KANSAS CITY -- The constant in all the cheap-shot incidents directed at Oklahoma's Blake Griffin this season has been his reaction. He never really has one. After the pain subsides, his expression reverts to the blank state that Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said reminded him of the Terminator. There is no rage or retaliatory reflex that would lead to a technical foul; at most, all Griffin does is fiddle with his mouthpiece, shake off the cobwebs and walk away.
It was this part of the likely national player of the year -- his extreme unflappability -- that fascinated me most while watching him in the first and second rounds in Kansas City, more so than his baseline spin moves or the breathtaking dunks in transition. Part of it, I suspect, comes from his father, Tommy, whom I met in the stands at the Sprint Center and found to be similarly stoic and even-keeled. But I had also heard (through a mention in an SI feature by Kelli Anderson) about a San Francisco trainer named Frank Matrisciano who helped build Griffin into an even more explosive force over the summer, and introduced him to a mental-control concept called the "Puppetmaster."
Matrisciano is a hard man to find -- he has no listed number, no Web site and has never allowed his full face to be photographed for a publication -- but is renowned for training not just basketball players but also members of Army Special Ops units, federal marshalls, martial artists and boxers. He addresses people as "sir" during normal conversation. You have to know someone in his training circle to become a part of it, and Matrisciano said Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel was aware of him "through an old Duke connection." At Capel's urging, Griffin, his brother, Taylor, and fellow Sooner forward Ryan Wright went to San Francisco in the offseason, doing basketball skill work in the mornings with a group of college and pro players, and then going through Matrisciano's grueling and unconventional training -- which includes plenty of outdoor work on Bay Area beaches -- in the afternoons. I got Matrisciano's number through a friend who knew one of his basketball clients, and called him late last week.
Matrisciano said he considers the Griffin brothers and Wright to be his friends, and had watched their game against Morgan State the previous evening. The technique Griffin used while being judo-flipped by Bears henchman Ameer Ali had made Matrisciano proud. "Blake did a wonderful thing there," he said. "When you roll into the throw, and let your body go as limp as possible, you're less likely to get hurt. Because if you're stiff when you land -- like what happened between [UConn's Hasheem] Thabeet and [Pitt's DeJuan] Blair, you land a lot harder. Blake did exactly what he was supposed to do.
"What made me prouder, though," Matrisciano said, "was that he walked way. He could have ripped [Ali's] head off. But then Blake's kicked out of the game, and the next game too. So who wins? If he retaliates, he hurts himself and the opponent achieves his goal. That whole thing was meaningless to Blake. [Ali] will tell his grandkids, 'I flipped a Hall-of-Famer.' But Blake didn't react, and didn't let him win."
This, in a nutshell, is the Puppetmaster concept Griffin embraced for his sophomore season, after a freshman campaign in which he was easily ruffled by defenders and referees. "You're either a puppet on the court, or you're the puppetmaster," Matrisciano would constantly tell him. "You're either allowing someone else to control you, or you're the one in control."
When USC's Leonard Washington punched Griffin in the groin, Utah's Luka Drca tripped him, umpteen players elbowed him, Ali flipped him and Michigan's Manny Harris undercut him, Griffin stayed in control of the situation. Matrisciano said Griffin was able to do this because he and his brother have the mental discipline of "robots," allowing them not only to stay in control, but also plow through workouts that had caused umpteen NBA players to quit the training programs.
"I can't express to you how hard we work," Matrisciano said. "I've had pros who, three minutes in, 11 minutes in, a couple of days in, say, 'F--- this, you're crazy, I'm leaving.' Those kids just woke up every morning and worked."
Matrisciano recently had T-shirts printed that he plans to give to the Griffins (who will likely be preparing for the NBA draft) and Wright when they return to San Francisco this summer. On the front of the shirt are two images -- a puppet, and then hands with strings going down to a puppet -- and a question: "Who are you?"
In the case of Blake Griffin, Matrisciano already knows the answer: "He's a puppetmaster, sir. He sure ain't no puppet."