This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Oct. 30 NBA Preview issue. Subscribe today!
On a muggy evening in Honolulu, site of Clippers training camp, five-time All-Star Blake Griffin shows me his mettle in the Waikiki Beach surf. He rides a wave with his stand-up paddleboard and yells at me to follow suit: “Keep moving those arms! If you go slow, you’ll fall.” I go slow. I fall.
Still, Coach Griffin, 28, says I’m doing fine for a rookie, though he repeatedly credits my “low center of gravity” — because 6-foot-10 forwards are jerks. I credit Griffin’s patient but stern tutelage, leadership that will be tested this season as the Clippers seek to integrate a whopping nine new players while adjusting to the absence of Chris Paul, whose six-year term as Griffin’s co-mayor of Lob City ended in June with his trade to the Rockets.
We’re soon joined in the water by several curious Clippers, including incumbents DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Johnson, who commandeer my board and paddle, respectively. The two instruments have little value when separated, but whatever — Griffin, leader by land and sea, begins class. “What do you mean, start on my knees?” Jordan asks, just before his 6-11 frame folds into the ocean. Danilo Gallinari and Willie Reed splash him, for good measure.
Griffin and I paddle away for some quiet, several hundred yards offshore, where he drops to his board, leans back and extends his legs, revealing a 2-inch scar along his right big toe, a souvenir from a May surgery to repair his plantar plate. We chat as the Pacific swallows the golden sun.
ESPN: I hate you for dragging me to Hawaii.
GRIFFIN: I’m really sorry. I figure we’re here, so why not go out on the ocean, and probably the best way to enjoy it is paddleboarding.
You’re paddleboarding. I’m just kind of floating.
My first time, I fell in, like, five times. I don’t know if it was because I’m so tall or I just got bad balance, but it wasn’t easy for me. I told you, you have a lower center of gravity, so it’s easier.
Stop calling me short, bro.
[Laughs] But you look good out here. Your attire is good too, classic athletic.
Honestly, I wasn’t about to be shirtless on camera next to Blake Griffin.
You would’ve been fine. Looks like you work out.
What do you love about paddleboarding?
What I love most is being in the middle of nowhere in your own thoughts, like meditating. I’ve also done paddleboard yoga — you go into the marina in LA, toss an anchor and do yoga poses on the water. I just like to be alone sometimes and think. This is the best place to do it.
Cool, but what’s our position on sharks?
Uh, I’m not a huge fan of sharks. If we see one, we’ll be in the same boat. Or the same board.
Correction: You’ll punch the shark as I paddle to safety.
Who’s the least likely Clipper to be out here with you?
Probably Lou Williams. We did a kayak race the other day. Lou had socks on in the boat. I don’t think he’s a big water guy.
Ditto. So let’s just sit here and talk Clippers. Congrats on your new five-year, $173 million deal. I would’ve bought you a gift, but you’re rich.
Appreciate it. Yeah, I was happy. This is where I started my career, and it just made sense to stay. When I got here, they’d just won 19 games, and there was the Clippers Curse — like, all their first-round picks were busts. We broke through that one, then it’s like, “They’ll never make the playoffs.” Now it’s, “They’ll never get past the second round.” So it’s just the next curse challenge. I think everybody’s ideal is to have a wonderful career with one franchise, like Kobe and Tim Duncan.
How did you find out CP was out?
He called me the morning he got traded and told me how it went down, and we just wished each other good luck and moved on. It was nice to have that conversation. A lot of times you hear about guys that didn’t.
Doc Rivers said, “It was a transition that needed to happen because the Big Three didn’t work.” As a member of the Big Three, how does it feel to hear that?
I mean, that’s just fact. It’s not an emotional statement. That’s the good thing about sports — it’s very clear-cut. You either win or you don’t. And we didn’t.
Do you feel it was time for a change?
I don’t know. You never want to blow up something like that — you have All-Stars in CP and DJ [DeAndre Jordan], great pieces like J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford. But at the same time, we haven’t had success, so a shake-up doesn’t hurt.
With nine new players, do you guys have to wear name tags here in Hawaii?
[Laughs] We actually worked on that early in the offseason by going around the room saying names. Milos Teodosic. I had to practice that one, but I finally got it down.
For the first time in your career, you’re the Clippers’ unquestioned leader. You ready?
Yeah, I’ve fully embraced that. This is my ninth year now; it’s time to take on that role.
Chris was known as the in-your-face leader, a bad cop to your good one, perhaps. Based on your paddleboard coaching, I can’t see you as bad cop.
[Laughs] Yeah, I led by example, but I’ll be more outspoken this year. Over the years, I’ve learned that leaders aren’t always popular. You have to say things people don’t necessarily want to hear.
What can we expect to see from the new-look Clippers?
We’ll get up and down the floor. Having such a younger team with a lot of really athletic guys who can put the ball on the floor, make plays and score for themselves, running and being more aggressive defensively-those will be keys for us. For me, I’ll just fill the voids, whether it’s playmaking, scoring or rebounding.
Which part of your game must take the biggest leap?
I’ll have to become a better passer and more of a go-to guy down the stretch. And I have to expand my range to 3. It’s a weapon that I need to have. As long as I’m making a decent amount of them to put pressure on teams and space the floor for us, I’m doing my job.
To top the Warriors, contenders are in an arms race to form superteams. Now that the Clippers are down a superstar, are you OK with calling this a transition year ahead of 2018 free agency?
Nah, I don’t look at it as a transition year. What have we done in the last five, six years? Nothing. We got to the second round. This year we expect to make the playoffs. That’s our goal. From there, anything can happen. We can at least accomplish what we did last year.
Imagine I’m among the talent-rich 2018 free agent class. What’s your pitch to me?
We have the richest owner in sports. We’re in one of the biggest markets in the world with a coach who’s won a championship. We have myself and DeAndre. And our work this year will be a big part of the pitch.
What did you learn from the DeAndre Hostage Crisis that you can use next summer? Like, I don’t know, kidnapping and false imprisonment?
That whole thing taught us to do your work early. Sometimes guys just want to know you want them. And our biggest thing with free agency will be [re-signing] DeAndre. He’ll be huge in furthering our franchise. Everybody else is secondary.
You’ve earned the dreaded “injury-prone” label. How does it feel to have that stick?
You know, it happens. You can’t hang your head and feel sorry for yourself.
Was there a specific injury that put you at your low point?
My toe in the playoffs last season definitely hurt. It was hard to grasp that. When they said, “It’s your big toe,” I was like, “I don’t really need my big toe. Can I still go?” [Laughs] I remember the doctor saying, “Well, no. We should get an MRI.” When I found out I had a tear in my foot-it’s disbelief. Shock. You have to put it behind you and move on.
It’s pretty rare to chat about a toe while it’s in view. It’s right there on your board. Good-looking toe, dude.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s the one. I appreciate it. The toe is great.
Due in part to injuries, ESPN now has you ranked the 24th-best player, down from fifth in 2014. When you hear that, does it make you want to paddle out into the ocean and just disappear?
Honestly, I couldn’t care less. Rankings are rankings. It has no dictation on my game or on our season. Yeah, it would be nice to be higher, but it doesn’t bother me at all.
What remaining life goals have you set for yourself?
Winning a championship. That’s the only thing left. I want to be a Hall of Famer, have an impact on my franchise, and you can do all of that by winning a championship. After that, I’ll probably want to enjoy, alike, having a Christmas off with my family. And you’re always invited any time I come to Hawaii.
Are we gonna be paddleboarding buddies?
Yeah, we’ll be here next summer.
Well, that depends. Will you still be wearing preposterously skinny jeans, as dissected in the GQ story titled: “Blake Griffin, who is very big, wears jeans that are not.”
What can I say, it’s hard to find jeans that fit. My waist is, like, a 36, but 36s don’t fit my legs. So I’ll get 38s, and they still don’t fit. And 40s fall right off my waist. I aspire to find that happy medium. There’s another goal for you.