|Eddie Griffin: His last chance ended in a fiery crash|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 24 August 2007 12:46|
Since his days as a high school hoops phenom, his skills on the basketball court ensured recurring shots at redemption, despite an endless loop of self-destructive conduct: Alcohol, drugs, arrests. Missed practices and planes. Suspensions, rehab, relapse.
In the end, the only person who wouldn't give Griffin another chance was Eddie Griffin.
Once the nation's top high school basketball players and an NBA lottery pick, Griffin was 25 when he died last week in a gruesome collision with a moving freight train. His descent from millionaire prospect to grim statistic was stunning, say those who knew him - but not altogether surprising.
``He certainly got on the wrong path in life,'' said Dave Falcione, the athletic director at Griffin's Philadelphia alma mater, Roman Catholic High School. ``How that happens, who knows? Eddie had the ability, he had everything going for him.
``But it all fell apart, for whatever reason.''
Friends, family members and mentors search for an explanation - how could someone who stood with NBA Commissioner David Stern on draft day only six years ago fall so far so fast? But his story was sadly redundant: Everybody wanted to help Eddie Griffin, who tried but could not help himself.
``All along the way, good-hearted people think they're helping the individual achieve a goal,'' said Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. ``But the individual becomes less responsible as a human being, because he's asked to do nothing but play.''
Griffin's talent was unquestioned; Falcione put him in the holy trinity of Philadelphia hoopsters, with Duke great Gene Banks and the immortal Wilt Chamberlain. But his ability and his aptitude for trouble were inevitably intertwined.
At each stop, people were eager to assist this likable kid, so painfully shy and respectful when sober, so devoted to his mother - a nice guy. The kind of guy who deserved another opportunity to get things right.
``America is a very forgiving country, all for giving a second and third chance,'' said ex-NBA player Gus Gerard, a recovering addict who offered Griffin support. ``And in a multibillion dollar business, there's always a team somewhere that's going to give him that chance.''
The 6-foot-9 teen was a figure on the national sporting scene before he was old enough to drive, drawing comparisons to Rasheed Wallace and Tim Duncan. He could score, rebound, run the floor and block shots.
Yet every step in Griffin's career came with a misstep, from a fist fight that led to his high school expulsion to another punch-up at Seton Hall to an endless succession of self-induced woes that pocked his five-year NBA odyssey.
``Eddie's always had the potential to be something special,'' Minnesota teammate Kevin Garnett said last year. ``Eddie was the only person that ever stopped Eddie.''
At Roman Catholic, Griffin was popular with his teammates and school officials. ``He was a quiet kid, a nice guy,'' Falcione said. ``Never back-talked, always polite. But there was a little trouble his senior year.''
Griffin was expelled from Roman after fighting with a teammate in school. But Seton Hall never wavered on its scholarship offer, and Roman allowed Griffin to finish his classes at home and receive a diploma.
Parade magazine named him its national player of the year.
Griffin became the Big East's rookie of the year at the Hall, averaging nearly 18 points and 11 rebounds. But he was booed at a home game for lackadaisical play, and suspended for a game after again punching a teammate.
Then came a devastating personal blow: His half-brother and father figure, 34-year-old Marvin Powell, suffered a fatal heart attack. And Seton Hall coach Tommy Amaker, who had bonded with the teen, left the Pirates (and Griffin) for a multimillion dollar deal at Michigan.
Less than a week after Amaker bolted, Griffin announced he would enter the NBA draft. He was taken seventh overall by the New Jersey Nets in June 2001, and immediately dealt to the Rockets. As his pro career took off, his personal problems accelerated.
His depression over Powell's death lingered for years, Griffin later said, and his drinking increased. Although Griffin made the NBA all-rookie team in 2002, he'd worn out his welcome in Houston by December 2003.
There were missed practices and a missed team flight, along with a November 2003 arrest for allegedly shooting a pistol at his girlfriend's car; he had punched her in the face, and she was rushing to get away from him, authorities alleged.
Griffin was waived the next month - and quickly signed by the Nets, although he never played a minute in New Jersey. Griffin was instead jailed for a violation tied to the shooting incident and linked to a late-night fight at a New Jersey hotel.
He also spent six weeks in the Betty Ford clinic. When the Nets released him after two months, Griffin was enrolled in a residential alcohol treatment facility run by ex-NBA star John Lucas.
But the man once described by Rockets teammate Cuttino Mobley as a ``lovable, quiet cat'' still had at least one professional life left.
Minnesota signed him for the 2004-05 season, and took immediate steps to help the new arrival. He was assigned the locker alongside one-time MVP Garnett, the latest in a long line of people who tried to steer Griffin toward sobriety.
It worked - for a while. Griffin became a useful presence, and signed a three-year, $8.1 million contract extension in August 2005. But within months, he was involved in a car crash where he dodged drunken-driving charges. In January 2007, he was suspended for violating the NBA's anti-drug program.
He was released by the T-Wolves in March. Kevin McHale, Minnesota vice president of basketball operations, recommended Griffin get in touch with Lucas once again.
``In my business, that's not a good sign,'' said Lucas. ``If you isolate yourself, you forget where you've come from. You remember the sad things and the sad times. You become your own worst enemy.''
Falcione said officials at Roman reached out in vain to Griffin as his troubles mounted. Lucas said he last spoke to Griffin in March. Gerard, who overcame his own substance demons 14 years ago, recalled one chillingly prescient conversation with Griffin.
``I remember telling Eddie, 'You've already been to jail, you've already been to treatment. The next thing is dying,''' Gerard recalled. ``Unfortunately for Eddie, his time ran out.''
After he was cut by Minnesota, Griffin had two more run-ins with the law: A pair of assault charges, including one for fighting with his brother, Jacques.
But in June, Griffin began working out in Houston with ex-NBA star Calvin Murphy in hopes of jump-starting his career. Griffin missed an Aug. 15 morning session; two days later, at 1:30 a.m., the player's blue SUV went through a railroad crossing barrier and hit the freight train.
Murphy, like most, was bewildered by the news.
``I have a hard time believing he, all of a sudden, had a relapse and had gone back to drinking,'' Murphy said. ``I had absolutely no idea of any problems, alcohol-related or anything.''
Initial reports from the medical examiner said the SUV's lone occupant, wearing designer jeans and size 13 Timberland boots, was burned beyond recognition. The dead man was described in a forensic report as ``very muscular physique ... very tall,'' but he carried no driver's license.
It took four days to identify Griffin through dental records. Questions about his death still linger - was he drinking or on drugs? Toxicology results were pending.
It was just six years ago that Eddie Griffin stepped onto an NBA court against his hometown Philadelphia 76ers, still 19 years old, with no reason to believe anything but his life would be long and his future bright.
``It's a shame,'' Falcione said. ``Nobody ever thought anything like this would happen.''
Or that Eddie Griffin would run out of chances.
Associated Press Writers Chris Duncan and Juan A. Lozana in Houston contributed to this report.