Second to counting down your own buzzer beaters to lift your favorite NBA team to a championship, every kid who has ever shot hoops in his driveway has imagined the moment he’d be chosen in the NBA Draft. It’s not hard to do — simply close your eyes, summon up the voice of NBA Commissioner David Stern, and mentally recite the following: “With the first pick in the (fill in the year) NBA Draft, the (fill in the team) selects (your name here).”
Of all the millions of young men who have recreated the above scenario in their minds, on June 25, 2009, it actually came true for one of them. That was the day Blake Austin Griffin, sitting in Madison Square Garden in New York City with his family, heard the sentence he’d been dreaming of hearing his whole life: “With the first pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers select Blake Griffin.”
Once Stern said those words, it became real. Griffin was now, officially, a member of one of the smallest fraternities in sports: No. 1 overall NBA draft picks. Magic Johnson. Hakeem Olajuwon. Tim Duncan. These are just a few of the names in the illustrious (and sometimes infamous) lineage of top NBA draft selections. With names like that preceding him, is young Blake Griffin feeling any historical burden?
“To be honest, I don’t feel a lot of pressure,” Griffin says. “It’s an honor to be in this position, and I’m definitely aware of the guys who came before me, but that keeps me focused. I know I just need to come in, work harder and play the way I know I can.”
Setting his Sights
Griffin first knew he had a shot at being the top pick in the NBA Draft after his sophomore year of college. “Once I decided to return to the University of Oklahoma for my junior year, I made it my goal,” he says. “Making it happen was really all about dedicating the time. I focused on coming into the training facility early, whether it was to get in extra shots or put in more time at the gym.”
Along with this established work ethic and his off-the-charts basketball talent, one of the things that NBA teams fell in love with about Griffin was his “NBA-ready body.” This term is loosely thrown around when evaluating potential hardwood talent, but when it comes to Griffin, it’s not a cliché; it’s a fact. Standing at 6 feet 10 inches and weighing 250 pounds, the 20-year-old has a legitimate NBA physique — and probably a legitimate NFL physique, as well. Not bad for a guy who started lifting weights seriously when he was just a sophomore in high school.
“When I started out, I just did the normal lifts that everyone does,” Griffin says. “I did bench presses, squats, curls, all that stuff. Since then, things have shifted a bit. I still do some of the same strength work, but now we do stabilizing movements and lots of work with medicine balls. I do way more movement-specific exercises.”
But even someone with Griffin’s physical gifts has a few areas in which he can improve. “I took a fitness evaluation when I got to the team, and they figured out which muscles need to be worked on more and which ones are overworked,” Griffin explains. “I use the outside of my quad a lot when I play, so I do a lot of exercises to strengthen my muscles on the inside, as well as my hamstrings.”
Scaling the Wall
In addition to the strength training, Griffin needs to prepare for the grueling NBA schedule and hitting the dreaded rookie “wall” — a mythical date in the NBA season when the wear and tear of playing pro basketball versus college hoops finally catches up to rookies and their play suffers. While this is bound to happen when athletes more than double their workload and triple their travel over the course of 12 months, you can still train to try to prevent it. Griffin, for his part, has taken up an intense regimen to build up his leg strength and endurance.
“We do lots of lunges and squats,” the Sooner State native says. “Half squats, single-leg squats, squat walks … we do them all. The squat walks can get really tedious. Those are where you put resistance bands around each ankle and squat, then shuffle.”
And when it comes to conditioning, he is being exposed to nearly everything in the book. From full-court running drills to treadmill sprints to pool runs to plyometric jumps, his body is being put through an aerobic gauntlet, the most grinding of which is running the infamous sand hills at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach, Calif. For those not familiar, the sand hill is an insanely steep, extraordinarily difficult mound of sand that rises about 100 yards into the sky.
In the middle of the summer, when the hot sun is bouncing off the sand, many people fold after just one trip up and down. Griffin does sprints with his team up and down the hill several times a week. “We do one walk-up just as a warm-up, then we do sprints, either all the way up or halfway up,” he says. “We’ll do relay races there, too. It’s not easy.”
Most people can relate to the concept of “pushing yourself” — but most can’t relate to doing so with the whole world watching. Griffin says, “It’s not easy,” with a familiarity that only those who have walked in an elite athlete’s shoes could understand. It’s the double-edged sword of being the top pick: From the moment you’re selected, you get the fame and the responsibility.
You think Griffin walked offstage immediately after getting his Clippers cap in Madison Square Garden and went out partying? Guess again. “After you get offstage, you do interviews for two hours straight,” he says. “Radio shows, TV shows, all that stuff. It was a long night.”
This isn’t to say that every second of his post-draft life has been consumed with hard work. His new status as “the next big thing” in the NBA has opened a few doors and allowed him to attend some events he had never been to in the past, like ESPN’s ESPY Awards.
“I had a great time at the ESPY’s,” he admits. “I got to meet a bunch of different guys. I met Mike Tyson. I met (Pittsburgh Steeler) Santonio Holmes. I even met Michael Phelps.”
Unfortunately, his favorite basketball player growing up, Michael Jordan, wasn’t there, but soon he’ll be on the floor of NBA arenas against his current crop of favorite players, not as a fan but as an equal. “I’ve always had a different favorite player,” he says. “Shaq was my favorite for a while. Vince Carter was my favorite for a while. Recently, guys like LeBron James and Dwight Howard are my favorites.”
Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Dwight Howard — all No. 1 picks. Now it’s up to Blake Griffin to continue that legacy.