Column

Clippers must send a clear message and severely punish Blake Griffin for his punch

Blake Griffin put his fist into the face of the guy who picks up his socks, and now we'll see who's the real tough guy.

Does Clippers owner Steve Ballmer have the fortitude to punish him?

Griffin punched out a subordinate much smaller than him, and did with such force that Griffin fractured his right hand, and now we'll see if anybody around there is big enough to punch back.

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When Clippers Coach Doc Rivers constantly talks about protecting his basketball family, does he mean every member of that family?

In the wake of Griffin's attack on Clippers assistant equipment manager Matias Testi at a Toronto restaurant last weekend, there remain as many questions as answers, but one truth seems clear.

Griffin behaved like a bully, and the Clippers cannot tolerate a bully, especially since they used to be owned by a bully.

The dark days of Donald Sterling were replaced by the shining light of billionaire Ballmer, remember? But "hardcore" and "relentless" weren't supposed to apply to an $18-million-a-year superstar putting his hands on a locker-room worker in a parking lot.

No matter what the circumstances, Griffin's attack on a subordinate, which left Testi with a swollen face, would have resulted in Griffin's being severely punished in almost any workplace in America. It must be the same here. When Griffin returns from his likely two-month absence because of the broken hand, he should be suspended without pay long enough to make everyone realize that the new Clippers are not going to tolerate being the old Clippers.

It will probably cost them home-court advantage in the playoffs. It could result in a first-round exit. It could lead to the blowing up of the team's core as Rivers warned last fall. It doesn't matter.

"This conduct has no place in our organization and this incident does not represent who we are as a team," Ballmer and Rivers said Tuesday in a joint statement.

How they handle this, even more than how they mishandled the Houston Rockets last spring, will tell their fans who they are as a team.

"At the conclusion of the investigation, appropriate action will be taken," they said in the statement.

Once considered the most inappropriately behaving franchise in professional sports, the new Clippers now have a chance to get that word right.

"We represent the Clippers, we have to continue to do that," a clearly frustrated Rivers told the media in Indiana on Tuesday before their 91-89 victory over the Pacers.

We know what representing the Clippers used to mean. What does that mean now? Have things really changed from the days when Sterling would heckle his players from the sidelines, attempt to intimidate them in the locker room, then fire the coaches without paying them? Is every member of this organization at every level — from the guy throwing down the dunks to the guy picking up the towels — now being treated with the same dignity and respect?

Some folks have been saying the issue is overblown because Griffin and Testi are good friends who have even vacationed together. It has been properly noted that Testi's job is as much concierge as equipment provider; he's supposedly a confidant and fixer, the basketball version of the character Turtle from the former television series "Entourage." Observers have often seen Testi joking in the locker room with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, sometimes matching tease for tease.

But the line dividing the disparate status of the two men is still there. The equation is still the same. Griffin possesses the authority, Testi is the underling. Griffin has all the power, Testi has none, and for Griffin to abuse that power in such a violent manner even amid a backdrop of friendship is unconscionable.

Others, especially those who have heard their repartee in the locker room, will also wonder if Testi said something to provoke Griffin. Yet there is nothing to indicate Griffin acted in self defense. When Testi eventually tells his side of the story, the Clippers should be worried that it will first appear in court documents. Griffin is fortunate it didn't already appear on an arrest report. They should all fear that the story will tell itself in some smartphone video that will probably appear on some website before the end of the week.

Still others will think this is no big deal because, after their inspirational win over Indiana, the Clippers are 12-3 without Griffin. But the majority of those games were against teams with sub.-500 records, and there seems to be no way they can survive at that level without their most consistent inside versatile scoring force. Overall, they are 3-7 against potential playoff foes Dallas, Memphis, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Golden State.

Interestingly, Griffin has shown no such bullying tendencies on the court, where he often reacts to physical play with mere complaints. And off the court, his only reported incident was in Las Vegas 16 months ago, an alleged altercation with a man attempting to take his photograph, a misdemeanor battery case that was dropped for insufficient evidence. For the most part, Griffin's image has matched his subtly charming portrayal in those Kia commercials.

But this is neither subtle, nor charming, and that dunk over that car suddenly seems like so many All-Star moons ago.

Good that Griffin issued a three-sentence apology Tuesday night on Twitter. Odd that while he specifically apologized to the Clippers' organization, his teammates and fans, he did not apologize to Testi, writing only that, "A situation among friends escalated and I regret the way I handled myself towards someone I care about." Maybe a lawyer was at work there?

The Clippers stumbled early in handling this news. The fight happened over the weekend in Toronto, yet the story surfaced only after an ESPN report late Monday night. Griffin was sent home from Toronto on Sunday under the guise of more rehabilitation for his quadriceps injury, which wasn't entirely true and made it appear they were trying to hide something.

The Clippers can fix those optics now. They can catch up, they can stand up, they can move without waiting for the NBA office to be the bad guys, and they can make it clear, once and for all, that Steve Ballmer's franchise bears no resemblance to Donald Sterling's franchise.

"Everything that happens you try to turn into a teaching lesson for your players," said Rivers.

About the Clippers, we'll all soon be learning something.

MORE ON THE CLIPPERS

Short-handed Clippers defeat Indiana Pacers, 91-89

Blake Griffin out 4 to 6 weeks after breaking hand in fight with team employee

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 27, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "The team may suffer, but Clippers must send a clear message and severely punish Griffin" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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