Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Griffin's tragic life a story of talent and temptation
By J.A. Adande ESPN.com
These are various thoughts and observations, prompted by a tragic story.
This is coming from a distance, words about a person I don't know well, about a death whose precise circumstances we don't yet know for sure.
Was Eddie Griffin trying to kill himself when he drove his SUV past railroad gates and flashing lights and into the side of a moving freight train in Houston last week? It will likely be some time before an investigation is complete, just as it took more than four days to identify Griffin because his body was burned so badly in the fiery crash that dental records were required for identification.
Griffin had dominant physical skills, but other aspects of the NBA life came harder.
But what we do know of Griffin is this: The stream of incidents, arrests and unsuccessful stints in rehabilitation centers allows us to list him as Exhibit A in the argument that just because you can enter the NBA, that doesn't mean you should.
An ex-player I talked to Tuesday called Griffin "a perfect example of a kid who shouldn't have went to the NBA early."
I saw the other extreme over the weekend in Las Vegas, where young men with zero or one year of college experience such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant were gathered for the Team USA training camp. These are people who have stayed out of trouble, who seem capable of handling the extreme world of the NBA. Griffin's failures should not be a reason to deny opportunities for those who are ready.
But they should serve as a warning, a reminder that the most important part of college isn't the course credits, it's the socialization. It's about making the transition to adulthood in a sheltered environment where the mistakes aren't as costly as they are in the real world.
It's clear Griffin never learned to be responsible or accountable during his one year at Seton Hall or the six seasons he spent in the NBA. Maybe his problems were too serious for anyone in the league to deal with, even if teams' top priorities hadn't been making money and winning games. Regardless, it was the wrong environment for someone so unstable. Youth and money and loads of unsupervised time were a toxic combination for him.
Griffin also is a case study in the temptation of talent.
Because of a fight with a teammate, he had to finish high school by studying at home instead of going to class and walking across a stage to get his diploma. In his year at Seton Hall, he punched out a teammate in the locker room.
Griffin's defensive specialty was the blocked shot, as even stars such as Kobe Bryant learned.
And yet the Rockets traded the rights to their three first-round draft picks (Jason Collins, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Armstrong) to get Griffin's draft rights in 2001.
While in Houston, Griffin pleaded guilty in an assault case, and yet the Nets and then the Minnesota Timberwolves signed him to free-agent contracts. He later was jailed for violating probation, and yet the Timberwolves re-signed him, this time to a three-year, $8.1 million extension. They wound up cutting him loose in March.
Before his self-destructive tendencies turned deadly, they were expensive. Before he cost those who loved him the chance to see him again, he cost teams money, players and time. But who's to blame for that?
There's a blinding arrogance teams get when they covet talent. They think they can make it work for them, when all the evidence suggests otherwise.
Late Tuesday night I talked to someone who did know Griffin well, Houston Rockets vice president of basketball operations and athletic trainer Keith Jones.
Jones last saw Griffin at a restaurant in Houston in May. He said Griffin seemed alert and optimistic. He talked about his daughter. He said his troubles, the most recent of which was a league-imposed substance abuse suspension that effectively ended his stay in Minnesota, were behind him
"I said, 'Eddie, you always tell me, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," then I find out different,'" Jones said. "He said, 'I'm taking care of it.'"
Sounds like the voice of an addict, never acknowledging the extent of the problem.
As the dialogue implied, Jones had had that type of conversation with Griffin before. He knew Griffin well enough that the news of his death saddened him, but didn't completely surprise him.
"I can't say it shocks me," Jones said. "It's still really sad and really tragic. And Eddie was a good guy. He had a good heart. He made some bad decisions on a lot of things. I think he had people that were guiding him, that he thought were guiding him, that didn't have his best interests in heart."
Jones said the Rockets did what they could to look after him while he played for them. In addition to the league-mandated rookie orientation program the incoming players are required to attend, the Rockets had a team security staffer look after Griffin. And they worked with a realtor who not only helped Griffin buy a home, she helped him with the details of life, such as opening a checking account.
"I thought we did a good job providing some guidance for him," Jones said. "And giving him something solid to work with and solid people to look after him.
"You can't be with him 24 hours a day. You can only do so much. If a guy doesn't want help and isn't ready to change, he isn't going to."
By the time they get to the NBA, it's too late.
"There's those things that he didn't learn that most 17-, 18-, 19-year-old guys learn at some point, from their father or some other male figure," Jones said.
"Eddie was one of those AAU phenoms. They didn't teach him, they brought him along to win games. There's one more statistic, right there."
Jones is left with one last, nagging thought.
"I know he trusted me," Jones said. "I know he knew I never asked him for anything, never wanted anything except for him to be successful. The whole thing that bugs me is I wish he would have trusted me enough, if he was drinking, or whatever happened, that he would call. If something was bothering him, he would have called one more time."
I can't believe some of the strange and sad phrases associated with Griffin that came out while doing some research on him. These old news stories here and here (which I found through a Minnesota-based Web site called MNspeak.com) contained the unusual charge of "deadly conduct" and a probation violation for "consorting with disreputable people."
In March 2004 Griffin plea-bargained to a misdemeanor charge of deadly conduct after facing a felony charge of aggravated assault that stemmed from an accusation that he punched and shot at a woman who came across Griffin with another woman in his Houston house. That prompts two questions: (1) How can something as serious-sounding as "deadly conduct" only be a misdemeanor? (2) In retrospect, wasn't his adult life an extended episode of deadly conduct, one practically destined for an early fatality?
The deadly conduct guilty plea resulted in an 18-month probation. While serving it, Griffin was sentenced to 15 days in jail because he was at a Houston nightclub when a fight broke out.
A court official said Griffin violated probation because he was "consorting with disreputable people." I wonder how many people would be better off if we consistently made that a jailable offense, if we forced them to choose between the company they keep and their best interests.
We've seen how Michael Vick was unable to escape his crowd and its dogfighting culture. While Griffin, apparently, was not surrounded by people who could guide him to the right path, in the end he wasn't able to escape himself.
The 2001 draft is starting to resemble the cursed Class of 1986 when it comes to tragedy and disappointment.
Griffin's death follows the failure of No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown in Washington, the unrealized potential of Tyson Chandler and the bad behavior of Zach Randolph that caused the Trail Blazers to dump a 20-and-10 guy for a player they didn't even want to keep.
Likewise, the 1986 draft was overshadowed by the cocaine-overdose death of Len Bias, and drug-wasted careers of Chris Washburn and Roy Tarpley, plus the injury-shortened career of top pick Brad Daugherty.
One of my first reactions to the sad news was that I never really got to know Eddie Griffin. Later I realized that's because he never played in the playoffs. The playoffs are when casual fans get to know players' names and faces, and when we in the media get to know out-of-town players' personalities. You spend a week or two with a team over the course of a series and you get a little sense for who they are. But he never played in May, a sad reflection on his career and the teams that acquired him.
If most sports fans remember him at all, it's probably because last season he was in a car crash that witnesses said occurred because he was driving while watching a porno DVD and masturbating. That was good for a few yuks around the blogosphere. But maybe we should have taken it more seriously, recognizing it for what it was: a sign of his descent.
It was a warning that went ignored, just as, surely, some other unprepared teenager will someday fail to pay attention to the lessons of Eddie Griffin, and some team will take that risk.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.