One of my favorite pieces of writing that I’ve ever read is “Pafko at the Wall,” a novella by Don DeLillo that also serves as the opening to his massive novel _Underworld_. The story is about “The Shot Heard ‘round the World,” New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thompson’s home run off of Brooklyn Dodgers closer Ralph Branca at the famed Polo Grounds to win the 1951 pennant. It’s a moment of transcendence in the history of America: national legends like Jackie Gleason, J. Edgar Hoover, and Frank Sinatra brush shoulders with a baseball game and the thousands watching and listening to it, Willie Mays prances in center field, Jackie Robinson speeds around the bases, and the story’s protagonist finds himself owning Thompson’s home run ball after a harrowing fight for its possession. Something about this moment in history, featuring two in-city rivals playing for the grandest prize in their sport, in a time of burgeoning celebrity and American grandeur, has made it endure and amplify in majesty over the years. Things like this don’t happen in sports anymore. The players who play the games have a reputation for not caring, and the fans feel gouged by an expensive, self-centered product. Though some rivalries still carry weight: the Red Sox and the Yankees, the Celtics and the Lakers, even these have lost a bit of their allure. Players have grown up together and are friends, perhaps money has softened them, and rivalries aren’t so heated. Transcendence is gone in today’s athletic world. The scenario DeLillo writes about feels like a dream. It’s so much a part of the past that one reads through it as though it were a fantasy.
Yet the in-city rivalry can be born again, and with it, the possibility of a moment of transcendence occurring again. Consider Los Angeles: home to two NBA franchises, the perennially pathetic Clippers and often-dominant Lakers. Not only do they share a city, they share an arena, where Lakers championship banners and the retired numbers of legends like Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hang over the court no matter which team is calling it home that day. The only current similar scenario in American sports is that of the New York Giants and Jets, but the fact that each plays in a different conference has halted the formation of any sort of animosity. The Clippers and Lakers each reside in the NBA’s Western Conference, and for years the two have had decidedly different fortunes. But in 2009 the Clippers were blessed with the first choice in the NBA draft, and they chose the astonishingly athletic forward Blake Griffin of the University of Oklahoma, whose talents seem destined to take the Clippers to the peak of Los Angeles and the NBA.
Griffin’s immensely anticipated debut was delayed after he suffered a fractured kneecap upon landing after a dunk. It was the final basketball activity Griffin would perform for the rest of the year, as he watched from the bench another wretched, lost season, while the Lakers repeated as NBA champions. But Griffin returned to action this year. His first points served as a gasp-inducing harbinger of things to come. One watches it on YouTube and it’s all happening again, as if for the first time: streaking down the court as part of a two man fast break, Griffin and his 6’10” frame running fluidly, far too quickly for any man his size, he leaps higher than two defenders for an off-target lob by guard Randy Foye. His torso and legs hurtling toward the end line, Griffin reaches his right arm as far back as his shoulder allows, catching the ball cleanly in his baseball-mitt hands and slamming the ball through the net. He lands gracefully and runs back to play defense. The roar from the home fans drowns out the praise from the television announcers, and Foye hops into the air as he comes up the court, feeling giddy at a playground move perfectly executed.
Since that first game, Griffin has become a sensation. In a game in Los Angeles against the resurgent New York Knicks, Griffin executed a preposterous dunk over the Russian import Timofey Mozgov, in which Griffin launched himself toward the rim only to find Mozgov’s seven-foot frame planted in his path. Griffin was forced to stop his horizontal progress toward the rim about three feet earlier than he perhaps would have liked. Typically this sort of on-court interaction results in the player attempting to score ending up on his back, his dunk attempt no good, and two free throws on the way. But Griffin managed instead to climb a little higher, and his outstretched arm reared back in preparation for a mighty attack upon the rim. Looking something like a cross between Dwight Howard’s Superman dunk and Michael Jordan’s game winning, half court attempt in the film _Space Jam_, Griffin hurled the ball through the net, an awesome combination of power, strength, and serendipitous luck. The crowd let out a deafening roar.
One possession later, the New York forward Amar’e Stoudemire shot a pair of free throws. The television announcers were still talking about Griffin’s play. Stoudemire sunk his first shot and went through the ritual of thanking each player on his team for the efforts. As he waited for the ball from the official, he looked over at Griffin on the lower block and gave him an amused, understanding smile and nod. Stoudemire, in his own right one of the most athletic players of his generation, and still a forceful offensive player, seemed to recognize Griffin’s ability in the subtle gesture. Griffin smirks, then retrieves Stoudemire’s missed attempt for yet another rebound. The Clippers lose the game, as they have lost many this season, but Griffin’s various highlights have been some of the finest of the season.
The Clippers are not good enough yet to challenge the NBA elite. They are remarkably young and yet to be taught the proper way to play defense in a league awash in talented scorers. But they are must-see television with Griffin playing for them every night. They are a dynamic, freakishly athletic, joyous bunch that loves to play with one another. Every guard on the team wants to throw a lob pass and watch Griffin somehow turn it into two points. People show up to their home games and begin to roar on fast breaks even before Griffin leaps into the air. They have a star all their own, one who inspires a visceral reaction from fans and opponents alike. No one can watch what Griffin does and not shiver with joy, with appreciation, with awe. His athletic exploits need no explanation.
With the Lakers at the summit of their potential, their stars Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom all aging and wearing down, their reign as supreme entity within their city is likely coming to an end, not this year, but within the next two or three. In some postseason far from now, Griffin and his gifted sidekick Eric Gordon will match up against Kobe, Phil Jackson and the regally clad Lakers. The teams will not travel to each other’s home court, only watch as the paint on the floor changes from purple and yellow to red and blue. There will be stars in the stands. In America’s most glamorous city the entire first row around the court will be filled each and every night with Hollywood’s elite. Out of that scenario comes the transcendence, the American sublime that that 1951 baseball game derived from the presence of Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, and Frank Sinatra. Griffin spins off of Gasol’s back and launches himself into the air. The murmur of the crowd hushes, then wells into a mess of ecstasy as Griffin rises toward the rafters and banner after banner proclaiming Laker glory. Kobe stands at the 3-point line, hands on hips, watching the ball soar towards Griffin’s outstretched hands. And then—
DeLillo describes, in _Underworld_, the “wordless shock” that comes out of the transcendent moment. The impossibility of describing an event too large. Griffin finishes the dunk, glares at a photographer, jogs back up the court. Notorious Laker aficionado Jack Nicholson sulks in his seat, his mouth slightly open. And in this moment, as Griffin jogs up the court, Hollywood stars and basketball fans fortunate enough to be there all roar in childlike delight, one recognizes the sublimity of the union between sport and culture, athleticism and emotion. The Clippers seize the city, sending us all hurtling into a future magnificent and strange and new.