New Heights: The Cult of NBA Star Blake Griffin

The one on the Russian is the best. Haven't seen it? Go to YouTube and look for the clip titled "Double Dose of Insanity: Griffin vs. Knicks." This one has already attracted nearly 1.5 million views. Blake Griffin, the 6-ft. 10-in. rookie power forward for the Los Angeles Clippers, catches a pass just inside the foul lane. As he starts to rise, each of his hands palms a different round object. In one hand, of course, is the basketball. But in his left hand, Griffin practically cups the head of 7-ft. 1-in. Knicks center Timofey Mozgov, then uses it to propel himself upward, as if it were a spare piece of gym equipment.

Griffin is essentially eye level with the rim, and at that point he dunks it over Mozgov, his springlike body so high off the ground that his hands never actually touch the rim (the basketball cliché of "throwing it down" has never been so apt). After the slam, and right before he whistles Mozgov for a foul, the ref's body briefly recoils, as if he sees something, well, shocking. He might as well have screamed, "Holy s___!" before making the call. Griffin says he didn't realize he used Mozgov's head until he watched the film the next day. "It wasn't a conscious decision," Griffin says. "I was just trying to brace myself. If I didn't do that, I probably would have toppled over." (See 10 big stories to follow in the NBA this season.)

The second "dose of insanity" was just more Griffin acrobatics, this time over Danilo Gallinari, the sharpshooter from Italy who plays for the Knicks. (For the record, Griffin calls this dunk, off a fast break, his favorite of the year.) So does this guy have something against immigrants? Not at all. During his illustrious rookie campaign, Griffin's dunks have embarrassed pros from both here and abroad. Just ask Anthony Tolliver of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a Missourian, about the poster treatment Griffin gave him in November. No wonder Griffin's groupies pass his dunk clips around the Web like trading cards.

In fact, with the NBA season fast approaching its All-Star break, Griffin has given a generally unsurprising season its biggest (and a much needed) jolt. The San Antonio Spurs, at 39-7, are certainly better than people expected. But no one is shocked that a four-time NBA champion, albeit one with an aging core, has thrived. The Miami Heat may not be undefeated, as many pundits seemed to expect, but LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and co. are still leading their division. So are the Los Angeles Lakers, even if there is more Kobe Bryant–Phil Jackson bickering than in recent years and many observers (including former Lakers star and general manager Jerry West) claim the team is past its prime, and the Boston Celtics, last year's Eastern Conference champs, who on many nights can look pretty unbeatable in their own right.

On the other hand, no one thought Griffin, just a rookie, would come to dominate the highlight shows and become a viral sensation. He was the top pick of the 2009 NBA draft as a sophomore out of Oklahoma but broke his kneecap in the last preseason game. Surgery cost him the entire season. Most young athletes take years to recover from these kinds of setbacks; recurring knee and foot injuries, for example, have stalled the career of Greg Oden, the top pick in the 2007 draft.

Somehow, Griffin has come back even better than he was before. "I tried to turn the injury into a positive experience," he says. "Just sitting and watching, for me, was just good. I knew what it was going to be like, so I was a lot more comfortable coming in." Entering the Clippers' Jan. 29 game against the Charlotte Bobcats, Griffin is averaging a double-double: 22.6 points and 12.8 rebounds per game. At one point he notched 27 straight double-doubles. "He's just always adding stuff to his game," says Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, who is on a 31-game double-double streak of his own. "He's got the dribble moves and that shot off the glass. He plays like every possession is his last." Griffin is shooting 51.5% from the field, and according to a recent statistical analysis, by one measure of overall effectiveness, Griffin is having the third best rookie season in the past 40 years, behind only Hall of Famer David Robinson's 1989-90 campaign and the 1984-85 debut of a guy named Michael Jordan.

What's the key to Griffin's production, besides the obvious athleticism on display? "You've got to talk about his pop," says one NBA team executive. "It's unbelievable." By pop, he's referring to Griffin's ability to jump quickly, and high, off the ground while standing still. Griffin doesn't need a running start to go grab rebounds, nor a dribble or two to dunk from close range. This makes him a more efficient player. He pops like a pogo stick, which saves his energy for the highlight-reel plays.

The Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin takes a shot against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Jan. 25, 2011

The other overlooked aspect of Griffin's arsenal, says this executive, is his hands. "They allow him to extend his athleticism," says the executive. Why? If you can control the ball in your mitts, the defense is less likely to take it away from you. That boosts your confidence in the same cocky way that an adult will playfully hold a minibasketball when joshing around with his kids at a smaller hoop. "When I'm in the air, my hands make it easier to move the ball from side to side, which makes it harder to block," he says. "It really helps me finish my shots." And when Griffin is trying to grab boards in traffic, his hands give him a decided advantage. "They become suction cups on rebounds," says the exec.

Defenses have already started tossing those cups to the floor. On Tuesday night, Jan. 25, a hard foul from Dallas Mavericks center Brendan Haywood forced Griffin to land on his elbow during Dallas' 112-105 win over the Clippers. "Every play can't be a dunk-contest dunk," Haywood, who was whistled for a flagrant foul, said after the game. Griffin bruised his elbow, though he's downplaying the severity of the injury. Still, while he says he wasn't surprised by the foul, Griffin makes clear he wasn't a fan of Haywood's words. "I wasn't going up to do some crazy dunk," Griffin says. "I was just trying to finish. I didn't like that comment, didn't appreciate that comment."

One of Griffin's biggest fans in particular is also irked. "We don't like it at all," says Griffin's mother Gail, who was in the stands in Dallas. "It's really hard. Blake experienced that a lot when he was at Oklahoma, and we just really didn't think it was going to happen in the NBA. We thought, These guys are professionals. They know that this is their livelihood. I don't really understand it."

Despite Griffin's heroics, the Clippers, perhaps the saddest, longest-losing franchise in all of professional sports, are just 17-28, though they've actually played decent ball since starting the season 1-13. Their performance is a reminder that as well as Griffin has played, the young, freak-show highlight-film players — guys like the spindly, pre–Scottie Pippen Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins (known as "the human highlight film") — rarely win championships. They need a better supporting cast, and to improve their all-around game, Griffin's defense can certainly use some work. The Celtics and the Spurs, for example, have old core players and don't sport a showstopper on Griffin's level. Tim Duncan's bank shots, after all, aren't going viral.

Still, it's hard to overstate Griffin's impact. In Los Angeles, he's stolen some of Kobe Bryant's cachet. The few times in recent decades that the Clippers have had a playoff-caliber team, you hear stories about how they're finally hot in Los Angeles. Check out devoted fan Billy Crystal in the stands! Soon thereafter, however, they revert to losing 60 games. But this is different, because as much as basketball is a team sport, individual players always lead the show. And the Clippers have never before sniffed a sheer talent like Griffin.

"There's more energy in the arena," says Charlie Kinstler, a Clippers season-ticket holder since 1985. "Every time he touches the ball, you can hear everybody taking a deep breath. 'What's he doing to do?' We've never felt that before." Even when the Clippers were a playoff team, no one was begging Kinstler for tickets. This week alone, two of his buddies sent him e-mails looking for a seat. "I'm happy for him," says Kinstler of Griffin. He quickly modifies that thought: "I'm happy for me."