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A rising superstar lifts downtrodden Clippers

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If you could attend just one of the two NBA games at Staples Center on Sunday, which would you choose?

Would you try to squeeze in alongside the Jack Nicholsons and George Lopezes on celebrity row to see Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Lakers on Sunday night? Or would you opt for the matinee featuring rookie Blake Griffin and the Clippers, a team with one winning season in the last 18 years?

For Charles Barkley, an 11-time NBA All-Star and a basketball Hall of Famer, it’s not a tough call.

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“If I’m going to see a regular-season game, I’ll probably go see the Clippers,” Barkley says in tribute to Griffin. “That’s worth the price of admission. That’s the kind of excitement he’s bringing to the table.”

Excitement is something the Clippers have rarely seen. Yet just 35 games into his rookie season, the 21-year-old Griffin has transformed the team. Once difficult to watch, the Clippers are now a must-see.

Less than four minutes into his NBA debut, Griffin scored his first points on a thundering right-handed dunk against the Portland Trail Blazers. He rebounded his own miss and threw down a vicious two-handed jam against the Detroit Pistons. He’s made half-court drives that he ended by spinning 360 degrees before soaring skyward and dunking. And in perhaps his best play of the season, he appeared to hang in midair before slamming home a basket against the New York Knicks.

Those are just the highlights of the highlights. Griffin is so spectacular on a nightly basis that the home crowd recently booed a teammate who took an easy layup rather than pass to Griffin, who was primed for another slam.

If Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain are Los Angeles’ basketball past and Kobe Bryant the sport’s present, Blake Griffin could very well be its future.

“I think he’s terrific,” the Lakers’ Bryant says.

“He’s everything as advertised,” says Malik Allen, a nine-year NBA veteran who plays for the Orlando Magic. “His energy is unbelievable, man. He’s strong. He’s quick. Plays fearless.”

That’s why the audience for the local telecasts of Clippers games is 65% larger than it was last season. It’s why the average home-game attendance of 16,761 is higher than it has been in four seasons. It’s why Griffin has been on the cover of Italian magazines and has been interviewed at length on French television.

Oh, and he’s pretty big in the U.S. too.

“Every city we go to all the comments are about Blake Griffin,” says Ralph Lawler, the Clippers’ play-by-play voice for more than three decades. “All the reporters for other teams, all the coaches, all the players, the first thing they want to talk about is Blake Griffin. I’ve never seen a Clippers player that brought that kind of attention.”

Even ESPN is focused on the Clippers, a team it routinely ignored in the past.

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” says Stan Verrett, a “SportsCenter” anchor. “When the Clippers play, people want to know, ‘What did Blake Griffin do tonight?’ Because it seems like every night there’s something memorable.”

Some close NBA watchers are calling Griffin a once-in-a-generation talent and the most electrifying combination of size, strength and power to enter the league in more than a decade. That would make him better than perennial All-Stars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But at 6 feet 9 and 251 pounds, Griffin has the physical presence of a dominant center like Howard, the shooting touch of a Durant and the explosiveness and game-changing abilities of a James. From a standing start Griffin’s vertical leap is now more than three feet, meaning he can go from immobile to having his eyes roughly even with the top of the 10-foot-high basket in a fraction of a second. Give him a running start and he can get his whole head above the rim.

“He’s definitely going to transcend the game,” Clippers teammate Baron Davis says. “His only fight is chasing the Hall of Fame.”

Ask Griffin, though, and he’ll tell you he’s not the best player in the league. Nor the highest jumper, the most accurate shooter or the best rebounder.

On the contrary, the power forward leads the team in turnovers and is second in personal fouls. And he’s one of the worst free-throw shooters in the NBA.

“My shot’s got to get better. Defense has to get better. I can work on everything I do,” he says.

Which brings up another rare trait Griffin has displayed: humility.

In a sport defined by ego and self-aggrandizement, he does his best to deflect the praise coming his way.

“Compliments are great,” Griffin says. “But they’re just words. The mentality when I was younger was I wasn’t as skilled as everybody else. So I had to outwork them. I had to put in the work and had to do all this stuff. And that has to be your mentality the whole time.”

Griffin calls himself a city boy from the country, one who spent the first 20 years of his life in the same house on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. His mother, Gail, was a high school business teacher and his father, Tommy, a high school basketball coach, which helped Griffin and his older brother, Taylor, a former NBA player, develop both the passion and discipline they would need to succeed in the game.

“I wanted to do everything that my dad and my brother did,” says Griffin, who, along with his brother, was home-schooled by their mother until seventh grade. “So with them being involved in basketball so much, that just came naturally to me. And I grew to love it.

“Well, I always loved it,” he quickly adds, grinning. “But I just grew to love it more.”

The Griffin boys weren’t allowed to play organized basketball until their father was convinced they appreciated the game and its nuances, such as teamwork and strategy. For Blake, that meant first grade.

Griffin dunked for the first time when he was 13. By the time he enrolled at Oklahoma Christian School, where he led his father’s team to four state titles in a row, Griffin was beginning to stand out. And not just because of his height.

“I don’t know when it was that I just realized it’s OK to be different, but it’s kind of a different mind-set,” he says.

Like many coach’s sons, he peppers his conversation with terms such as “mind-set” and “work ethic.”

“When I was young I would watch the best players on my dad’s team, and I noticed how they were different,” he says. “People looked up to them. And I always wanted to be them.”

Griffin took that attitude to the University of Oklahoma, where he led the Sooners to two NCAA tournament appearances before leaving school for the NBA after his sophomore season. The Clippers selected him with the top pick in the 2009 draft, but the day before the season opener, Griffin was sidelined because of a stress fracture in his left knee, an injury that would require surgery and delay his NBA debut until this season.

Watching his first NBA season from the sideline was tough, Griffin says. But it was helpful because it allowed him to learn about the league and the demands of professional basketball without having to deal with playing in the games.

It gave him time to acclimate to his new city, which Griffin first found so large and unwieldy that he needed his GPS to get to the grocery store. Now the streets no longer intimidate him. As he steers his black-matte GMC Denali through traffic-clogged streets near the Clippers’ practice facility in Playa Vista, he drives like a native, tailgating and changing lanes without signaling.

What he hasn’t tried yet, he says, is the city’s night life. For all his fame and fortune -- he’s making $5.36 million this season -- and otherworldly talent, Griffin only recently became old enough to legally drink. In fact, if he had not left school early he would be halfway through his senior year. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to find that, like many college students, he’s a tireless practical joker who likes watching “Family Guy” and doing impersonations, including a spot-on impression of Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”

“I couldn’t tell you the last time I went out,” says Griffin, who lives in Manhattan Beach. “That stuff really doesn’t appeal to me.”

Good thing too. Griffin was rarely bothered in public last season -- he and teammate DeAndre Jordan, his best friend among the Clippers, once pushed a woman’s stalled car out of an intersection without being recognized. That changed after the gravity-defying dunk against the Knicks.

The video clip of the dunk dominated TV sportscasts for days. The moment came Nov. 20 in the third quarter of an otherwise forgettable game when Timofey Mozgov, a formerly anonymous collection of hard consonants who plays for New York, stepped out to block Griffin’s drive to the basket.

A heartbeat earlier the taller Mozgov had been looking down at Griffin; now he had a face full of his bellybutton as Griffin leaped above the basket before throwing down a vicious right-handed slam, the most spectacular of his league-leading 83 dunks.

The play was so improbable that Clippers teammate Randy Foye rushed home after the game to watch a replay on YouTube. Within days, the clip had been viewed more than 2 million times.

Griffin finished the Knicks game with a career-high 44 points and 15 rebounds, the first in a team-record string of 22 games in which he had double-digit totals in both points and rebounds, the longest streak by a rookie in 40 years. Many of those points came on rim-rattling dunks.

“His highlights are sick,” Lakers forward Ron Artest says. “I hope he dunks on me. Would you buy that poster? I’d buy it and tell him to sign it.”

Yet even with Griffin, the Clippers have the third-worst record in the 15-team Western Conference, leaving them a long way from playoff contention. That’s a subject Griffin comes back to often. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal are great players, he notes, but none of them won anything by themselves.

“I think people get caught up a little too much in individual talent,” says Griffin, who is playing on a losing team for the first time. “Yeah, it’s great and fun to watch and they’re great players. But they also have great teammates.”

Griffin doesn’t have a deep supporting cast, and given the Clippers’ history, that’s unlikely to change. He has one more season guaranteed on his contract, though the team is all but certain to pick up his $7.23-million option for 2012-13 and his $9.4-million qualifying offer for the next season. That leaves the Clippers with a deadline to get Griffin some help or risk losing him when he becomes a free agent.

To keep Griffin, Clippers management is going to have to step up. If Griffin can make that happen, that would be his most impressive accomplishment yet. He has made the team relevant. But can he prod ownership into making it a winner?

“If anyone is capable of changing Clippers culture, it’s Blake,” says Phoenix Suns Coach Alvin Gentry, who guided the Clippers for nearly three seasons from 2000 to 2003.

Barkley agrees.

“I heard someone compare him to me and I said, ‘What? We’re both black?’ That’s it,” Barkley says. “He’s bigger than me and more explosive than I was. And the thing that’s scary: He doesn’t even know how to play yet.

“When he learns how to play, it’s going to be even more exciting.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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