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Being Eddie Griffin's Friend

10/8/2007

We watch the same games. And sometimes we all fall in love with the same players -- those are the celebrities, I guess.

But then there are other players that, for whatever reason, some of us notice more.

I remember, when I was a young NBA fan, before I became a full-fledged Terry Porter fan, my guy was Steve Colter. I don't remember him being a hero very often, but for whatever reason, that was the guy I watched when I saw the Blazers play. If Steve Colter did well, it was like I had succeeded, too. And if he failed, well then I felt a tad ashamed.

Eric G. Woodard is a friend of a friend, finishing up his undergraduate work at George Washington University in the nation's capital. He's from Houston, originally.

Just like I used to follow Colter, Steve has followed an NBA player of his own. But when the player you fall for is Eddie Griffin, that experience gets a lot more complicated. Eric writes:

Eddie Griffin was my friend. He just did not know it.

As the 2001 NBA season neared, to say I had drifted from the hometown Rockets would be an understatement. While the city lacks the reputation of say, a Philadelphia, Houston fans are tough, and the days of Clutch City had long passed. And to make matters worse, someone had decided that pin-striped uniforms were OK to wear!

To put it nicely, the Houston Rockets had fallen out of my orbit.

I can not say what it was about Eddie Griffin that made him stand out to me.

Part of it was that I was a high school sophomore and he was only three years older, but already nearing star status. Made me envious!

I liked his presence and demeanor on and off the court hulking flesh juxtaposed with a docile, unassuming personality. I respected the fact that he was not another big-mouthed athlete.

The team gave up quite a bit to get Eddie but honestly, at that point who really knew Richard Jefferson would become Richard "RJ" Jefferson. Thanks to Eddie, I was able to look past those horrific uniforms and actually have a reason to watch the Rockets once again.

I never liked Richard Jefferson anyway.

And just like that, our friendship was born. Eddie was my celebrity friend, a bond made tight in my head that, until now, has never been expressed elsewhere.

We were destined to be BFF's, had fate and circumstance only worked out differently.

He possessed an intangible quality that made people feel connected to him as they watched him run the floor. Sometimes he was happy, many times he was down. Why did he look so sullen? What was going on in his head? You were magnetically drawn to and wanted to talk to him.Eddie Griffin

If only we had known how serious the situation was. Eddie Griffin was the quintessential cool guy from next door that was still humble and approachable. The larger-than-life teenage star syndrome never took hold.

Looking back, the qualities that made Eddie Griffin who he was -- the shyness, the reserved manner -- were also the tell-tale signs that something was not right. We all were in denial.

The blank stares when being interviewed, the detached gaze which accompanied his play -- these were not the characteristics of an open person, but rather, those of someone just the opposite, someone who did not wish to be bothered.

If only I could have called to ask "is everything OK?

Eddie Griffin did not get the opportunity to live up to his potential. His heart was not in the game, just his height and a few natural abilities. Despite the occasional glimpse of standout glory, Eddie was a mediocre performer -- block here, rebound there, jump shot.

Yet I loved him, which clearly meant nothing to the Rockets. After he got in some trouble, they booted him off the team, an important step in his downward spiral.

In the end, he was pegged as yet another Houston professional athlete blunder -- the city holding the ability to make great players trash overnight.

In the back of my mind, I have always blamed the Rockets organization for the demise of Eddie Griffin. Why did they not stand by him when the first signs of trouble were brought to light? Why was he so abruptly dismissed? Did they really do all they could to help him?

I have trouble with answers to each of these questions, especially when you consider the far greater trouble that players, coaches, and teams alike get in and remain employed! Eddie was not committing deviant acts for deviance sake. Eddie was committing deviant acts because Eddie had a disease.

If only I could have been there to help. With his exit from Houston official, my ability to keep in touch with Eddie became much more difficult. I got word of what was going on with him sparingly, most often via the bizarre and wacky news reports. When he famously "got distracted" while driving, I joked with friends and talked about him behind his back.

I detached. I humored myself at the spectacle. "What will he do next?"

I was a terrible friend. I let him become a joke.

About the time I lost faith in Eddie, it seems he lost faith in himself.

I was too tired to even watch TV one night not too long ago. But for some reason I could not sleep, working out some sub-prime equation in my head for school. Eventually I whipped out my Sidekick and checked Chron.com.

Devastating. "Ex-Rocket Griffin ID'd as Victim in Train Crash" said the headline.

I had turned away, and he found himself abandoned. I had betrayed Eddie.

If Eddie Griffin taught me one thing, it was that celebrities are also people, and like us occasionally have to deal with the complex issues of life.

It made me realize that perhaps I should take less of a vested interest in those I know via TV and more on those whose life I can see in real time.

In that way, Eddie Griffin helped me grow. I guess Eddie was my friend after all.

(Photo By Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)