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Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011

HOOP SCOOP

Apache coach Hill helped prepare Griffin for NBA


Dribbling one basketball while running or walking, gliding through a maze of defenders or with a hand in your face is a challenging task for anybody, even world-class athletes. Dribbling two at once is enough to drive many folks bonkers.

Ed Odeven

How about three simultaneously?

Awkward — two with one rapidly moving hand — and sounds impossible, you're probably telling yourself.

Simultaneously dribbling four basketballs requires exceptional concentration, chart-topping hand-eye coordination and, well, big enough hands to accomplish the feat.

You probably didn't know that rising star Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers can dribble four basketballs at once.

Neither did I until legendary hoop scribe Peter Vecsey of the New York Post sent me a recent e-mail, detailing how Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill worked with Griffin in his pre-NBA days and taught him the finer points of ball handling and how to pull off this astonishingly tough task.

(I must admit I was thrilled to receive this juicy nugget of information and just as eager to surprise Hill with questions about it.)

"The reason he does all that is because of his attitude, commitment and his determination, first of all," Hill said in a recent interview. "Second of all, he was already a good ball handler. He was already a good dribbler.

News photo
Rising star: Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin is second in the NBA with 46 double-doubles this season. He is a leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. AP PHOTO

"What I did was take his dribbling to another level, because we dribbled three balls, we dribbled four balls, and he had never done that before."

Hill tutored Griffin, the Clippers' No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, during the summers of 2008 and '09 in San Francisco. Workouts were held with other top collegiate players as they prepared for their professional careers.

In 2008, Griffin, who averaged 18.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in two seasons at Oklahoma, spent about two weeks gaining instruction from Hill, who has been the head coach of the Knicks, Pacers, Spurs and SuperSonics during a lengthy career. The pre-draft workouts and on-court lessons in 2009 lasted for three months with about 20 players.

These sessions gave Griffin, who is set to make his first NBA All-Star Game appearance on Sunday at Staples Center in Los Angeles, ample opportunities to make subtle adjustments to his game and to showcase his skills before a mentor who has a well-earned reputation as a gifted teacher for young players.

The 208-cm Griffin, the consensus NCAA Player of the Year in 2009, was well on his way to having a super season with the Clippers in 2009-10, as evidenced by his play in seven preseason contests and in the NBA Summer League when he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the off-season circuit with five standout games in the Las Vegas-based showcase.

But then he suffered a stress fracture of his left patella on Oct. 23, 2009, in a preseason game against the New Orleans Hornets. He missed the entire season and underwent surgery on his left knee on Jan. 20, 2010.

Healthy and determined to establish himself as a go-to player for the moribund Clippers, Griffin has helped rejuvenate the franchise's fan base, though the team's record (21-35) is still far from respectable.

The fleet-footed big man has become a popular choice of YouTube viewers and is frequently shown on NBA.com highlight reel clips, thanks to his explosive dunks and strong, aggressive play in the lane.

Through Thursday, Griffin is the NBA's fourth-leading rebounder (12.6) to go along with 22.8 points and 3.5 assists in 56 games.

He's No. 2 in double-doubles this season with 46. Only Minnesota rebounding maestro Kevin Love, another first-time All-Star who has had 51 games with 10 or more points and rebounds has more, as well as a league-high 15.5 boards per game. Orlando's Dwight Howard has notched 45 double-doubles.

"The thing that separates players first and foremost is their commitment and passion for the game of basketball," Hill said after Tokyo's 81-72 win over the Akita Northern Happinets on Tuesday at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. "We were sitting around today before the walk-through and some of the guys wanted some Michael Jordan stories and some Larry Bird stories and so I gave them a couple, and at the end of the day this is all pretty simple: it's a simple game. You've just got to show up and you've got to work every day."

Nobody will accuse Griffin of taking shortcuts on the court, or looking for the easy way out. That all-out commitment to his craft guided him on this path to stardom. It helped him make an instant impact for the Clippers this season, too.

In his NBA regular-season debut, he had a 20-point, 14-rebound (nine offensive boards), four-assist performance against the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 27.

News photo
Valuable mentor: Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill worked closely with Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin over two summers before he turned pro. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Griffin's passing has already helped transform him into one of the league's elite players. He has 11 games with six or more assists this season (top game: eight assists), and a knack for making the right pass.

Did Griffin's rapid ascension to stardom come quicker than Hill expected?

"No, not at all," Hill said. "It hasn't surprised me at all. In the NBA, if you go out there every night, night in and night out, and play really hard out there, you can score points. But if you look at his line, he's scoring a lot of points, he's making his free throws better (61.7 percent), but he always has five or six or seven assists because he can dribble and he's a team player. At the end of the day, it's because of his heart and commitment and his desire."

Griffin's unmatched intensity provided a unique challenge for Hill during those summer workouts in California. In fact, the coach had to tell him to be prepared to tone down his game a little.

Listen to Hill's recollection of the situation:

"He's the only player in my life that I've ever sat down and had a conversation with, and I told him, 'You're not going to be able to play as hard as you play (in college) all the time in the NBA, because the games are too long and the season's too long.' He's nuts . . . special, special person."

Griffin will be the first rookie since Houston's Yao Ming in 2003 to play in an NBA All-Star Game. That alone reveals plenty about the respect he already commands from his peers and the public.

In the years to come, Griffin's name will become synonymous with other players who truly excelled as the game grew in leaps and bounds before the calendar flipped to the 21st century.

"I never went to the old Boston Garden, ever, for a game against the Celtics that Larry Bird wasn't out there shooting with a manager and already had a wet, gray Boston Celtics T-shirt on," Hill recalled. "It's the same with Blake Griffin.

"If we had a drill and he lost, he would want to do it again. He wanted to do it again right away; he had to win every drill. . .

"He'll be a Larry Bird or a Michael Jordan or an Isiah (Thomas)," the coach concluded, referring to three Hall of Famers. "He'll be one of those guys because of his attitude and his work ethic."



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