Two years later, we haven’t stopped mourning Eddie Griffin.
It’s been two years since Eddie Griffin tragically departed this mortal coil. Though the circumstances surrounding his life and death aren’t much clearer now than they were then, one thing is cloudlessy clear: the heart-ache and shock we felt that day is still with us. Eddie, in and out of Philly, in and out of the hoop world, we’ll miss you ’till the end of time…—Tzvi Twersky
by Aggrey Sam
August 22, 2007, HOUSTON (AP)—Former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Eddie Griffin died last week when his sport utility vehicle collided with a freight train in a fiery crash, the Harris County medical examiner’s office said Tuesday.
Because of a couple transient years, Eddie Jamaal Griffin’s journey to basketball stardom began a little later than most hoops prodigies’ do. Hailing from Philly’s West Oak Lane section, Griffin moved to Albany, GA, to live with his father as an eighth-grader, and then split his ninth grade year between Hartford (with his late older brother, Marvin Powell, who starred at Philly’s Martin Luther King HS before playing at the University of Hartford) and some Philadelphia high schools for whom he didn’t play ball as a freshman.
“Eddie was about 13 when I first met him,” recounts John Hardnett, a mentor to Griffin, Powell and scores of other high school, college and pro ballplayers in Philly. “The thing that amazed me when he came back to the city was that he grew about five inches. He was 14 then and I saw him working out at St. Joe’s. I was impressed he came that long of a way in one year. I knew at that time he could be a real good player.”
“I used to see him play at [local playground] Simons, around my grandmother’s way in Oak Lane, when I was about 12,” says University of Virginia star Sean Singletary, a Philly native. “He was one of the tallest boys around and since he could shoot and dunk, I definitely thought he was going to the League because he was big, so versatile and there was starting to be a lot of hype around him.”
As a 10th grader, Griffin enrolled in all-boys Roman Catholic HS, which had one of the most prestigious basketball programs in the city. Backing up current New Orleans Hornet Rasual Butler, then Roman’s star player, Griffin wasn’t a big-time scoring threat (he averaged 10.7 ppg as a sophomore), but was quickly considered Philly’s top prospect in his class for his prodigious shot-blocking abilities. “I wouldn’t say we immediately projected him as an NBA player, but he was the most athletically and gifted player I’ve ever had,” remembers longtime Roman coach Dennis Seddon. “He really came on the scene in January of his sophomore year. We played the first high school game at the MCI Center in DC [in a multi-game showcase] and Rasual was our featured player, but Eddie really dominated the boards and we won in double overtime.”
The summer after that season, Griffin blew up. “We played Roman in a summer-league game at Drexel that summer,” says Kenyatta McKinney, who played for Philly’s famed Simon Gratz High School, the alma mater of Rasheed Wallace (the player with whom Griffin was most often compared). “He had 18 [points] and 14 [rebounds], but what got me was that he had about 12 blocks. He blocked our whole roster’s shots. He never said anything to you, he just dominated.”
While Griffin’s superb play in his hometown gained the respect of local hoops fans, it was his dominance on the AAU circuit that won him nationwide acclaim. Griffin traveled with the North Jersey-based Tim Thomas Playaz squad and through his performances at large-scale AAU tournaments and the ABCD Camp, he became a top-five national prospect in his class.
“When I first met Eddie, I thought, ‘Damn, this dude is gonna be good, especially if he keeps growing.’ But I also thought there was room for improvement,” says former teammate Brent Welton, who was a freshman at Roman when Griffin was a sophomore. “But when he came back for his junior year, I saw he was just outstanding. He had got way better, real fast that summer.”
Griffin averaged 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks per game as a junior and was named the POY in Philly. Though he was still slender, Griffin played with strength and confidence, particularly on offense, where he had exquisite footwork and touch around the basket, unselfishly dished the ball to open teammates and exploited big men with comparable size by using his shooting range to knock down outside jumpers.
“It was unheard of to see anyone 6-8 or 6-9 shooting threes, but Eddie took it to another level,” says Hardnett, his summer coach. “I saw him hit 10 threes in a game once, six or seven in a row. You see big men shooting threes and you tell them to get the fuck under the basket, but with Eddie, I would tell my guards to pass him the ball outside. They would look at me like I was crazy, but you just had to sit back and admire the kid’s shooting.”
Griffin was even more impressive on the defensive end of the floor. With his 86-inch wingspan, great sense of anticipation and knack for keeping the ball in play, he could single-handedly alter an opposing team’s game plan. Triple-doubles were not rare occurrences when Eddie was on his game. He could also start—via blocked shot or rebound—and finish—courtesy of his long strides, great foot speed and soft hands—fast breaks with flair and grace.
“Eddie did everything so effortlessly,” remembers Philadelphia Tribune sports reporter Donald Hunt. “It didn’t even look like he was sweating a lot of the time. At Roman games, it looked like everyone was running uphill and he was running downhill.”
Heading into his senior year, Griffin’s college recruiting process had become a maelstrom. Instead of being a major local recruit who could stay home and play for a Big Five school, the 6-9, 205-pound Griffin had developed into the consensus No. 1 player in the class of 2000. “If you went down to the Sonny Hill League that summer, there were major Division I coaches all over the place,” recalls Hunt. “I’m sure he had over 100 programs recruiting him. Even if you were just a casual observer at that time, you knew about Eddie Griffin.”
The hype never went to his head. In addition to his quiet demeanor, Griffin always preferred to share the spotlight on the court. “He was just an unselfish dude,” says former teammate Welton. “If he had 30 and he already had a bunch of dunks, he’d give up the ball on the break to give us a dunk.”
Before his senior season began, Griffin decided to attend Seton Hall, choosing the Big East program over the likes of UNC, hometown Temple and the option of skipping college completely for the NBA. An AAU teammate, Jersey swingman Marcus Toney-El, and top NYC point guard Andre Barrett, two other highly-ranked players in the senior class, had also committed to play for the Pirates, making the decision easier.
“For Eddie’s senior year, we made a national schedule,” says Seddon. “We played all over the East and West coasts, against Tyson Chandler and at Slam Dunk to the Beach against TJ Ford’s team.”
The highlight of Griffin’s final high-school season, however, occurred right in his hometown. The top senior in the nation would face off against the nation’s top junior, Dajuan Wagner of vaunted Camden High, from right over the Ben Franklin Bridge in Jersey. While Wagner was just returning from an injury and wasn’t 100 percent, Griffin put on a show at the marquee matchup. In front of a packed house, featuring spectators including Allen Iverson, Griffin notched 29 points, including eight spectacular dunks.
“I can remember when he blocked [Camden big man and former Memphis Tiger] Arthur Barclay’s shot, kicked it out and ran the floor, got it back and dunked it. He did everything a big man should do and more in one sequence,” adds Hunt. “From that night on, I knew he had the potential to be a star in the NBA.”
Griffin went on to average 25 points, 12 boards and six blocks as a senior, but his final year of high school was marred by an in-school altercation with a Roman teammate. Griffin was expelled but allowed to receive a diploma because he was home-schooled for the remainder of the year. Still, he was again named the city’s Player of the Year, as well as Parade’s national Player of the Year.
As a 6-10, 230-pound freshman at Seton Hall, Griffin averaged 17.8 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 4.4 bpg, earned Big East Rookie of the Year honors and was considered the nation’s top freshman. While Griffin met individual expectations on the court, the team struggled and another incident with a teammate garnered negative attention. Adding to his troubles during his freshman year was the death of his older brother, Marvin, from a heart attack. Griffin declared for the 2001 NBA Draft and was selected seventh overall by the New Jersey Nets, who traded him to the Houston Rockets for fellow Draft picks Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong.
“When Eddie got drafted and I saw him in the gym after Houston gave up all those players for him, I saw he could really shoot the three and was a tremendous shot blocker,” says former NBA player and coach John Lucas, who now trains college and pro players. “He was a four man who could really spread the floor, and playing with Steve [Francis] and Cuttino [Mobley], he fit right in with how the Rockets were playing back then. He was a very unique talent.”
Although Griffin was a serviceable pro—he averaged 8.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 1.6 bpg for the Rockets from 2001-03—he wasn’t the immediate star many observers predicted. He did have his moments, though. “I remember when he came back to Philly and he hit seven threes in very limited minutes. I think he had something like 29 and 11 that game,” recalls Lucas. “His knack for blocking shots was impeccable. You would say, ‘Eddie, don’t give up that kind of position,’ but he would make up for it with his timing and his length. He had borderline All-Star potential. He definitely could have been one of the upper-echelon players in the League.”
His play, however, wasn’t the most significant issue. During his third season with Houston, Griffin was released after missing multiple team practices and flights, as well as after being arrested in the wake of a domestic dispute. Ironically, the team that drafted him, the Nets, signed him during that same 2003-04 season, but he was released after an incident at the Jersey hotel where he was staying and he subsequently checked into the Betty Ford Clinic to treat his alcoholism.
The Minnesota Timberwolves signed him in 2004 and paired him with Kevin Garnett. Griffin had one solid season (8 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 bpg), signed a three-year extension, then saw his numbers begin to decline. Off the court, the issues continued, including a bizarre and embarrassing car crash in Minnesota last summer during which Griffin was allegedly drunk and watching porn on his SUV’s video screens.
“Eddie, basketball-wise, was always a very intriguing talent,” says Lucas, who runs a program for players struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. “Whenever you have that talent, people will always give you a chance.
“Eddie was a great ballplayer, but he didn’t love basketball,” Lucas continues. “Have you ever known a great player, but someone who only practiced out of necessity? That was Eddie.”
That wasn’t always so, according to people who watched him develop. “In his younger days, he was a guy who really listened, wanted to learn and be the best player he could be. He really did work at his game and knew if he listened to some of the older guys he could be good,” says Hunt. “He did, and it had an impact on his game. People see Eddie Griffin and think he was just really good, but he really worked at his game. He really benefited from the experiences he got.”
After he made it to the NBA, Griffin would return home for summer workouts with Hardnett and take part in pickup games with other local pros and college players. He also donated to his former AAU team and sponsored the Eddie Griffin Challenge, a local all-star game pitting Philly’s top high school prospects against New Jersey’s.
Eddie Griffin’s journey ended early on the morning of August 17, 2007. Griffin had returned to Houston and was working out with Lucas and NBA players including Josh Smith. Late that night, in Houston’s Eastside neighborhood, a freight train was moving through an intersection, traveling approximately 10 miles an hour. A Nissan SUV broke through the traffic barriers and slammed into the train from the side. Police do not think the vehicle ever applied its brakes.
The driver’s body was burned beyond recognition. Several days later, after consulting dental records, Houston police identified the body as that of Eddie Griffin. He was 25 years old.
I can’t say I was close to Eddie Griffin, although I crossed paths with him several times. I was a year ahead of him in school and was awed by his talent when my overmatched AAU team faced off with his almost a decade ago. As a Temple University student, I watched him dominate against Camden in that memorable performance. As a Philly resident, I’ve heard my share of stories about Eddie—good and bad—and have seen him work on his game in the summer, as well as play against the Sixers. Obviously, the man had issues off the court, but the vibe I got from him, as well as the overall consensus about him, was that he was a good guy. No matter the circumstances of his death, he leaves behind a positive legacy as a player and person.
And that will never be erased.