The Griffin Stampede – Part II
Bucks put rookie's dramatic emergence in perspective
By Truman Reed
"This is my 11th season in the NBA," guard Keyon Dooling said. "Playing against Blake Griffin, he was the most impressive first-year player I've ever seen."
For those of you who may have missed it, Los Angeles Clippers rookie phenomenon Blake Griffin won the National Basketball Association's 26th annual slam dunk contest in Los Angeles on February 20.
With Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School Gospel Choir outfitted in its robes singing, "I Believe I Can Fly" at midcourt, Griffin soared over the hood of a 2011 Kia Optima, grabbed a pass from since-traded teammate Baron Davis, who popped out of the car's sunroof, and hammered the ball through the hoop for the decisive dunk to the delight of his hometown fans.
Wherever Kelvin Sampson happened to be when he saw the footage of Griffin's stunt, he had to be smiling.
Sampson, the Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach, got a rare glimpse of Blake Griffin long before he became an identified flying object to the rest of the world.
And coincidentally enough, Sampson got that glimpse in an airplane hangar.
In 1999, Sampson was the head coach at the University of Oklahoma, located just down the road from Griffin's hometown of Oklahoma City.
Sampson was watching his 14-year-old son, Kellen, play basketball when he crossed paths for the first time with Blake Griffin and his family.
"The first time I saw Blake, he was 10 years old," Sampson recalled. "His brother, Taylor, was 12. My son, Kellen, was 14. There's a huge, old Naval base hangar that had three basketball courts where they played recreational league basketball. I remember sitting in there watching my son play. There were three games going on at the same time, and I saw these little 10-year-olds playing on one of the other courts. The biggest kid on the court was this light-skinned kid with a big old red Afro. I said to myself, `Boy, that kid is good!'"
The player who captured Sampson's attention was Blake Griffin.
Blake's father, Tommy, was a basketball and track standout at NAIA Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Blake and his older brother, Taylor, were home-schooled by their mother, Gail, from first grade until Taylor was in 10th grade and Blake was in eighth. They grew up playing basketball in their driveway.
As a youngster, Blake became good friends with Sam Bradford, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy at the University of Oklahoma and now plays quarterback for the the St. Louis Rams. They played on the Athletes First AAU basketball team along with Xavier Henry of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Griffin's parents owned a trophy company that Bradford's father would use and Bradford's father owned a gym where Griffin and his brother, Taylor, played basketball. Apart from basketball, Blake also played first baseman in baseball, soccer, and football as a wide receiver, safety and tight end.
Sampson, while following his son's youth sports career, also watched Griffin grow and progress on the youth circuit.
"Because of following my son around, I saw Blake play all the way through," Sampson said.
"The thing that jumps out at me about Blake was his father and his mother. His dad was his high school basketball coach. I recruited kids from his dad's team long before Taylor and Blake ever played. He was the coach at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City and they won state championships.
"When Blake and Taylor came along, Blake's father went over to Oklahoma Christian School, a real small, private school, and he had his two kids playing for him there. That wasn't a fair fight. Those two guys playing for a small, private school ... that just wasn't fair."
Unlike many of his rival big men in the NBA, Blake Griffin was never a "project."
"No," Sampson said. "When Blake was in the ninth and 10th grade, he was dunking balls that you'd usually only see in the NBA."
Griffin and his brother played together at Oklahoma Christian School during the 2003-04 and 2004-05 high school seasons, winning two state championships together. In Blake's freshman year, the Saints posted a 29-0 season and won the Class 3A boys state championship game.
In Blake's sophomore year, the Saints repeated as Class 3A state champions and finished 24-2,Blake averaged13.6 points per game in his final high school season with his brother and was named to the Little All-City All-State Team while his brother was named The Oklahoman Player of the Year.
"I recruited his brother, Taylor, to play for me at Oklahoma in his freshman year," Sampson said. "Blake would have played for me, too, had I stayed there."
After Taylor Griffin went off to college to play for Sampson's Oklahoma Sooners, Blake played during the summer of 2005 against Kevin Durant and Ty Lawson as a member of the Athletes First AAU team.
Blake truly emerged as a high school junior, averaging 21.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists, leading the Saints through the playoffs. They earned a berth in the Class 2A championship game and defeated Washington High School to finish 27-1 and claim a third straight state championship. Blake was named state tournament MVP. Griffin was named The Oklahoman Player of the Year and to the Tulsa World Boys All-State First Team.
Blake's breakthrough junior season earned him national attention and caught the eye of the new coach for the Oklahoma Sooners, Jeff Capel, who originally heard of Griffin through his brother, Taylor.
Blake, after considering Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Texas, committed to Oklahoma after his junior season.
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During Blake's senior campaign, he averaged 26.8 points, 15.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.9 blocks in leading his team to a 26-3 record. In a game against Oklahoma City Southeast, he collected 41 points, 28 rebounds, and 10 assists.
On March 10, 2007, Blake played his final high school game in the state title game. He registered 22 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks as the Saints defeated Pawnee 81-50 to win their fourth straight state title.
Blake was named the Class 2A state tournament MVP for the second consecutive year after averaging 26.6 points per game in the tournament, in which Oklahoma Christian won its three games by an average of 30.3 points.
During Blake's four-year high school run, the Saints posted a 106-6 overall record. He was named the Player of the Year by the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman and named Oklahoma Boys All-State First Team, EA Sports Second Team and a Parade Third Team All-American.
He was ranked as the nation's No. 13 high school senior by HoopScoop, No. 20 by scout.com and No. 23 by rivals.com, He was also chosen the Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year and was selected to the McDonald's All-American and Jordan Brand All-America teams. At the McDonald's game, he won the Powerade Jam Fest slam dunk contest.
"Blake dominated every level he played at," Sampson said. "And he did it unbelievably. He never showboated. He always had a quiet arrogance about him. He knew he was the best player on the floor. And you could tell. The other teams would try to roughhouse him in high school, AAU and college basketball, but that's because they were measuring themselves against him.
"He never measured himself against them. He knew he was better than they were. If the rules had been in place, Blake could have gone from high school to the NBA, physically."
Griffin, of course, became a first-team All-American at Oklahoma and was No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Clippers.
Sampson reunited with Griffin last season when the Bucks played in Los Angeles and Blake was rehabilitating from his kneecap surgery.
"When we were out in L.A. last year, I asked him how he was doing with his injury," Sampson said. "He said, `Coach, in some ways, that was one of the best things that's ever happened to me because it forced me to grow up, learn, appreciate the game more ... and watch.`
"You think about college football players. Most of them redshirt their first year in college. College basketball players probably should, too, from a maturity standpoint. Well, Blake got to redshirt last year. He's extremely intelligent. He has a high basketball IQ. He has a big motor, too. He doesn't have the perimeter game yet that he's going to have, but if he did, it would really be scary."
Sampson put Griffin's potential in perspective just recently.
"I was telling our staff the other day, `How many times have you heard this said about a player?'" Sampson said. "He has a chance to be the best player ever at his position. That's a strong statement. But Blake does. He redefines it.
"One of the best power forwards ever was Karl Malone. But I don't know that Karl had this kid's skill set and athleticism ... and the power. Nobody worked as hard to develop himself into a great player as Karl Malone did. If Blake continues along this path and has Karl Malone's work ethic, he has a chance to be really good, too."
Sampson doesn't expect Griffin to ever become spoiled by his success, either, because of his parents' influence.
"All you need to know is Blake's dad retired from high school basketball coaching and now he's coaching JV football and girls basketball at a high school in Oklahoma City," Sampson said. "And his mother's still an eighth-grade English teacher. "That's how grounded those two kids are."