To meet Blake Griffin, you have to do it in secret.
It's a picturesque summer day in Santa Monica, Calif., but you're in a dimly lit hallway, wandering through labyrinthine passages on the third level of a giant multi-story outdoor mall.
Every so often you pass someone decked out in Jordan Brand gear, who's tasked with making sure that every detail today goes according to plan. Griffin is set to appear at an event promoting his new shoes this evening, and he will judge an amateur dunk contest out on the mall. Until then, he must remain hidden from the quickly growing crowd of fans outside in addition to the usual mall inhabitants—moppy haired boys with skateboards on their shoulders and girls dragging their mothers into Forever 21.
But you're with STACK, so the Jordan reps working the event wave you through to the mall's hidden chambers. You press on and plunge deeper into the retail maze, and just when you're beginning to feel hopelessly lost, you arrive at a doorway. It opens into a vast room that looks like a deserted storefront. The walls are pale white, the ceiling and floor dull gray. The space is scattered with makeshift cubicles and metallic chairs, where more members of the publicity team are working frantically to prepare for Griffin's arrival—and for the start of the event later that evening. They welcome you to take a seat. Blake should be here shortly.
When Griffin arrives 15 minutes later, surrounded by yet another support team, the room comes to a halt. He's wearing a blue zip-up and gray sweats tucked underneath the tongues of a set of Jordan Super.Fly 2s, the signature sneaker he's there to promote. As he makes his way toward you, there's a flurry of activity around him—everyone wants to make sure things go perfectly inside this secret location. You can hear someone fire up music outside on the mall, and an MC on a mic warming up the crowd. Based on the frequent cheers and chants, the spectators do not need much help.
Amid all the activity, Griffin is calm and relaxed. When he sits down with you to talk about what he cares about most—his lofty basketball goals, and work to achieve them—he seems almost relieved. His soft-spoken, down-to-earth demeanor make it seem as if someone has forgotten to tell him that he is one of the NBA's biggest superstars, and that the huge event and massive crowd outside are all about him. He's 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, but looks even bigger in person thanks to a set of broad shoulders and a build that looks like it was carved out of marble. But he makes it clear that he wasn't always built this way.
"Any time people see a muscle-y little kid, they're like, 'aw, it's little you,'" Griffin says. "But when I was growing up, I was really skinny. I was long and gangly. My high school teammates called me Tayshaun Prince up until my junior year, when I put on some weight."
Griffin's junior year of high school turned out to be his breakout year. First, that's when he finally grew into his big frame. Second, he came into his own at Oklahoma's Christian School, stepping up after his older brother, Taylor, graduated and left the team after steering it to two Oklahoma state championships. Griffin kept the title streak going, scoring a team-high 22 points in the state final. His play that season put him on many recruiters' radars, but he decided to follow Taylor to Oklahoma University, where the older Griffin was already a starter on an emerging team. Blake committed to be a Sooner, added one more state championship as a senior, and then headed to college.
"Oklahoma's not necessarily known as a basketball state," Blake says. "It helped me become a leader as far as basketball goes because I had that spotlight on me at a young age."
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Griffin's impact on the Sooners was immediate. The team's record improved by seven wins during his freshman season, and the Sooners returned to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus. Oklahoma opened Griffin's sophomore year with a 25-1 run before stumbling a bit late in the season while he was sidelined with a concussion; but the team recovered in time to play deep into the NCAA tournament. They eventually fell to North Carolina in the Elite Eight, but not before Griffin became the consensus number one pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
Griffin declared for the draft, the Los Angeles Clippers selected him first overall, and suddenly he was leaving Oklahoma's flatlands for the Pacific Ocean and Hollywood Hills.
"At Oklahoma, coach [Jeff] Cable was trying to rebuild something," Griffin says. "I think that prepared me a lot for what happened next. I wasn't worried about the history of the Clippers."
Good thing Griffin didn't concern himself with the team's history, because prior to his arrival, it was rough. And Griffin had a big adjustment to make in Los Angeles. "Oklahoma and L.A. are nothing alike," he says. "My first year I stayed close to our [team's] facility, and there were about three or four places I'd go to every day."
The Clippers, meanwhile, were the laughingstock of the NBA, coming off a 19-63 record. Fans looked to Griffin to be the savior of the franchise. But in the final pre-season game of what was supposed to be his rookie year, he landed awkwardly after a dunk and broke his left kneecap. The surgery that followed prevented him from seeing the court at all.
When Griffin returned for his sophomore season, however, he was fully healthy, and the Clippers win total steadily began to rise. The team has continued to improve every year since, reaching the playoffs in each of the past two seasons—a remarkable feat considering the Clips played in the post-season only four times during the previous 30 years. During their first playoff run, L.A. overcame a 27-point deficit to knock off the Memphis Grizzlies in a game that remains Griffin's favorite as an NBA player.
"That's something I'll never forget," he says.
The team has amassed a wealth of talent around Griffin, adding Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan. But Griffin knows he's still the motor that powers the Clippers. After he sprained his ankle during the opening round of the playoffs last year, his stats plummeted—and the team ultimately suffered a first round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
"It's very frustrating," Griffin told reporters at the time.
To prevent that from happening again, Griffin redoubled his commitment to training this past off-season, working with Clippers strength and conditioning coach Richard Williams to improve his cardio conditioning and core strength. The result? He started this season in the best shape of his career.
"When I first started, it was definitely a struggle," Griffin says of the conditioning workout he performed over the summer. Williams, a triathlete, added swimming and cycling to Griffin's routine. The regimen included pool sprints, an exercise called "Tarzans," where Griffin had to swim lengths of the pool without using his legs, and the ominously-named "Lung Busters," where the goal is to swim seven strokes without taking a breath.
"My upper body would get so tired," Griffin says of the routine. "Now it's more of a cardio thing because my body and muscles are used to it."
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Griffin also focused on developing his core with exercises like Med Ball Push-Ups, Split Squats and Swiss Ball Bridges—all moves that stabilize and strengthen the trunk from the ground up.
"Grabbing rebounds, pulling them down, holding my position in the post on defense—there is nothing that the core can't help with," Griffin says. He also credits core strength for making him more durable. "I have some issues with my back, but as long as I keep my core as strong as possible, those issues kind of go away."
So far, the work has paid off. The Clips are off to a hot start again this season, and Griffin is averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds per night. He's been especially effective in a post-up position, just outside the key with his back to the basket. Griffin is scoring on 50 percent of those possessions. And defensively, he's performing even better, allowing opponents to score on just 35 percent of possessions when he's guarding the post.
"People think the stronger you are in the upper body, the better you'll be," Griffin says. "But a lot of time, the strongest-looking guys are the easiest ones to push around because, from the waist down, they aren't strong."
The California sun sets, and Griffin is finally released from captivity to descend onto a temporary basketball court on the first level of the mall. A crowd of Clippers fans and curious onlookers surrounding the installation bursts into cheers when he walks onto a stage nearby.
The soft-spoken Griffin doesn't look entirely at ease. Even after four years of playing in front of thousands of fans, he still seems to feel uncomfortable as the center of attention. He warms up as the event moves along. But when the host, Sterling "Steelo" Brim of MTV's "Ridiculousness," prods him to perform "The Robot" for the crowd, Griffin seems to want no part of it.
"No one wants to see that," he says, with a wry smile that screams "Get me out of here!"
But egged on a little more by Brim, and the crowd, Griffin obliges, to the delight of his fans who shower him with a mixture of applause and giddy laughter.
The event ends, and on the next day Griffin returns to the grind—cycling, swimming and building his core—all in the hopes of holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy over his head when the NBA Finals end in June. If that happens, Griffin will need more than a vacant storefront in a California mall to stay hidden.
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