by Lang Whitaker

• First of all, a big congratulation to Sam Rubenstein and the New York Mets on winning the National League East and the 2007 World Series. It was a long season, and my Braves valiantly battled Sam’s Mets all year, even winning a few series against them. But it was a tough summer for my Braves, with Andruw Jones losing his hitting stroke, with a devastating injury to our best hitter, Edgar Renteria, with a long, odd injury keeping Chipper Jones on the bench. So, congrats to the Mets. They were the better team this season, good enough that they won the entire World Series! They’re amazin’!

(Oh, it’s not over yet? You mean the Braves could still win the Wild Card or even the Division? The Mets didn’t win the World Series yet? But I thought…but Sam said…)

• Before we move on, please read this. Russ sent that to me yesterday. LLAMAS!!!!!

• I spent the long weekend in Europe, wandering around, eating good food and improving my linguistic abilities. Wanted to get to the PSG/OM game in Paris on Sunday but my tickets didn’t come through, so I stayed away from Parc des Princes and watched it on TV. Funny thing is, last year I was in Paris and got some PSG tickets through a friend at Nike, and I ended up sitting in the team President’s box. I called my friend last week and told him I’d be in Paris and would love a ticket, but I knew it was a huge game and tough to get a seat. He responded that yeah, tickets were going to tough to come by for the game. So I was watching the game on Sunday on Canal+, and they showed the box where I sat last time, and who was in my seats? Sarkozy. So yeah, I’m not really surprised I couldn’t get those seats.

• I got off the plane yesterday at Newark and bought a copy of the New York Post, and inside they had a story and photo of Owen Wilson coming home from the hospital after his supposed suicide attempt. According to the article, Wilson was in the back of his brother’s car coming home from the hospital when they got stuck in traffic, and some resourceful person managed to snap a picture of Owen sitting there with his eyes closed.

Back in 1996, when I was living in Atlanta, I used to go the movies all the time, sometimes as often as five times each week. My friend Bruce and I were both night owls and we both had some free time, so we went to countless late-night flicks at a local mall. This meant we saw a lot of movies, some of them great, most of them terrible. We’d go see movies we had no interest in, just because we hadn’t seen the movie yet.

One such movie we kind of stumbled into was called Bottle Rocket. We knew absolutely nothing about it, just that it starred a bunch of people we’d never heard of. Well, we loved it. It was the story of two hapless losers who decide to turn to a life of crime. Here’s the original preview of the film. I highly recommend Netflix’ing it if you can. It was original, quirky, well-written, well-directed and generally just a great movie. I ended up seeing it in the theater three or four times — hey, I had a lot of time to kill between not working and not looking for a job — and it’s still one of my favorite movies of all time.

So I have been watching with interest the last few years as everyone involved with Bottle Rocket has gone on to do bigger, more mainstream stuff, from director Wes Anderson to the film’s co-writer and star Owen Wilson. But I’ve always really liked Owen Wilson, who I find hilarious in pretty much every movie he’s in (except that one with Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson).

One night last week I was about to go to sleep when I read online that Owen Wilson had attempted suicide. I spent about an hour reading stories on the internet about the possible causes, about his alleged drug problems, about how he was clinging to life. And I started thinking back to a few days prior, the day I landed out in Las Vegas for the LeBron V launch and the Tournament of the Americas.

I woke up on the morning of Tuesday, August 21 at about 5:30 a.m., sat on a plane for nearly six hours, then landed in Vegas a little past noon, having gained three hours in my day due to the time difference. This was also three hours of staying awake that I was going to have to make up for at some point, since I knew I probably wasn’t going to be getting much sleep in Vegas. I checked into my hotel room at The Palms around 2:30 p.m. and knew I had to be at the Wynn by 5:00 p.m., so I had a few options in the time in between:
1) Gambling — Probably my first choice, although I’ve never had much luck gambling while the sun is out.
2) Sleeping — Hadn’t slept much on the plane and I was thinking a two-hour nap might be a spectacularly good choice.
3) Working — Ever since I’ve been at SLAM I’ve developed a seemingly never-ending backlog of emails to respond to, things to write for SLAMonline, etc.

Working was probably what I should have done, but I knew I was going to spend the next few days doing stuff that I’d eventually be writing about for SLAMonline. So the way I figured it, sleep would actually be an investment in future work. Or something.

Anyway, I went up to my room, unpacked and checked some email. I was just about to crash for a few hours when I got an email on my Sidekick from one of my guys. When say one of “my guys,” I mean a source, basically. I consider him a friend, yes, but mostly we share information. This guy is a guy who knows a lot of NBA-related people who work in various capacities, and occasionally he comes across information not many people have heard about. Sometimes, when such information presents itself, he contacts me.

I laid on the bed, and as my eyelids started to sink, I figured I’d read this one last email…

Dude, did you hear? Eddie Griffin is dead.

What? I wrote him back and asked if he meant the comedian Eddie Griffin or the former NBA player Eddie Griffin. The NBA guy, he said.

I got off the bed, went over to my laptop and googled “Eddie Griffin NBA.” Nothing new there. Certainly nothing about him dying. The most recent story, actually, was a passing mention about Eddie working out in Houston with John Lucas this summer.

I emailed my guy back. Was he sure? I wasn’t reading about it anywhere, couldn’t find any confirmation. He said word was circulating all morning, that it had supposedly happened a few days earlier. The horrible story making the rounds was that he’d died in a car collision with a train. What a sad story. Not just the death of a person, one who I’d spoken to a few times in NBA locker rooms, but a guy who’d been through several terrible, personal, public missteps.

I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep. I made a call to a friend who writes about the NBA, who’s better connected than I am. I asked if he’d heard about this, and he hadn’t. I told him I was too exhausted at the moment to work the phones. Let him make some calls, he said.

A few minutes later, he sent me an email titled “It’s True.” He was on the phone with someone in Houston who was confirming it, and he send along a link to this story

Help Needed To Identify Man Who Drove Into Train

POSTED: 8:44 am CDT August 21, 2007

HOUSTON — Investigators asked the public for help identifying a man who drove his sport utility vehicle into a moving train, KPRC Local 2 reported Tuesday.

Houston police said the man drove through the crossing arms and into the side of the train on Lawndale Street near Collier Street on Friday.

The man’s vehicle burst into flames upon impact. The driver was burned beyond recognition, officials said.

Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office officials said the man was very tall and had a very muscular physique. He was wearing Sean John jeans, a belt, black gym shorts with white stripes and size 13 Timberland boots. Officials said a shirt was not recovered.

The man was driving a full-size, blue, late-model Nissan or Infiniti SUV with aftermarket blue wheels.

As I read that story, I felt sick to my stomach. It had to be Eddie Griffin, right? Very tall, muscular physique, train accident. I forwarded it to the original guy who’d called me, who wrote back and pointed out that the black shorts with white stripes were probably the official adidas practice shorts every NBA team started wearing last season. That made me feel a little worse.

So, there I was in my hotel room in Vegas, and I knew that Eddie Griffin was dead. The problem was that the rest of the world didn’t seem to know.

Now, as a reporter and a journalist, my initial instinct was to get on the phone and try to get someone to confirm this on the record, to write up a post about it and get it up on SLAMonline as soon as possible. As tragic a situation as it was, it was news, wasn’t it?

I called the journalist I’d been talking to. He and I were the only people who seemed to know for sure that it had happened. He’d made the call confirming it, and I asked him if he wanted to report the story. He checked with his editor who told him no, they would wait for the wire to report it. So the story was SLAM’s to break if we wanted it.

I just wasn’t sure I wanted to break it. I did another google news search and found nothing. I leaned back in my prefabricated desk chair there in The Palms and looked out the window, over the desert. As I saw it, I had two options:
1) Report that Eddie Griffin had died.
2) Wait for someone else to report that Eddie Griffin had died and then link to their story.

It was an important story, I knew. But it was just too tragic, too sad. It was here I probably should have been able to separate my emotions from the facts. But I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be the one to let the world know. If the world had to wait an extra hour to find out that Eddie Griffin was no longer alive, that was OK with me. Maybe that extra hour thinking he was alive, for a family member or one of his friends, would be their last hour of happiness for a while. I didn’t want to deprive them of that. I realized they might not even know the truth yet.

(ASIDE: What made this even more unsettling is that a few years earlier, I went to Houston to report and write our Yao Ming/Steve Francis cover story. On the Sunday morning I was in H-Town, the Rockets had a early-morning shootaround at the Compaq Center a.k.a. The Summit, their old arena. I woke up early and was driving my rental car through a quiet industrial area of town when I came to some train tracks near the arena. As I was pulling up to the intersection, the wooden arms that block the road started dropping and lights started flashing. I pulled to a stop about 10 feet from the tracks and looked left. A train was coming, moving along pretty quickly. Suddenly, from my right, a beat-up sedan came zooming past me, going about 50 mph. The car crashed through the wooden arms, sending wood splintering and flying up into the air. The car shot through the intersection just seconds before the train arrived and disappeared into the distance as the train chugged past, blocking my view. I kept expecting a police car or something to come along soon after in hot pursuit, but there was nothing. I sat there shaking for a few minutes, and then the train was gone and I putted through the intersection and on to practice. I was the only car there, the only person who saw that. Strange. Stranger that it was in Houston.)

Back to The Palms. I had about 10 minutes before I had to leave the hotel and go over to the LeBron event. I wrote up a quick post about it but saved it on the SLAM server without publishing it. I figured once the family had been informed and the Houston police had announced it, I could add in a link to the official news story and publish our story. I got the hotel, called Sam back at the office and got him to check Google news, and sure enough, it had just been reported. He added the link and we went live with the news.

I thought about all of this last week during the Owen Wilson stuff. The poor guy is obviously troubled, going through some severe problems. He supposedly tried to kill himself. He’s recuperating now in L.A. The Post, the gossip sites, the tabloids, the TV entertainment shows, they’re all falling over themselves trying to report any little bit of news about it.

It’s interesting, I suppose, and in this twisted culture we’re in I guess it qualifies as “news,” but I don’t know if I care. I just hope Owen Wilson is OK, that he finds some peace. In the meantime, I’d rather not see photos of him squirming uncomfortably in the back of a car.

As I got into the cab to go over to The Wynn hotel, my journalist friend emailed my Sidekick and asked if I was going to write anything about it. These are the actual emails we sent back and forth that day.

LANG: I know I could report it and/or float it out there and get a few hits tonight on SLAMonline, but I’d rather just let him rest in peace. I don’t know if that makes me a bad journalist, but I hope it makes me a better human being.

JOURNALIST: It makes you both. But I’d rather be a better human being every time.

So would I.