LOS ANGELES – Everyone else on these Los Angeles Clippers had disappeared down the hallway and toward the locker room, leaving behind one more snapshot from decades of disappointment. Only, Blake Griffin(notes) wouldn’t move. He stood there, ball tucked under his arm, and stared across the Staples Center floor. He wore that ghastly, gaunt Clippers face, and watched the NBA champions cackle.
“I was just thinking, ‘Wow, that really happened,' ” he would say quietly at his locker later.
Wow, it really happened, an epic meltdown that human resources can splice right into the franchise’s orientation video for new hires. For a moment, it almost felt like Griffin wished he could stop staring and start walking toward those Lakers. Someday, he’ll leave the Clippers. Someday, he’ll tire of the dysfunction, the losing, and he’ll be the biggest free agent on the market. For now, he felt a tap on the basketball, turned his head and there was his coach, Vinny Del Negro, telling him it was time to leave the Lakers’ celebration and come back to the losing locker room.
This could’ve been one of those nights when Griffin, as explosive a young player as the sport’s seen in years, could’ve made a monumental imprint on Los Angeles. Whatever you do as a Clipper, it’s forever measured in the context of the co-tenants, the purple and gold banners that dangle over the floor.
The Clippers had blown a big lead on a big night for them, and perhaps the greatest indignity was that Derek Fisher(notes), the old man, grabbed the inbounds pass, looked off a shocked Kobe Bryant(notes), dropped his head and dribbled past a young jet, Eric Bledsoe(notes), to the basket. He flipped a high, arcing shot over 7-footer DeAndre Jordan(notes) at the buzzer to beat the Clippers 87-86. Beat them good and beat them again.
The Lakers wouldn’t have even had a shot to win had Griffin been sturdy enough to hold off Ron Artest(notes), to keep him from reaching around, stealing a pass and creating a climax for this crushing comeback. Yes, this is your Clipper life, Blake Griffin. After missing his first full year with a broken kneecap, he sprung into this season off a trampoline, full of the most devastating array of power dunks and explosion. Only, the Clippers have missed the two expensive veterans, Baron Davis(notes) and Chris Kaman(notes), for much of the season and started three rookies and two sophomores. Surprise, surprise: They’re losing a lot.
Before the game, Del Negro sat in his empty office and talked about all those young kids, all those games Davis and Kaman missed, and finally said, “It’s our job to find the right pieces to build around Blake. …He’s our franchise guy.” For Del Negro, an old Spur, the maturity and temperament reminds him of a young Tim Duncan(notes). The explosiveness and athleticism reminds him of the young power forward the Phoenix Suns drafted, Amar’e Stoudemire(notes).
“He’s rare,” Del Negro said.
And he’s been introduced into good, old-fashioned Clipper dysfunction. Davis was too heavy this summer, and still hasn’t been able to stay on the floor. The biggest free-agency class in history and tens of millions of dollars in cap space brought the Clippers Ryan Gomes(notes) and Randy Foye(notes). Del Negro did a good job developing the young players with the Chicago Bulls, but this is so different. When Griffin lost his rookie season, he heard all about the Clippers curse. He hates it, bristles over the suggestion. Truth be told, there are no curses. Just incompetent owners who run lousy operations. Donald Sterling doesn’t bring bad luck, but bad management.
Eventually, it’ll chase Griffin out of here, too. For now, he’s a ticket seller. When he’s flying through the air, dunking on everyone, no one trends faster on Twitter. When talk-show host Andrew Siciliano does giveaways on the Los Angeles airwaves, he no longer says he has Clippers tickets. It’s Blake Griffin tickets. Griffin has no charisma, nothing but a power game above the rim that makes the Clippers the most fascinating 5-18 NBA team in a long, long time.
Between foul trouble early and Artest late, Griffin didn’t come close to the kind of night that he needed – that the Clippers needed – to wrest a little of the Staples Center, a little of Los Angeles, away from the Lakers. He had 16 points and 11 rebounds, but he seemed edgy, unnerved, maybe trying a little too hard on such a big night.
“We have young guys who just got here,” Griffin said. “We haven’t been here for the 30-plus years, or however long people want to talk about it being bad. We’re overcoming being a young team.”
They’re overcoming a lot more, but it’s the reason Del Negro would stand alone in his office late Wednesday, packing his bag and muttering about those “bleeping turnovers” late in the Lakers’ comeback. Soon, Del Negro walked down the hallway and bumped into Bryant in a doorway.
“I was waiting for that double team to come,” Bryant said with a smile. Del Negro clasped Bryant’s hand, laughed and told him, “And it was coming, Kobe. …It was coming.”
Only, the ball never found its way to Bryant, and the Clippers couldn’t lose with the dignity of the game’s greatest player beating them at the buzzer. No, it was Fisher on a breathless drive to the basket, past those fleet feet of the young guards, and finally on an old man’s high, arcing bank shot. After another night that reminds a young Clipper of his standing in Los Angeles, of the difference between life as a Los Angeles Laker and a Los Angeles Afterthought, Blake Griffin had to stop and stare.
Oh, how those two-time defending champions cackled and celebrated and loved playing Lucy to the Clippers’ Charlie Brown. Behind him, the Clippers disappeared into the tunnel, but Griffin had to stand there. They had blown a big lead on a big night, and here was one more sullen, shocked young Clipper getting his indoctrination. “Wow,” he thought to himself. “This really happened.”
And it probably will, again and again. Someday, maybe Griffin will end up walking across the court and joining the Lakers. Eventually, all the great ones leave the Clippers. But it wouldn’t be Wednesday. It won’t be for a long time. Soon, Del Negro tapped him, spun him around and directed Blake Griffin toward the losing locker room, toward a fate that somehow always seems destined for a bright, young Clippers star.