Posted Feb 22 2011 10:47AM
A physically and mentally exhausted Blake Griffin left his adopted hometown for his real one Sunday night, prepared to deal both with a crushing personal loss and an arena-splitting thrill when he returns to play.
Los Angeles' other star of All-Star Weekend flew to Oklahoma City not long after playing in his first All-Star Game. The euphoria of the past few days surely evaporated during the flight as Griffin readied, as much as anyone can, for Monday's funeral of a close friend, a former high school teammate.
The death caused Griffin to break down in the locker room last week after a Clippers' win. While that devastating news continues to hurt, the anticipation of his first game in Oklahoma City as an NBA player triggers a smile.
"It's going to be cool, it's going to be fun," Griffin told NBA.com during All-Star Weekend. "It's the first time I've played back in Oklahoma City in almost two years, so it's going to be special."
The past three days, at least on a professional front, couldn't have gone any better. If Lakers megastar Kobe Bryant is the King of L.A., the new dunk champion is fast becoming the city's prince. The fans made sure their voices were heard in the fourth quarter of the All-Star Game -- in which Kobe was destined to win MVP -- as they engulfed Staples Center with a chant of "We want Blake! We want Blake!" that coach Gregg Popovich quickly obliged.
The first rookie All-Star in 13 years did more than just play Sunday. He led a dunk contest revival with a car-jumping spectacular that immediately gets filed for all-time in All-Star Saturday Night lore. And he started his slate of activities with a 14-point performance in Friday's Rookie Challenge.
Not bad for a kid who missed all of last season rehabbing his knee.
"I wanted to be an All Star by my second year and it's kind of like my second year, I guess," said Griffin, the heavy favorite to win Rookie of the Year. "At the beginning of the year I didn't know what to expect, and at the end of last year I was wondering where I was going to fit in our team and all that. I got the opportunity and thankfully my teammates and coaches have been great about helping me.
"It's just kind of come all at once, to be honest."
As much as the former Oklahoma Sooner eagerly awaited the trip home after last season, Monday brought life into sobering focus. Griffin dedicated All-Star Weekend to Wilson Holloway, a University of Tulsa football player who passed away last Wednesday from complications of Hodgkin's lymphoma. Griffin, who promised his Slam Dunk trophy to the Holloway family, was a pallbearer at the funeral.
The bittersweet return will undoubtedly turn joyous once Griffin's sneakers squeak on the Oklahoma City Arena floor. He's gotten a "crazy" number of ticket requests and doesn't expect to fill them all. Tommy and Gail Griffin, his parents, and plenty more family and friends will dot the crowd, not to mention thousands of OKC fans who followed Blake's hardwood exploits when he was down the road in Norman.
"I didn't even get to go on the trip last year [to Oklahoma City] and it was a little disappointing," Griffin said. "But everything happens for a reason and hopefully I can make up for it this year."
Griffin doesn't know what kind of welcome he'll receive during pregame introductions. The Thunder aren't planning any special recognition for the Oklahoma Christian School grad. "I know the people there love the Thunder," he said, "but that being my hometown and going to college at Oklahoma, hopefully I'll get a decent reception."
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook -- Griffin's All-Star Game teammates -- and the rest of the Thunder aren't about to take it easy on the homecoming king and the Clippers. And Griffin, averaging 22.8 points and 12.6 rebounds per game, doesn't expect them to.
"All those guys are going to play hard and they have a great team there," he said. "Hopefully, it'll be a fun game."
Oklahoma City (35-19) is leading the Northwest Division and is fourth in the West after an eighth-place finish last season. The path to the division title likely got easier with Carmelo Anthony being traded from Denver to New York, though Durant is taking nothing for granted.
"We're not satisfied," Durant said. "Our division is so up in the air, if you lose two games in a row you could be in third place because there are such great teams. You have to be focused on the defensive end every night. We've got to continue to build on that and hopefully that will propel us into the latter half of the season."
The Clippers (21-35) are finishing up a 10-game road trip caused by the Grammys and All-Star Weekend. (It's technically an 11-gamer, but Friday's "road" finale against the Lakers is at Staples.) For all the gains Griffin and the Clippers have made so far, it's been a tough stretch lately. Eric Gordon has been out since Jan. 23 and the team has lost seven of nine.
"We had a little bit of a rough road trip, but we're getting some guys back and that's going to be huge for us," Griffin said. "Hopefully, we can finish off our road trip with some success."
And for a couple of nights, he'll be home on the road.
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