With Lonzo taking top billing for sport’s glamour franchise, LeBron possibly on the way, and stars from virtually every team to be found on the streets and in SoulCycle classes, Los Angeles has become the mecca of the NBA offseason. In the second of four weeklong series leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season, we’re celebrating the people, teams, and everything in between that make up the most interesting scene in the league. Welcome to L.A. Week.
The first old lady isn’t light enough. That presents a problem. They need Blake Griffin to pick her up and carry her around, which Griffin is more than capable of doing. He has muscles that pop from his arms and legs and back and probably eyes, too, if you look close enough. He is big and strong.
He is also, at this moment, barely three months removed from his latest injury in a long line of them. No one wants to risk Griffin getting hurt again. Certainly not while he’s shooting a comedy series that has nothing to do with the NBA or the Clippers or that fat five-year, $171 million deal he signed this offseason to keep him in Los Angeles. So the first old lady, bless her, must be replaced with a new old lady. Show business is cruel and without mercy.
It is July. It is hot. Something like 98 degrees in the shade, and there is precious little of that to go around. Griffin is at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita to shoot a new episode of The 5th Quarter, a sports mockumentary series that chronicles “the greatest untold and untrue stories in sports history.” They produced 12 of them last year with people like J.B. Smoove, Jerry O’Connell, George Lopez, Ahmad Rashad, and Mark Cuban, among others. In the first episode, he had only two quick lines. It was all physical comedy.
This time around they’ve given Griffin a character with more to do. He gets to act and ad-lib. He’s thrilled about that. In the new episode, Griffin plays Sheldon King, a kid who was raised in an old-folks home by his grandmother. All his childhood friends were septuagenarians or older, and thus Sheldon was unaware that people were capable of running. Naturally, Sheldon becomes the best fast-walker in the world. When they pitched it to him, Griffin immediately loved the idea. He also had notes.
“I just read the script and I was like, ‘Oh, this guy has to wear old-people clothing. He needs to be young, but he needs to feel old, like an old soul,’” Griffin says. He also thought Sheldon should use “old-people words” when he speaks. The night before the shoot, Griffin FaceTimed Michael D. Ratner—the series’ creator and showrunner, director of the episode, and president and CEO of OBB Pictures, which came up with The Fifth Quarter concept and also did a 30 for 30 short for ESPN—to talk about his character.
“He said, ‘I’ve been thinking about my character. If my character grew up in an old person’s home, shouldn’t he have certain words in his vernacular that are that of your grandma or grandpa?’” Ratner says. “And I was like, yes. ‘Meshuganah. Fakakta. Oy vey.’”
Griffin sprinkles the words liberally into his lines and spends a good portion of the episode as a solo act—until his character meets Kong, Sheldon’s nemesis, played by Jimmy O. Yang (best known for the character Jian-Yang on Silicon Valley). Much nonsense and trash-talking occur between the two, like when Yang turns to Griffin right before the big race—the 2006 Yonkers Invitational—and tells him, “You get no bitches.”
Yang is a massive Clippers fan. He has season tickets behind the basket, near the visitors’ bench. He meets Griffin for the first time, on set, when Griffin walks out of what passes for the soundstage in character, wearing all-white New Balance sneakers, a hideous orange-brown short-sleeve button-up shirt, and pleated khakis hiked up to his nipples. “Those pants are great,” Yang says by way of introduction. “I think your waistband is probably taller than me.” A comedy bromance is born.
“He’s got a good sense of humor,” Yang says about Griffin. “He’s willing to go out there. I’ve seen him. He did improv with Thomas Middleditch. I think he did it a few times. I’ve seen a clip of him doing stand-up at the Laugh Factory. He’s funny, athlete or not.”
At his day job, Griffin sometimes plays it straight, even joyless, in front of the cameras. That’s easy enough to understand. All those injuries. All those seasons with all those frustrating ends. It’s hard to blame him. Showbiz Blake is something else entirely. He’s clearly having a good time joking with Yang and the crew, and he delights in coming up with lines on the fly, like when he tells the camera that Sheldon sometimes eats prunes for dessert “so I can shit all over my competition.”
The shtick continues throughout the episode. Griffin hauls groceries for his friends at Misty Oaks, the community where Sheldon grew up. He waxes nostalgic about playing bingo and shuffleboard. At one point, they ask Griffin to carry a casket. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere for Clippers fans.) Turns out the casket is real, and really heavy—so heavy the crew has to stand off-camera and help him lift it. In a different episode, they gave Joel Embiid one of those old paper cutters that has a wooden arm with a big blade attached to it, and he thrust it down with such force that Embiid’s handlers nearly had a collective coronary.
“I learned my lesson after that,” coshowrunner Bob Castrone smirks, dispatching someone to find a smaller actor for Griffin to lug around so he doesn’t throw out his back. All of which is just fine by Griffin. He does everything they ask. He’s coachable. As offseason activities go, he says this is a great way to spend time. Not relaxing, necessarily, but he digs it.
“I really like this kind of stuff,” Griffin says. “There’s only so many weights you can lift, you know?”
Almost on cue, a new old lady is presented, and Griffin scoops her up in his arms, like it requires no effort whatsoever. Which is good, because they have him walk back and forth a few times for various takes without putting her down. By the end, Griffin is sweating. He doesn’t seem to mind, though. He’s smiling. He’s laughing. For the first time in who knows how long, Blake Griffin seems to be enjoying himself at work.
When I told some people I was spending the day watching Blake Griffin shoot a comedy series, my friend Kristin had an interesting reaction: “Oh, from the Kia commercials—he’s funny.” She’s fully aware that he’s an NBA star, but her first thought about him had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with weird jokes in 30-second clips. The man is one of the most famous athletes on the planet, but it sometimes feels like he’s achieved that status in spite of his day job, not because of it. Off-Court Blake is often far more interesting than Basketball Blake.
That was certainly the case this summer. When he wasn’t acting, Griffin was spotted in a bizarre but fascinating group hang that included Kendall Jenner and Chandler Parsons. There were also dinner dates with Jenner. And beach dates. And movie dates. All the dates. So many dates. Even though it caused a predictable publicity stir, Griffin seemed to be having a grand time. Consenting brands and all that.
Conversely, there haven’t been many happy occasions for Griffin recently as far as basketball goes. When last we saw him, Griffin was limping off the court in Utah after injuring the plantar plate on his right big toe in Game 3 of the Clippers’ first-round playoff series against the Jazz. Utah won that series, and the Clippers were once more unceremoniously dispatched from the postseason.
Griffin had surgery on the toe and saw five different specialists over the offseason. At Clippers media day this week, he said what athletes everywhere do before the season starts: He’s ready to go. Feels great. Doesn’t expect any setbacks—which is good, because he’s had quite a few over the years, and not just in terms of his health. That might be part of the reason why he’s slowly changed his game (and why he’s still trying to shake the reputation he was saddled with early on as a preener and complainer, one that stands in stark contrast to the likable off-court comedian persona he adopts in his free time). The guy who entered the league as a hyper-athletic rim attacker has worked to add more nuance to his game. In his first three years, nearly 20 percent of his shots were dunk attempts, per Basketball-Reference. Since then, that figure has been cut in half.
If it’s true that Griffin is healthy and committed to his continued evolution, it’s happy news for the Clippers, who need him now more than ever. When Chris Paul hit the eject button on Los Angeles and landed in Houston, it was left to Griffin to carry the Clippers through a weird time for the organization. The front office was restructured with Lawrence Frank taking full control over basketball operations from coach Doc Rivers. Jerry West also joined the franchise as a consultant. Accordingly, there are plenty of new faces, including Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and 30-year-old Serbian passing sensation Milos Teodosic. No one is quite sure if that means the Clippers are rebuilding or if they can remain a playoff team in a Western Conference that somehow keeps getting tougher.
For his part, Rivers said the Clippers will play a different style this season—more up-tempo—and he plans to deploy Griffin in various ways to that end. Sometimes, Rivers said, Griffin will “be the tallest guy on the floor” for the Clippers. Other times, Rivers said, “he’ll bring the ball up for us,” hinting that he will make a reality out of a long-held basketball fantasy. The main idea is that Rivers wants Griffin to “be more versatile.”
He certainly has the skill set for it. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks noted, Griffin is one of just 13 players in NBA history who are 6-foot-9 or taller and had a season with an assist rate higher than 25 percent. This offseason, Griffin landed at no. 24 on ESPN’s top 100 NBA players, one spot ahead of new Celtic Kyrie Irving. The rankings blurb noted that LeBron and KD are the only forwards other than Griffin to have a PER of 22 or better in each of the past six seasons. That’s impressive. But as acronyms go, Griffin’s PER will never be as important as his MRI.
At this point, the 28-year-old might as well have his own personal medical team. His injury history is so long it’s almost impossible to believe. His list of maladies includes: sprained left MCL, broken left kneecap, left meniscus tear, partially torn left quadriceps tendon, right high ankle sprain, left knee bone bruise, sprained left knee, strained left hamstring, partially torn right meniscus, right elbow staph infection, and a stress fracture in his back. Oh yeah, and he broke his right hand punching a Clippers employee outside of a Toronto restaurant. Can’t forget that one. Mercifully, it seems that the only thing the man hasn’t broken over the years is his funny bone.
He’s been at this for a while—making videos, making people laugh (or at least trying to), making himself laugh (for sure). One of his best skits was one of his first while moonlighting away from his gig as a professional basketball player. Griffin was in his second season when the NBA lockout hit in 2011. That gave him free time and an idea. Along with Kevin Love and Metta World Peace, Griffin created a mock infomercial called “Lockout Professionals” in which they offered to do odd jobs like get things off of high shelves for the low, low price of millions of dollars.
Search “Blake Griffin comedy” on YouTube and you quickly find yourself down a weird rabbit hole. There’s the story he told on Conan about going to Donald Sterling’s “white party.” There’s the “Drake vs. Blake” skits he did at the ESPYs, and the time James Corden went to his house to act as his life coach. With Conan, he spun a funny yarn out of obviously uncomfortable material. In the Drake stuff, Griffin did dry/droll humor with a heavy dusting of self-deprecation. With Corden, he was the willing straight man. If it’s not quite range, at the least it demonstrates Griffin’s willingness to take chances and stretch various entertainment muscles. Consider his roughly 10-minute stand-up routine from Montreal—labeled on YouTube, without irony, “Blake Griffin Does Stand Up Comedy – Actually FUNNY!”
What the person who posted that video was saying, with the all-caps and exclamation point for emphasis, wasn’t so much that Griffin was all-caps FUNNY—though he was—but that the poster didn’t expect him to be. That’s something Griffin addressed in his stand-up.
“I know what you guys are thinking,” he begins. “‘This guy’s not a comedian. He’s an athlete. He’s a big, dumb, stupid athlete.’ I’m sure you think I can’t talk good. I’m sure you think that I’m not good at grammar. That’s probably because you’ve seen athletes be interviewed on TV, and they’re so bad, that you think that you think we’re stupid. It’s not that we’re stupid. It’s not.”
“Actually, football players are fucking stupid.”
It was a smooth delivery. Funny Ha-Ha Blake is almost a different man when compared with the version who sometimes tosses a few clipped quotes over his shoulder as he heads for the door after another regular-season game. He did a bit about that very thing during the Montreal stand-up set: “I would love to see someone considered smart in the real world get interviewed 30 seconds after they just finished exercising for two straight hours.” It’s impossible not to notice how at ease Griffin is when he’s doing those sorts of things. Sometimes, it feels like he’s as comfortable nailing one-liners as he is taking big men off the dribble.
Back at the shoot, Griffin throws himself into character. During the climactic Yonkers Invitational race, Griffin dons extra-short shorts and a mesh tank top so tiny that it makes me wonder if wardrobe gave him Jimmy O. Yang’s outfit by mistake. He race-walks like a man who has done it before, swinging his arms and twisting at the waist. The man has great form. “A lot of people think it’s in your legs,” he deadpans. “It’s all in the hips.”
Who knows how things will go for him or the Clippers this season. Who knows if he’ll stay healthy. Who knows how long he’ll last in L.A., despite the new contract. All of that is for later, and it’s a lot less amusing to consider than what’s happening right now. Right now, he’s picking up old ladies—literally, not figuratively—to get a laugh. When that particular part of the shoot is finished, he happily and gently returns the actor to her feet. She thanks him, mainly for not dropping her. Griffin has a bit of a smirk on his face now, the familiar one that forms freely in those stand-up videos but is harder to come by when he’s within a long outlet pass of a basketball court.
“Thank you,” Griffin immediately replies. “That was fun.”