It didn’t end in a parade, but Blake Griffin was all in with the Pistons and for Detroit
Noah Graham (NBAE/Getty)
Remember how stunned you were when you heard the Pistons had traded for Blake Griffin? Nobody saw it coming. In a league where rumors are a way of life, there had been nary a whisper that guy would be on the move. Six months earlier, the Los Angeles Clippers staged an over-the-top signing ceremony pronouncing Griffin a “Clipper for life.”
He’d hit the NBA like a supernova eight years earlier as a Clippers rookie, the star of Lob City in a city that alternately lionizes and disposes of its stars. Leaping over cars? He was young, charismatic and invincible.
If he hadn’t been blessed with a body by Adonis, steel coils for thighs, he probably would have gravitated to Los Angeles anyway and lit up Hollywood’s silver screens.
So Blake Griffin being shipped out of Los Angeles was hard to wrap your head around. Blake Griffin being shipped to Detroit – home of the Bad Boys, the epicenter of the gritty Midwest, the antithesis of Hollywood glitz and glamour – was mind-boggling.
So imagine how he felt.
But whatever sense of betrayal and disillusionment Griffin felt, he didn’t pack an ounce of it for his journey here. As injuries around him undermined that first season, as the administration that brought him here was dismissed, as he strapped the Pistons to his back that next season and dragged them to the playoffs – at the cost of a knee injury that would cast a shadow over the duration of his tenure – Blake Griffin remained unwavering in his professionalism.
He represented the franchise as if he were born to tug a Pistons jersey over those chiseled shoulders. He spoke glowingly of Detroit and the people of Michigan, reminding us he wasn’t a Los Angeles guy at heart but a kid from Oklahoma who saw big swaths of home in his every encounter here.
The mid-’80s on began a golden era of the city’s history that would see the Pistons, Tigers and Red Wings all hang championship banners over a two-decade span. A parade of superstars since admitted to their halls of fame passed through Detroit then. Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Barry Sanders comprised an A-list to rival any other city’s stars.
That level of celebrity comes with all sorts of privilege, but the other side of the ledger is equally substantial. Heavy responsibility comes with superstardom, every word and deed used to take the temperature of the franchise. In places like Detroit and Philadelphia and Denver, sports stars are flag bearers for their cities in the eyes of the world at large.
And among that parade of stars over the past three or four decades, nobody carried Detroit’s flag with more grace and dignity than Blake Griffin. He was unfailingly engaged in his roles as the public face of the Pistons and all that they entailed.
After tough losses, Griffin had a rare knack for striking the right tone – encouragement when it was needed, criticism when it was warranted. When asked about individual triumphs, he spread credit widely and consistently. When challenged to explain team shortcomings, he pointed to himself for a disproportionate share of blame. Anyone who shared the locker room with him these past three years was exposed to a shining example of how to be a proper teammate.
He put together one of the greatest individual seasons in Pistons history in 2018-19, named to the All-NBA team for it, and if there were ever a doubt how the city felt about him, it was drowned out by the reception he got at Little Caesars Arena for the first home playoff game that spring after missing the first two road games with the knee injury that would require surgery a week later.
And that injury, really, was the catalyst for what became the organizational decision made in February 2020 to take the Pistons in another direction. True to form, when Andre Drummond was traded and the Pistons publicly acknowledged they were going to punch the reset button, Griffin never blinked.
“When you come to work every day and you have great people on your team – a great coach and a great support staff – it’s just fun to be around that,” he said last summer, defusing what appeared an awkward fit between superstar and rebuilding franchise. “We have a lot of decisions to make this summer and a lot of changes will probably be made. I look forward to that and look forward to whatever role they ask me to play.”
His talent was matched by his tact.
It didn’t end with a championship parade or doused in champagne, but the electricity he generated reminded Pistons fans of the possibilities that exist in the relationship between a city and its basketball team.
He returns tonight wearing a Brooklyn Nets jersey, landing with the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and make a run at the NBA title, though Pistons fans forever will consider him part of their family. In the shirts and skins game of Detroit vs. Everybody, Blake Griffin belongs on Team Detroit.