Before Blake Griffin soared over a car and won the dunk contest, Cindy Prince knew him as the youngster who stopped by her classroom every day to give her a hug.
Before he put a beleaguered franchise on the NBA map like never before, Josh Gamblin knew him as the kid who became his friend at a time when he needed one most.
Before he took the league by storm like no one has since Dr. J, Gary Vick knew him as the teen who made one of his summer basketball coaches worry he wasn't tough enough.
Big Blake has made quite the rise.
On a night when the Clippers rookie returns to his hometown for his first game here as a pro, he has already become the NBA's most exciting young star. He has power. He has skill. He has charisma. People knew he was good — he was the first pick in the draft, for goodness sakes — but this good? Good enough to have the whole league buzzing about what he'll do next? Good enough to make people care about Clippers games? Good enough to make All-Star Weekend a three-day celebration of Blake?
There are plenty of folks in Oklahoma City who knew he was that good. They realized his potential. They recognized his greatness.
They were witness.
Josh Gamblin could see right away that Griffin was different than the rest of the players on their baseball team. Even though he was already a big kid — home runs were the norm — he was always working on his hitting, his pitching and his fielding.
He was 9.
“If he didn't do something well, he was going to keep working at it,” Gamblin said.
And if he happened to have a bad game?
“He'd always bounce back,” Gamblin said.
But the thing that Gamblin remembers most from those early days was Griffin's friendship. Gamblin's family had moved from Omaha to Oklahoma City a few months before summer baseball started. He was the new kid, but it wasn't long before Gamblin and Griffin were best buds.
“He was always at my house,” Gamblin said, “or I was always at his.”
They are still tight more than a decade later. Even as Griffin went to Oklahoma Christian School, then to Oklahoma and Gamblin went to Putnam City North, then to Southwestern Christian University, they would talk on the phone and hang out whenever they could.
They don't see each other as often now — texts and tweets have become the favored method of communication — but Gamblin watches Griffin play as often as he can.
He couldn't be more proud.
“Blake was my friend before all of this,” he said. “If he wasn't playing basketball, he'd still be my friend.”
Not playing basketball?
That hardly seems possible now, but the man who oversees the state's most successful summer basketball program confesses some had their doubts about Griffin's staying power.
Gary Vick remembers having a conversation with one of his Athletes First coaches after a tournament in Lawton. Griffin had only been playing in the elite program for a year or so, but the coach was starting to wonder about him.
“I don't know if he's going to turn out to be anything,” the coach said.
Vick laughed as he recounted the story.
“Obviously,” he said, still chuckling, “he did turn out to be something.”
The doubting coach, it seems, got Griffin's off-court goofiness confused with his on-court abilities. The kid was always kidding around with his teammates, always joking, always clowning. The coach just didn't know if he was focused enough to take the game seriously.
Vick and everyone else with Athletes First soon saw what the entire basketball world sees now. Griffin has the perfect personality for success.
He can be The Terminator on the court, but if someone trips him or flips him or even hits him below the belt, he can walk away without slugging someone in the nose.
And that deadpan humor? Griffin can lighten any mood and endear any stranger.
“Blake is an ambassador for the entire state of Oklahoma,” Vick said.
His personality has boosted his stardom.
Cindy Prince never doubted that it would. Even though people were already in awe of Griffin's physical prowess by the time he reached her sophomore English class at Oklahoma Christian School, she saw something more.
One day while the class was talking about racial prejudice in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Griffin raised his hand.
“How can a whole town convict a man who is so obviously innocent?” he asked.
Prince saw that kind of thoughtfulness time and again from Griffin.
Every Christmas, OCS students take gifts to Westwood Elementary. Nearly all of the students at the southside school come from families poor enough to be eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. The holidays can be a bleak for many of them.
Griffin went to Westwood for the first time as a sophomore. He towered over the youngsters, but he folded himself onto the floor and played with a group of second-grade boys for as long as he could.
“You can't teach somebody that kind of compassion,” Prince said.
Griffin became one of Prince's favorites.
“Even his junior and senior years, he came by every single day to give me a hug,” she said. “Every. Single. Day.”
Prince watched the NBA Draft the night that Griffin was selected as the first overall pick, and she cried like a baby.
A couple days later, Prince saw Griffin's dad, Tommy, at the school. He hugged her, and she broke down all over again.
Tears of happiness.
She was so proud of Griffin, and for Prince and all the others who crossed his path on his way to stardom, that hasn't changed.
“That's my boy,” Prince said echoing a sentiment of many for whom tonight's Clippers-Thunder game is a homecoming like no other. “I think of him as my own.”