Blake Griffin and Identity

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh2ZT1aPBoE

You’d think turning from young, emerging hero to frequent villain would take more time. The path to widespread dislike is meant to take longer, a winding trip from years of spotlight and questionable play. But it’s 2012, and over the last four months, Blake Griffin has morphed into a player that often generates fan distaste, angry Lakers’ message board activity, and comments like this from opposing players:

“(Griffin is) in L.A. where actors belong,” Cousins said. “He’s an actor, so of course he would say (that he wasn’t worried about it).”

via Sacramento Bee: On testy night, a foul end for Kings

DeMarcus Cousins isn’t happy with Blake Griffin’s demonstrative, acting ways, and he isn’t alone. Many of you reading this are likely upset or not particularly pleased with Griffin, whether it’s because of his elbow-led dunks or unnecessary stare downs. Maybe you just think he’s a complainer. Griffin certainly hasn’t done much to separate himself from that on the court, and all of those grievances hold some viability. But, aside from the oft-vicious dunks, how does that set Griffin apart from a number of players in the NBA?

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Before the Clippers played countless games on national television, before the Chris Paul trade, before the team dared to characterize themselves as contenders, back when they were the Clippers of lore, Griffin delighted fans. Only the occasional Clippers’ game was available to a national audience, and Griffin’s dunks and leaps were the only thing that held space in the minds of many fans. He looked to be the best dunker of a generation, capable of terrific production and obscene displays of athleticism. Most of all, Griffin was still young, and as a player, he could only grow. Griffin is still the same player, but perception has shifted 180 degrees. That much became evident on Wednesday night.

What changed? Not much, except attention and the realization of Griffin’s continued determination to establish himself as a physical force. Griffin isn’t a good defensive player, but he seems determined to convince opposing teams that the painted area sits in front of his basket. The retention of that area’s dominance might require the occasional flop, as DeMarcus Cousins alluded to above, or a well-placed push, as Pau Gasol might attest to, but Griffin is willing to make that sacrifice. Whether this display of physical force serves Griffin well is debatable, but it’s something Griffin seems to strive towards, and perhaps something he’s looked to establish since his rookie year. Only now, the cameras are unified and pointed straight at him.

Anyone who has ever competed in a sport has complained about officiating, and NBA players are no different. What sets Griffin apart are his methods. These methods are still hardly to unique to him as a star, but they’ve become an attached stigma to his play. The wild arm raises and gesticulations come to mind, but Griffin’s known complaint trademark comes when he puts both hands on his head and disbelievingly stares forward at an official. Griffin wants outrage to come, and it certainly does from the Clipper faithful, but it’s met overwhelmingly with cries of “acting” and “whining” from other fan bases.

Griffin’s stare, unlike the complaining methods he shares with others, is almost inherently unique to him. He employs a blank visage not only in moments of feigned or genuine frustration with officiating, but occasionally in moments of personal triumph, after one of his signature dunks. Every eye at home and in the arena is directed at Griffin in these moments, and this blank stare meets their piqued interest. Of course, the employment of such a menacing stare does not set Griffin apart. Kevin Garnett has been employing an unnecessary staring habit and a “tough guy” persona for years, and for the most part, it works for him — the growling expression and fierce eye animation seal it. It certainly doesn’t inspire love from opposing fans, but it inspires believability. It’s believable that Garnett is angry and intense in these moments, and he exudes behaviors associated with toughness in a way that’s easily accepted as genuine, if not profound. This same believability cannot be found in Griffin’s stare. He doesn’t appear particularly intense or angry. He doesn’t appear much of anything, only confident and almost daring, as if looking around for someone, anyone to hinder his clear dominance. To those who look for Griffin only in these signature moments, only a haughty, vaguely daunting personality  can be found. But who is Griffin trying to daunt?

As the Clippers have risen to something more than a quiet basketball joke on the wings of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, people have been forced to take Griffin, key cog on a contending team, with a serious tone that wasn’t present in the past. No longer is he viewed as Blake Griffin: Highlight Machine. Now, Blake Griffin: Basketball Player has to be considered, and with that comes the questions about his defense and his jumper. Blake Griffin is a terrific overall basketball player, but he’s a bad defender with an unpolished offensive game, and with this newfound analytic presence, the perceived invincibility of Griffin’s game falls away. Griffin’s game is both developing and flawed, a recipe for severe criticism when placed in such a constant, gilded spotlight. Everyone now knows what Blake Griffin can’t do, and his on-court persona is only damaged further. If you can’t play strong defense, the tough guy facade begins to lose credence.

All of this isn’t to say Blake Griffin is wholly disliked. He still commands a legion of fans, fans that have every right to like Griffin just as much as those who opine contrastingly. Off the court, Griffin commands likability with ease, starring in Funny or Die videos, appearing in funny national ad campaigns, and staying active and engaging on Twitter. For most people, that’s enough to be well-liked by peers. But Griffin, as a professional basketball player, earns his reputation with many fans on the court. When Griffin brings out his “tough guy ” persona in the arena, a persona quite different from his apparent off-court sensibilities, opinions are bound to shift and sway.

That negative shift is in full tilt in recent weeks, catapulted by Griffin’s questionable antics against the Lakers. Countless basketball fans were subjected to the full range of Griffin’s grating style, as he elbowed Pau Gasol in the face on a dunk (albeit an awe-inspiring dunk) and enacted a light, but dangerous shove to the back of an airborne Laker (Griffin had a similar incident with Darius Morris in January). It’s an unfair microcosm of Griffin, one of the bright, young stars of the NBA, but one that also holds true to how Griffin often conducts himself on the court.

Perhaps Griffin will eventually grow into the Kevin Garnett-type persona he appears to seek. As Griffin changes as a player and improves on his weaknesses, his basketball personality may become more convincing. The pronounced shift in how Griffin is viewed will only grow, but perhaps Blake Griffin doesn’t see that as a detriment. Every NBA player has their on-court personality, and who a player projects themselves to be on the hardwood certainly does not determine who they are in life. Basketball, and all competition, brings out tendencies that do not normally exist in the hearts and minds of people. But for now, Griffin’s behavior only damages his national brand.

The problem is not that Griffin acts so much differently from other stars; it’s that his performance isn’t convincing. Many fans simply don’t believe the message Griffin is attempting to convey, and I’m not sure he believes it either.

Seth Carstens