I remember vividly the first time I realized Blake Griffin was something special.
I was probably a little late to the party in all honesty. It was the Elite 8 of the 2009 NCAA Tournament — so Griffin technically hadn’t been named national player of the year yet — but he had already finished a regular season in which he averaged 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds per game while shooting 65.9% from the field. At 20 years old, he was already a man among boys.
But back to that Elite 8 game. The Sooners were playing North Carolina, a Tar Heel team that brought back every rotation player from the 2008 Final Four squad, one that was an overwhelming favorite to win the national championship and went on to become the third team ever to win every tournament game by double digits. That Carolina team was loaded, and even so, Griffin was the best player on the court. It wasn’t particularly close.
The entire Tar Heel defense was geared towards stopping Griffin — every eye is on him when he touches the ball. But they couldn’t. He muscled and occasionally finessed his way through whatever they threw at him to the tune of 23 points and 16 rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting. UNC was assuredly the best team in the country, and they probably had the second through seventh-best players in the game depending on how you feel about Willie Warren, but Griffin still stood out in defeat. Roy Williams even compared Griffin to LeBron James after the game.
All of this leads us to May 18, 2009, eleven years ago today, when the Clippers won the opportunity to select Blake Griffin the 2009 NBA Draft. The draft lottery is one of the most absurd spectacles in the league. The idea that grown adults willingly subject themselves to sit around while the deputy commissioner reveals the results of events that transpired a half hour earlier — because of the bouncing ping polls — is unbelievable, even after all these years. But there Andy Roeser, then-president of the Clippers, sat, in the third position on the dais, unaware of how historic this day would be for the franchise.
The draft order was fully chalk until the sixth pick, when Minnesota dropped down, meaning Memphis had moved into the top three. Then Washington fell to the fifth slot, meaning the Clippers and Oklahoma City would join the Grizzlies in the lottery. At the time, it felt like kismet for Griffin to join his hometown Thunder, pairing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the franchise’s second season in OKC. But the lottery gods had other ideas.
The Thunder came in third (and took James Harden, which worked out okay), Memphis second, and the Clippers first. They had won the lottery twice before, but neither Danny Manning nor Michael Olowokandi was on the same echelon as Blake Griffin. Roeser wouldn’t show his hand at the time, but the lining of his jacket made the team’s intentions quite clear.
We’ve talked about seminal moments in Clippers history a lot recently, one in particular involving Donald Sterling. That event changed the franchise’s path for the better, but it was a painful ordeal for everyone involved and is still an ugly stain in the team’s history. Winning the Griffin lottery on the other hand was pure joy. Everyone believed that Griffin was a rare talent who might actually be able to bring success to the Clippers, and he did.
Griffin brought the magic from the second he took the court. His debut season was as electrifying as any first-year in recent memory. He was an All-Star, he won the Dunk Contest, and he convinced Chris Paul to make his home in Los Angeles, which in turn brought Doc Rivers, all leading up to what the Clippers are today.
It’s rare that a player lives up to the hype like Griffin did. There was always a sense of doom hanging over Clippers draft picks, but Griffin powered through that. He delivered on the possibility that hung in the air that day in 2009. He was the first step in changing the narrative of this franchise, which is what makes May 19 such a special day for the Clippers.