Blake Griffin grew up watching his father, Tommy Griffin, coach basketball in Oklahoma. One of those teams was at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City, including the team that won the 5A state championship in 1996.
The Detroit Pistons star, just 7 years old at the time, admired one of the team members, Julius Jones, who had a promising college basketball career ahead of him. Just three years later, a 19-year-old Jones was arrested in the death of Paul Howell, an Edmond, Oklahoma, businessman who was fatally shot during a carjacking in his parents’ driveway.
Jones was convicted in 2002, and sentenced to death.
Eighteen years later, Jones still is on death row and awaiting execution. Griffin remembered Jones fondly and has joined the fight to get the sentence overturned. Several prominent Oklahoma athletes, including former Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, along with former University of Oklahoma stars Trae Young, Buddy Hield and Baker Mayfield, have submitted letters to Gov. Kevin Stitt on Jones’ behalf, seeking clemency and a review of the case.
A documentary called “The Last Defense” alleges inept defense attorneys, racial bias in the investigation and other factors in the case, looking to not only get clemency, but potentially to get a new trial. Griffin has joined the group in pleading for justice for Jones, as the state looks to be closer to scheduling an execution date.
“My father coached Julius in high school, so I’ve obviously known him for a long time and as a kid, when this happened, I didn’t really understand or necessarily get all the facts,” said Griffin, who also starred at the University of Oklahoma. “So, when this sort of came back up and I had this opportunity to use my platform, it was important to me.
“I haven’t seen much movement as far as real movement, but a lot of people have been speaking out. There’s been several people that have lent their voices or their time to the movement, so I think that’s important, but we’ve just got to stay with it.”
Because of his closeness to Jones and having watched him, the exoneration remains important to Griffin. While some athletes typically are quiet on issues of social justice, the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis has stoked the flames of activism for celebrities, athletes, and normal citizens in making their voices heard.
During the unrest that swept the country and the demands for more social justice this year, the message that athletes should “shut up and dribble” has been cast aside for the most part — but there still are opponents looking to silence the dissenters, just as there were with Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling for the national anthem.
Griffin bristled at the idea that athletes shouldn’t have political opinions or speak out when they think something is wrong. In fact, he sees more opportunity now to utilize the platform to get the word out about social issues and to get more people involved in the movements.
“There are always going to be people that tell us that we shouldn’t have an opinion on things while everybody else gets to have an opinion on things — which is obviously very contradictory — but that’s not going to stop us and stop myself from speaking out on something that we think is wrong or right, whether you’re for or against it,” Griffin said. “I think that we’ve had a positive movement recently and I don’t want that momentum to die, with things becoming a little bit more normal.”
When the NBA bubble began last month, the activism and desire to support the Black Lives Matter movement remained strong. The NBA’s response was so pronounced, with support from commissioner Adam Silver and the players association that the league had “Black Lives Matter” stenciled on the court and players had a choice of 29 messages to be printed on the backs of jerseys for games.
Those choices included “Say Her Name,” in reference to Breonna Taylor’s killing by police in Louisville, along with “How Many More?” and “Equality.” Although the NBA has been at the forefront of professional leagues speaking out on social issues, the messages are just one of many steps that need to be taken to affect change truly.
“I think it’s something. Can they do more? Absolutely. But it’s a start. Being able to put (29) pre-approved messages on the back of your jersey,” Griffin said. “Black Lives Matter on the court is a start, but just putting words on the floor isn’t necessarily going to bring about real change; there has to also be follow-through with that and there also has to be a plan in place to support the idea of that. It sounds like they’re working on that, but we’ll see.”