SACRAMENTO, Calif. – While most of the Los Angeles Clippers had already dressed and headed for the team bus long after yet another loss, Blake Griffin(notes) continued to linger in the locker room, taking the opportunity to catch his breath after a month that taxed him in so, so many different ways.
From the death of a close friend to his whirlwind All-Star weekend to a schedule that had the Clippers on the road for 11 consecutive games, February drained Griffin – even though the rookie's exhaustion has yet to show much on the court.
"I'm better now," Griffin said. "The biggest thing was I've never had to deal with anything like that before all piled on top of each other."
Nothing has weighed on Griffin more than the death of Wilson Holloway, a close friend and former high school teammate. Shortly after the Clippers' last game before the All-Star break, Griffin received a phone call in the visiting locker room in Minnesota that Holloway had died from complications of Hodgkin's lymphoma. The day after the All-Star game, Griffin was one of the pallbearers at Holloway's funeral in Oklahoma City. The Clippers played in Oklahoma City the following day for Griffin's first NBA game in his hometown. When he first noticed the game on the schedule last summer, he planned to leave tickets for Holloway.
"It's been really hard on him," said Gail Griffin, Griffin's mother. "I've been hurting for Blake. We loved Wilson, too. Anybody that knew Wilson dearly loved him."
Blake's All-Star schedule didn't give him much time to grieve. He played in the rookie game then won the dunk contest the following night by memorably jumping over the hood of a sedan. Griffin's parents were stunned as they watched from the stands.
"I was like, 'Oh dear,' " Gail said. "When the car came out, we didn't know. Blake loves surprises. He likes to surprise people and he didn't tell us.
"When I saw the car it really scared me because I thought if he misses … the car wins."
Blake capped the weekend by totaling eight points, five rebounds and five assists in just 14 minutes in the All-Star game. West coach Gregg Popovich had warned both Blake and Kevin Love(notes) they likely wouldn't play much.
"He said that we were going to get screwed," Blake said.
That likely won't happen again. Kobe Bryant(notes) remains the king of L.A. after helping the Lakers win five championships. But even after an MVP performance in the All-Star game, Bryant conceded that Blake's stardom could eventually eclipse his.
"I've had my time," Bryant said, "and it's his time now."
Despite Blake's growing fame – his athleticism and stunning dunks have already made him one of the game's brightest young stars – his parents are confident he will continue to be the same humble person they home-schooled in Oklahoma. Even as his career continues to expand in the shadow of Hollywood.
"He's really low-key and his head isn't going to swell with what's going on," said Tommy Griffin, Blake's father. "He does what he needs to do with the popularity. …Considering his age, he's handled it like a seasoned vet."
Blake has noticed one downside to his sudden stardom: Some of the people around him have changed.
"Different people asking for stuff that you wouldn't expect them to ask for or expecting stuff that you wouldn't expect them to ask for," he said. "At the same time, when that happens, you can find out who you can really trust."
Blake also received a quick lesson in how the business side of the NBA works when the Clippers traded Baron Davis(notes) to the Cleveland Cavaliers for guard Mo Williams(notes) and Jamario Moon(notes) at the deadline. Davis was always quick to act as Blake's big brother on the court, standing up to opponents who tried to cheap-shot the rookie.
"It's almost like how 'Bron was when he was a rook," Williams said. "It's only going to grow. Next year it's going to get worse and each season after that it's going to get worse."
Blake's more immediate challenge is to expand his game and make the Clippers a consistent winner. Scouts think that once Blake develops a dependable midrange shot, his offensive skills will be comparable to those of New York Knicks All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire(notes). Blake also needs to improve his free-throw shooting and better develop his left hand.
"Everything is moving in the right direction," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "There is a process involved. You can't rush it. All those things he's going to get because of his skill set and his work ethic."
With such a trying month behind him, Blake sees no reason to worry about the future. He turns 22 this month and has what appears to be a bright, bright future ahead of him.
"I don't feel like I've done too much," Blake said, "or done anything that I haven't been able to handle."