I really think that my motor is helping out a lot this season,” Griffin said. “I have always prided myself on playing hard every play. I feel I have done that. I would like to improve on my outside shot to make it a consistent weapon and to become a better free throw shooter.”

Griffin was the No. 1 pick in 2009, but missed all of his first season in the NBA due to a stress fracture in his left kneecap, something he injured landing on a preseason dunk, in what seemed an innocuous play at the time. That meant he got to learn some things just watching the NBA up close. He was with the team at every game, in a suit just behind the bench.

But watching and actually playing through the physical and mental grind of a full NBA season are different things. He’s not sure if the physical or mental side is harder.

“Both are extremely hard adjustments,” Griffin said. “I have taken a lot of double teams and have been defended very physically. I am at the tail end of my first extended road trip and it is very tiring. It is hard to recall where exactly you are (literally) at times!”

Somehow you have no doubt Griffin will adjust to the physical on the court challenges.

Off the court, here’s to hoping he never really changes — we don’t need more celebrities in the NBA. We need more guys with a real passion for the game. We need more Griffins.

Kobe Bryant said he traveled by helicopter to spend more time with kids

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Kobe Bryant was such a superstar, his method of transportation to and from practice – helicopter – became a sensation.

Bryant died in a helicopter crash Sunday. In an old interview, he described why he traveled by helicopter.

Kobe Bryant on The Corp:

Traffic started getting really, really bad. Right? And I was sitting in traffic, and I wound up missing a school play, because I was sitting in traffic. And these things just kept mounting. I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft, but still not compromise family time. And so that’s when I looked into helicopters and being able to get down and back in 15 minutes. And that’s when it started. So, my routine was always the same. Weights early in the morning, kids to school, fly down, practice like crazy, do my extra work, media, everything I needed to do, fly back, get back in the carpool line, pick the kids up. And my wife was like, “Listen, I can pick them up.” I’m like, “No, no, no. I want to do that.” Because you have road trips and times where you’re not – you don’t see your kids, you know? So, every chance I get to see them and spend time with them, even if it’s 20 minutes in the car, I want that.

The irony and tragedy of Bryant and his daughter dying in a helicopter crash is just gut-wrenching.

Grizzlies call up Josh Jackson from minor league

Josh Jackson
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A few months ago, the Grizzlies thought so little of Josh Jackson, they didn’t even bring him to training camp. He remained on an NBA contract. Memphis gained no roster or salary-cap flexibility. The Grizzlies planned to send him to their minor-league affiliate, but the Hustle hadn’t yet opened their training camp. There was nowhere else for Jackson to be. The Grizzlies just didn’t want him around.

Now, Jackson will get his chance on the parent club.

Grizzlies:

The No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Jackson still has a lot to prove with his maturity, professionalism and production.

But this is an opportunity – for Memphis to showcase him before next week’s trade deadline and for Jackson to showcase himself before unrestricted free agency next summer.

Grayson Allen is injured. Jae Crowder is also banged up. Jackson could actually receive playing time.

Kobe Bryant’s death a unique tragedy

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson
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Magic Johnson – one of the NBA’s brightest stars – stood behind a podium, smiled and shook the world. Johnson had HIV and was retiring from the Lakers, he announced. Confusion, speculation and, most prominently, grief followed. Everyone thought he’d die. Charles Barkley said, “It’s kind of like somewhat of a death of a brother.” Larry Bird called it “probably the toughest day I’ve had since my father passed away, and I’ve been very depressed and sort of been out of it.” Pat Riley called for a moment of silence before a game.

More than 28 years later, Johnson mourned Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s death yesterday was the tragedy everyone believed Johnson’s diagnosis to be. Sudden. Crushing. Unbelievable. All the same emotions came pouring out. Except this time there was no mistaking the finality.

Johnson has continued living, thriving, inspiring. He’s a renowned businessman, beloved celebrity and fantastic ambassador for basketball. It’s the type of retirement expected for Bryant, because why wouldn’t it be?

The NBA has grown accustomed to its titans aging gracefully. Unlike baseball, the NBA hasn’t existed long enough for multiple generations of old-timers to pass away. Unlike football, the NBA doesn’t subject its players to such traumatic physical tolls.

Just two MVPs in all of NBA history had died, Wilt Chamberlain (age 63 in 1999) and Moses Malone (age 60 in 2015), and those deaths felt far too soon.

Bryant was only 41.

Just four All-Stars died younger. Don Sunderlage was in a car crash at age 31 in 1961. Maurice Stokes suffered a head injury during a game, became paralyzed then – after teammate Jack Twyman cared for him for 12 years – died at age 36 in 1970. Pete Maravich had a heart issue while playing pickup basketball at age 40 in 1988. Reggie Lewis suffered a heart attack during what should have been the midst of his career at age 27 in 1993.

Lewis – like Len Bias (who died of a cocaine overdose at age 22 in 1986) and Drazen Petrovic (who died in a car crash at age 28 in 1993) – never got to fulfill their potentials. That creates its own kind of anguish.

There is no analogue to Bryant’s death.

Bryant’s accomplishments – one MVP, five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, 11 All-NBA first teams, two All-NBA second teams, two All-NBA third teams and 18 All-Star appearances – place him among the very greatest of all-time greats. No player anywhere near that stature had ever died anywhere near this young.

Bryant could be charming and ruthless, sometimes simultaneously. His play and conduct earned him loyal fans and harsh critics. The never-ending Kobe debates seemed only to inflame the passion of his supporters.

Few adored him like fellow NBA players. They admired his skill and determination. He responded by mentoring many. It’s difficult to overstate just how cherished Bryant was in this league.

Few understand the cold realities of the NBA like Austin Rivers. He grew up with his father, Doc Rivers, frequently gone playing and coaching. As a result, they aren’t particularly close. Now an NBA player himself, Austin speaks of their distant relationship with far more acceptance than wistfulness. He’s too focused on competing to do much else.

Yesterday, Austin cried on the court:

Then, explained how little he cared about the Rockets losing a basketball game:

Others shed tears in arenas around the country. The NBA could have cancelled yesterday’s games. Playing while grieving proved difficult for many.

There was just no good way to handle the loss. Mere moments of silence felt insufficient.

The Spurs and Raptors began their game yesterday with shot-clock violations in honor of his No. 24. Other teams exchanged a shot-clock violation and eight-second violation in honor of his other number. Trae Young wore No. 8.

Other tributes popped up around the world. Bryant was a global icon.

He was also a loving father. As incredibly wide as this tragedy lands, it also cuts unimaginably deep. Bryant’s daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, also died in the helicopter crash.

Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2018, Bryant just lit up when discussing her:

Bryant’s death is devastating – for those touched closely and, because of its unparalleled nature, even those not. Nobody was ready for this.

It’s a punch in the gut. The basketball world – which expanded far larger than imaginable in 1991, when Johnson made his announcement, because of people like Bryant – remains in a daze.

In wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, Kendrick Perkins seeks forgiveness from Kevin Durant

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins
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Kevin Durant once called Kendrick Perkins his favorite teammate of all-time.

A couple weeks ago, they were beefing on Twitter,exchanging barbs that didn’t look as friendly as previously.

Kobe Bryant’s tragic death has Perkins reflecting.

Perkins:

Good for Perkins. Amid all the sorrow, Bryant’s death creates an opportunity for people to re-assess their priorities. Grudges almost always aren’t worth it.