Start at the house on Ann Arbor Terrace. Wind through the neighborhood where modest brick homes line quiet streets named St. Mary's Place and Libby Avenue. Then swing onto the chaos of Northwest Expressway.
Pass fast-food restaurants and big-box stores and strip malls and endless commerce that becomes a blur. Where the flashing signs and the digital billboards begin to thin, turn into another neighborhood. The brick homes are a wee bit bigger here, but the streets are still quiet.
Hang a slight right, and arrive at the house on Harvest Hills Road.
The journey is only 4.6 miles.
The drive is less than 15 minutes even with bad traffic.
That's how close Blake Griffin and Sam Bradford lived growing up on the northwest side of Oklahoma City.
Unbelievable, isn't it?
For a little while longer, these two are the reigning rookies of the year in America's biggest pro sports. Bradford will give up his title next weekend when the NFL names the 2011 Rookie of the Year. Griffin, whose Clippers face the Thunder on Monday, will remain Rookie of the Year until the NBA crowns a new top newbie this summer.
These are two of best young athletes in professional sports. Their paths intersected along the way — they played summer basketball together for Athletes First and starred at the same time at Oklahoma — but for as close as they lived, their crossroads are few.
Their paths were parallel.
Both had parents who were educators and former athletes. Both grew up in households that saw value in being active and in learning the life lessons taught by sports. Both were afforded every opportunity but taught the value of discipline.
That upbringing helped both reach jaw-dropping heights while handling heart-wrenching disappointment. Unlike the thoroughfare that connects their boyhood homes, their paths haven't always been straight.
The Northwest Expressway Boys have had quite a journey.
* * *
The house on Ann Arbor Terrace is brick. Double garage. Basketball goal in the driveway just like lots of other houses in the neighborhood.
But this is where Blake Griffin learned to play.
What the Los Angeles Clippers big man learned there made him the player he is today. That fundamentally sound game that makes him one of two NBA players averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game? That unbelievably gritty attitude that you see in the abuse he takes and delivers?
You can trace it back to the driveway.
Fundamentals came first because his dad would have it no other way. Tommy Griffin is one of the state's most successful high school basketball coaches, and the do-it-again, get-it-right philosophy he uses was the same way he taught his sons, Taylor and Blake.
They had to learn the fundamentals before he would allow either of them to play organized basketball.
But while Tommy was teaching fundamentals to his sons, Taylor was teaching toughness to his younger brother. The brothers waged many one-on-one battles in the driveway, some that even had to be broken up by Tommy or his wife, Gail.
All of that created an insatiable work ethic in Griffin.
“It's very professional-like ... even before he got into the pros,” his dad, Tommy, said. “Of course, he had a great leader; Taylor was the same way.
“No matter what ... Blake's going to work hard. That's his instinct.”
That drive helped him through one of the toughest years of his life, a preseason injury in 2009 that cost him an entire season. It delayed his rookie year in the NBA. It sidelined him when he was supposed to be saving the woeful Clippers.
Of course, all he did was pour himself into the rehab. He went a hundred miles an hour, arriving at the training facility early, working when no one else was around, leaving no doubt that he'd be back.
And he was — with a vengeance.
Last season, he was the runaway winner of the rookie-of-the-year honors. He won the slam dunk contest. He made the highlights more than LeBron James. He took the league by storm.
Now with the Clippers' acquisition of Chris Paul, Griffin is supposed to do even more. There's even been talk of a championship.
CP3 is a big part of that, but Big Blake is the centerpiece.
“I can't really imagine having that much success so young,” said George Overbey, who played alongside Griffin for three years at Oklahoma Christian School. “You'd think it would go to your head or you'd begin to act differently because of it. But Blake, he had a great background.
“His parents taught him the fundamentals of life, not just basketball.”
It started at the house on Ann Arbor Terrace.
* * *
The house on Harvest Hills Road is brick. Double garage. Sprawling front yard just like lots of other houses in the neighborhood.
But this is where Sam Bradford learned to play.
The St. Louis Rams quarterback is a football legend in his home state and a franchise's hope in his new home. He is a poster boy who gives credit to everyone but himself. He is a fierce competitor who keeps that fire burning behind a steely facade.
You can trace that back to the sports he played as a kid.
It wasn't always a football, after all, that neighbors saw him tossing around that front yard. Bradford played baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey and golf, and if he'd been able to keep playing all of them, he would have.
“He was a kid that enjoyed sports,” his mom, Martha, said. “That's what he did. He didn't stay inside and watch TV or play Nintendo. He was always outside.”
And she and husband, Kent, were fine with that.
Martha is a longtime physical education teacher, and Kent is a former football player at OU. So when Sam would bring home a flier about a baseball Optimist League, they would sign him up. Or when a new basketball season would start at Satellite Gym, where Kent has long coached and volunteered, they would give it a go.
But their willingness to let their only son experiment went beyond sports.
He played cello in school orchestra for several years.
“I don't know how it all happened,” Kent said, chuckling. “It just happened.”
All those experiences taught Bradford about teamwork and practice and competition. He learned the right way to do things. He learned that winning was a lot better than losing, too.
Then again, some of those things were hard-wired into him.
Martha remembers that when Sam was in first grade, his teacher put three bears on each student's desk. Do something wrong, and one of the bears would be taken away.
“I think he went all year and never lost a bear,” Martha said. “He was just that type of kid. He just always wanted to do the right thing and be the best at everything.”
Which made this past year extremely difficult.
After that rookie-of-the-year season — the Rams made a six-game improvement and missed the playoffs by only one game — St. Louis changed offensive coordinators. Josh McDaniels brought in a more downfield passing game, and with a receiving corps built more for the dink-and-dump game and an offensive line decimated by injury and incompetence, the Rams won only two games.
Worse, Bradford seemed to regress. He forced passes. He took sacks. He developed bad habits.
An ankle injury also limited him to 10 games.
Now, the Rams have a new head coach in Jeff Fisher and Bradford has his third offensive coordinator in three years, Brian Schottenheimer. This has been a tough year for Bradford — a competitor who wants to win, not see his coach get fired — but through it all, he has remained positive.
“I feel very blessed that he's remained who he is,” his mom said.
It started at the house on Harvest Hills Road.
* * *
Who knows where the road leads next for The Northwest Expressway Boys?
There could be All-Star Games and Pro Bowl appearances. There could be division titles and league championships. There could even be rings.
There will undoubtedly be success.
Blake Griffin and Sam Bradford are winners. Whether facing good times or bad, they have the maturity to handle it and the fire to embrace it. They are driven to be great.
No matter where that drive takes them, it will always go back to a pair of brick houses connected by more than a six-lane highway.