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Blake Griffin Brought Me Back

Blake Griffin #23 of the Detroit Pistons reacts to a fourth quarter play while playing the Brooklyn Nets during the home opener at Little Caesars Arena on October 17, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Blake Griffin was Detroit’s curious foreign object. No one quite knew what to make of him and there was no good reason for his being here. He tumbled in through one of those unfortunate blockbuster trades that leaves every party a little angry. When he and Pistons fans eventually reached some affectionate understanding of each other, it was one built on a foundation of shared hurt, by one front office mortgaging its future, and the other ruthlessly abandoning its past. No truly natural relationship begins like that, with each side staring, blankly, at the other. That Griffin is leaving, after three years—ESPN reported Friday that he’s agreed to a buyout with the Pistons, and on Sunday his agent confirmed he'll be signing with the Nets—strikes me as reassertion of an old order rather than any peace disturbed. 

But set aside the sour beginning and dull ending to remember a sliver of middle that could be straight up glorious. So glorious you'd even forget the oppressive vibes of a roster headlined by him, Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond and, oh man, Luke Kennard. In Detroit, Griffin transformed his game, once famous for its soaring power, into something remarkably practical and protean. His dazzling turn as a cinder block with an efficient outside shot won him All-Star and All-NBA designation just two years ago. It offered what looked like a model for aging gracefully in the NBA, not cheating time, but adapting to its limitations. For one electric year, he was the unlikely pride of a team without much else to be proud of.

Which makes 2020-21 Blake Griffin so sad and bewildering. Turns out growing old sucks. Griffin's career now reads like the complete catalog of professional basketball's indignities. First, the momentum-thwarting early career injuries; then the trade, months after L.A.'s goofy free agency pitch promised he'd be "a Clipper for life"; now, a startling rate of physical decline. He'd been out of the rotation for weeks while the buyout was being worked out, but in his final games for the Pistons, he could almost never get to the rim. He was last seen parked helplessly on the perimeter, moving as if through mud. There's a stat going around that says he hasn't dunked since December of 2019, which, even accounting for last year's unfinished season, is a little depressing. Back in January, the Celtics sealed a game on a late possession by exploiting his slowness, and it was crushing to watch that in real-time and even more crushing to see it so spelled out afterward: "We got exactly what we wanted. We got Jayson going downhill against Blake,” Marcus Smart said postgame. “He’s not the same Blake as he used to be, and we just took advantage of that."

Griffin doesn't give the Nets a lot more than Additional Jeff Green, but there's no real downside to having a shot-creating scoring big off the bench, and it'll probably do him some good to be on a team asking very little of him. The awkward truth is this year's Pistons won't really miss him. They've carved some neat future for themselves between their rangy star Jerami Grant and the intriguing rookie trio of sharpshooter Saddiq Bey, a yet-to-be-unwrapped Killian Hayes, and center Isaiah Stewart, who reminds me of a certain undersized block-happy Pistons center of yore. (I haven't even mentioned our triple-double kings, Mason Plumlee and Dennis Smith Jr.)

So a goodbye like this can be awkward. How do you send off a star whose brightest days were somewhere else? Pistons fans are hardly lacking in happy memories of our own homegrown idols. Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace—my feelings for them are nothing short of total, out-of-my-mind worship. With Blake, it was something mellower: a brew of admiration and mutual pity, like winking at someone from across a room. 

That's not to say his time here was meaningless, though. Because it wasn't to me. I was going on about nine years of very dim interest in the Pistons when Blake’s 2018-19 All-NBA season began. I’d checked in on Charlie Villanueva and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from time to time, but I’d mostly ascended to an indifferent plane of fandom. The franchise spoiled me early in life, and a few errant Catholic fibers in my brain thought it only right to spend my remaining time on Earth in atonement for all the childhood happiness. 

But I’d been wading back into NBA basketball—one or two games a week—and a beat reporter’s stray mid-game tweet about how sharp Blake Griffin was looking against the Sixers told me I should be watching this one, in late October of 2018. In a university library carrel, I booted up the game on my laptop and shoved some earphones in, just in time for the third quarter. (It's funny to watch the video now; officially zero of the Pistons in it are still on the team.) That game is so vivid in my mind—so accessible—I’m tempted to climb into the memory and warn my past self of the horrible infatuation to come. 

After that night, I’d never miss a Pistons game. I’d thwack my palm on a coffee shop’s communal table, loud enough to startle the table's commune, when Reggie Bullock nailed a buzzer-beating fadeaway to beat the Raptors, and Blake, looking genuinely thrilled, came zooming over to give him a hug. I'd text my little brother running commentary, dribbles of "!!!!" and "ahhhh" and "blake!" If my brother found my new obsession puzzling, he wouldn't say anything and he'd like the company. In physics lab, I would carelessly plunk down a pipette to investigate what looked like the flicker of a Woj Bomb on my phone—and what a trade! Stanley Johnson for Thon Maker! I’d even begin writing about basketball, a thing I’d never tried before and found, to the bafflement of my bookish friends and my own self, that I really liked. I’d comb through every new profile of Blake Griffin, each of them announcing to the world that he was Not Dead Yet and Surprisingly Good, for signs that he was happy in Detroit. That's what I craved most, some indication that this—his brilliance and my fever—could be sustained. I'd turn into an obsessive, defensive weirdo. At a game against the Heat one night, my brother and I would roll our eyes at the man sitting behind us, trying to impress his date with loud, wrong commentary. We'd joke about whirling around and telling this guy off. A true fan would know that Zaza Pachulia impacts the game in ways that don't show up in the box score! I'd fret when a knee injury kept Blake out of the last few regular-season games. I would fret more when his injury status became the dubious "it won't get worse if he plays." As the race for the last few seeds in the East tightened, I’d think in a moment of ironic detachment that it would be funny, actually, if the Pistons’ playoff chances died at the hands of a depleted Grizzlies squad in a must-win game the Blakeless Pistons were losing. Then, when they mounted the big, wonderful comeback they needed, I’d realize just how badly, actually, I’d wanted them to win. At the very end of the season, I’d be there in the arena, at the final game of a playoff series the Pistons had no shot in, despite Blake's best efforts, and I’d be giving him a standing ovation with everyone else as he fouled out and hobbled on one knee to the bench. 

Before all that, though, it was me alone and unsuspecting in my little corner of the library and Blake against the Sixers on my screen, reminding me of something I'd long ago loved, even if it wasn't the same as before. The game went into overtime. In the last two seconds, the Pistons down two points, Blake faked a handoff to Reggie Bullock and drove to lay up points 48 and 49. Robert Covington caught Blake's arm trying to stop him. (I won't soon forget our beloved septuagenarian play-by-play guy's call: "And he is fouled! AND he is fouled!") Blake, now on the ground, popped right up and slapped the stanchion triumphantly. He nailed the free throw. They won the game. He was nine months a Piston at that point, but that’s what will always feel to me like the very beginning. 

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