Moochie Norris recognized that face. As basketballs danced and shoes screeched across the court, Norris zeroed in on the teenager. How did Norris know him? For years, Norris had scratched and clawed his way to a respectable NBA career, most notably in a pair of stints with the Houston Rockets as a pass-first point guard with a blown-out Afro that added a few inches to his 6-foot-1 frame. Now 40, Norris is an assistant coach at Houston’s Victory Prep. He figured he had met the teenager with the sheepish smile and lithe frame at a local youth game.
Norris called him over.
“How do I know you?” Norris asked. “I know you from somewhere.”
The boy knew Norris, too. His soft reply nearly made Norris cry.
“Eddie Griffin’s my uncle,” said the boy, who introduced himself as Marvin Powell.
Of course, Norris thought. Everything snapped into focus.
Norris had saved a copy of the Houston Chronicle from some years back that had Eddie Griffin plastered on its cover. “It meant something to me, something for me to remember him by,” Norris said.
Griffin was once Norris’s running mate on Houston’s second unit. He was a point guard’s best friend, really. Big defenders could not sag off Griffin to offer help when Norris drove into the lane. He was an elastic stretch-4, and a marksman who made shots with ease. “That midrange jumper was butter,” recalled Ed Stefanski, an NBA executive and Philadelphia native who had seen Griffin play in high school. “He made every one.”
Hearing the name and seeing Griffin’s teenage doppelgänger stirred Norris. “When he told me who he was, that just lit up my life, my world,” Norris said. “Periodically, I still look at that picture of Eddie in the newspaper.” Griffin is blocking a shot in the photo. He had impeccable timing, denying shooters with such ferocity that he devastated an opponent’s desire to score. He had a wide but shy grin — he was bashful but joyful at once. “A great smile,” said his high school coach, Dennis Seddon. “But he had some troubles beneath his smile.”
Griffin died mysteriously in the early morning of August 17, 2007, when his Nissan SUV plowed into the side of a Union Pacific train transporting plastics. He was 25 years old. His death, like so many things in his unusual life, left more questions than answers. Investigators found no tire streaks at the scene, nothing to indicate an attempt to avoid a collision so severe that authorities needed dental records to identify the body. Friends and family members refuse to believe that Griffin took his life — no matter the unspoken turmoil he faced and the negative headlines that shadowed him. That is not the Ed they knew. Instead, they recall a giving, loyal, and humble Griffin, the one who cared deeply — sometimes too deeply — about what others thought of him. His career was marked by its starts and stops, potential flashed and squandered. Philadelphia, his hometown, has long been a petri dish for premier prep talent: Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Earl Monroe, and Rasheed Wallace were first imprinted in the city. Those in the know place Griffin in that class. Only eight other players in NBA history have approached the marks of nearly 100 3-pointers and 100 blocked shots in a single season, as Griffin did in his rookie year with Houston. “He was just getting started in what he was doing,” Norris said. “He was still a young man. He hadn’t really experienced life yet.”
For a few years after his death, his family would celebrate Griffin’s life with a cake on his birthday, May 30. But the wounds never healed, and the Griffins ultimately gave up the tradition. They’d felt this pain before, with Marvin Powell Sr., little Marvin’s father. He was Griffin’s older half brother — he helped raise Eddie, stoked his passion for the game. Powell died of a heart attack at 34 in 2001, just as Griffin was grappling with the decision whether to leave college and enter professional basketball. One tragedy, the family fears, influenced another. “If Marvin still was alive, Eddie would still be here,” said Evelyn Powell, Marvin Sr.’s wife. “Everything would’ve been so much different. So much different.”
Jacques Griffin was born a year before his brother, Eddie. He dreams about him often. They’re young in the dreams, about 8 and 9 years old. Sometimes they’re playing together. When he stirs in the morning, the dreams evaporate. “I really can’t explain it,” Jacques said. “You know how you wake up, you remember the dream for a couple of seconds, but then you forget it?”
Sometimes they’re in the crowd watching Marvin Powell play. Powell was an undersized but spirited center for the University of Hartford from 1984 to 1988. He was a captain and part of the underdog squad that topped Connecticut, 49-48, in 1986. At 6-foot-5, he battled all comers, including Connecticut’s 6-foot-11 center, Cliff Robinson. Robinson went on to a long, decorated NBA career. Powell went on to a career in computer graphic arts. But they were even on the court that day. “Everything Marv did, we wanted to do,” Jacques said. “My big brother, he was the rock.”
The Griffins’ father was only an intermittent presence. He moved to Georgia when Eddie and Jacques were infants. The family lived in the Pittville section of Philadelphia in a three-bedroom brick house that overlooked a cemetery. Queen Bowen, their mother, worked the graveyard shift as a nurse so she could be there for breakfast and dinner with her children. Apart from their visits to Powell in Connecticut, Eddie attached himself to his older sister, Marian. But nothing could deter his frequent scrapes with neighborhood boys. Bowen thought her sons needed a strong male presence, so they went to live with Marvin and Evelyn Powell when Eddie was 8.
Marvin was in his mid-twenties then, transitioning from college into adulthood. He welcomed the responsibility, as did his wife. Evelyn is from Puerto Rico and viewed her marriage as a union of families. “What, am I supposed to say no?” Evelyn said of taking in Eddie. “Of course not.” Marvin traded his Honda Accord for a Plymouth Voyager minivan. The kids called it the Marvmobile. It pulled up to the house at 4:30 p.m. every day after Marvin’s workday. They loaded their gear, piled into the van, and hit the gym. “When you’re on that court, you have to play like you want to be there,” Marvin would tell them. “You have to play with a desire. If basketball’s not for you, then fine. But when you get on that court, you definitely have to play your heart out.”
Jacques sprouted before Eddie. “Watch out,” Eddie warned. “I’m drinking my milk.” After a two-week visit with his mother when he was 12, Evelyn came to pick up Eddie and found a changed boy.
“I think I need a new bed,” he told Evelyn.
“Wait a minute, we just dropped you off,” she said. “You just got a bed!”
Evelyn watched as Eddie walked down the stairs of his mother’s home. Griffin had to duck beneath a cement barrier overhead just to avoid hitting his head. “Oh my God, Mom,” Evelyn said to Bowen. “What did you feed him? Fertilizer?”
Marvin and Evelyn Powell taught the Griffin boys the value of family. They could play ball all day, going from tournament to tournament in the Marvmobile. Every day except Sundays — that was family time, when they bought popcorn or ice cream and watched basketball games or movies and talked about whatever came to mind. “Eddie was such a good kid,” Evelyn said. “Never had no trouble with Eddie. Though I wasn’t his mother, he treated me like I was his mom.”
At 13, Eddie returned to his mother in Philadelphia. Marvin Powell had groomed him to work hard and appreciate winning. The best played in Philadelphia, and they agreed that Eddie should play there. The boys had a portable basket in the backyard, and Jacques, a gifted player in his own right, remembers the moment he realized that his brother could really play. Eddie would spot up from all areas of the blacktop — the corner, the elbow, the top of the key — and would not stop until he made 100 shots. Jacques could hardly get to 50.
“Damn, how are your arms not tired?” Jacques would ask him. Eddie would stay out shooting for as long as he could, whenever he could, just him and his dog. “Like Dr. Dolittle, almost,” said Leo McDaniel, Griffin’s cousin. “He was always kind of quiet and shy, so that was his company, almost therapy for him. Just to get away and be with your best friend, almost. Well, who wants people talking?” One neighborhood kid once made the mistake of challenging Griffin on his home court. “I bet you [your shot] don’t touch the rim,” Griffin said. Griffin proceeded to stand over the kid and block shot attempt after shot attempt.
Marvin Powell thought he was ready. Coach Dennis Seddon started noticing Powell more and more in his gym at Roman Catholic High School. The program was known throughout the city and, at the time, Seddon was grooming another phenom, senior forward Rasual Butler. “Eddie stuck to Marvin like glue,” Seddon said. Griffin enrolled at the school. “He was just a quiet, shy kid, just starting to learn that he had a big body and how to use it,” Seddon said. He pinpoints a game against Gonzaga College High School of Washington, D.C., as the moment he realized Griffin was special. “Eddie just blocked everything and rebounded everything,” he said. “Everybody got the memo then.” Griffin inherited the team after Butler graduated. Butler, who played at La Salle before a long NBA career, came to regard Griffin as a little brother.
“You’re a pro,” Griffin once told him. “I look up to you.”
“He was always a play or two ahead,” recalled Butler, an Indiana Pacer last season. “It was really crazy to see someone that young just have a great understanding of the game. He’s the first person I’ve ever seen get a quadruple-double. Thirty-something points, 20-something rebounds, 12 blocks, 13 assists.”1
The actual scoreline: 27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, and 13 blocks.
That summer after his freshman year, Griffin joined Jimmy Salmon’s AAU team, the New Jersey Playaz. Griffin had been referred to Salmon by another coaching acquaintance. “How many times do you get a phone call where somebody asks if you want the best kid in the country?” Salmon said. Griffin became fast friends with Marcus Toney-El, a forward on the team. “Eddie was a walking triple-double,” Toney-El remembered. “Watching Anthony Davis reminds me a lot of Eddie Griffin. Every time I watched Anthony in college, I saw Eddie. Eddie was the real deal.”
Griffin and John Allen were the only Philadelphia kids on the team. They became quick friends, catching the train to New Jersey and tolerating the humidity together. They talked about everything during those train rides — life, girls, basketball. Once, Griffin shared his Death of a Salesman–esque goal with Allen. “One of these days, I want to own a farm with a lot of land,” Griffin said.
It caught Allen by surprise. That is not a dream for most city kids.
“You know, a farm takes a lot of work,” Allen replied.
“Yeah, but I could do it,” Griffin said. “I could definitely do it.”
The solitary life of a farmer would have to wait. Griffin’s name soon ascended to the top of national rankings. “He wanted to be the best player to ever come out of Philadelphia,” said Mike Wild, Roman Catholic’s point guard.
Griffin earned MVP honors at the ABCD camp in July 1999, often a precursor to greatness.2 He teamed with Andre Barrett, a spitfire point guard from New York City, at the camp. The two had matched up in previous summer games, trading trash talk and baskets. They harbored a mutual respect for each other’s game. Barrett had been heralded since middle school. To Barrett, it seemed like Griffin came out of nowhere. “For somebody to go from top 100 to all of a sudden no. 1 overnight, that’s something difficult that I don’t think any kid would know how to handle,” Barrett said. “All of a sudden, people are trying to befriend you. These are the same people that just several months ago, if they seen you, they might’ve walked right past you.”
Others who have received the distinction: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady.
Griffin made a pledge to Barrett. “I’m not going to school with anybody else but you,” he said. “We’re going to school together.”
Griffin was always all in for his team. Allen said Griffin would be the first to preach patience if things got heated during a game. But he was also quick to defend his teammates. Future NBA player Travis Outlaw once fouled an airborne Allen and knocked him into a wall. “I literally caught [Griffin’s] swing in the middle — [if I hadn’t] Travis Outlaw would’ve never made it to the NBA,” Salmon said. “Literally. There’s no denying that he had a fuse. But if he loved you, and he saw somebody messing with you, man, forget about it.”
Another time, Griffin mentioned to Salmon that another player was getting on his nerves and asked Salmon to talk to the offender. Salmon relayed the message to the player, a future NBA All-Star, who chose to unlace his shoes and leave the gym rather than test Griffin any further. “A lot of guys used to pick on him,” Salmon said of Griffin. “The streets would say he didn’t duck the work. That means he didn’t run from a fight. He didn’t want to fight, but he would.”
Griffin was the top-ranked player in the country when his senior season began. He played some of his best games against the country’s elite prospects. He had 33 points, 18 rebounds, and seven blocked shots against Tyson Chandler and Dominguez High. Roman Catholic demolished Fresno’s Washington Union, 90-51, during a matchup in December 1999, and Griffin limited DeShawn Stevenson to 19 points on 16 shots. Stevenson would declare for the NBA that spring. Meanwhile, Griffin poured in 31 points.
A couple of weeks later, Roman Catholic played New Jersey’s Camden High School and its junior phenom, Dajuan Wagner, in a tournament. Wagner was already known for his dazzling ability. Later, he scored 100 points in a game as a senior. The matchup had been anticipated for months. The line for tickets snaked around the Apollo of Temple hours before the game in the winter’s cold. Jeremy Treatman, the tournament’s organizer, spotted Griffin slowly inching forward in the line, waiting to buy tickets for his relatives. Griffin was a major reason why the line existed in the first place, Treatman thought. How unassuming is this kid? Treatman hurried him inside, supplying him with the tickets he needed.
Griffin and Wild huddled before the game. “I don’t want to just win this game,” Wild told Griffin. “I want to win this game by 20. I want to have fun out there and make this a statement game.”
More than 9,000 fans packed the arena. Scouts from the NBA outnumbered those from colleges. The Philadelphia 76ers backcourt, Allen Iverson and Larry Hughes, were there, too. And Griffin was electrifying. He dunked eight times — largely off of Wild’s timely feeds. He made 12 of his 17 shots for 29 points, to go with six rebounds and five blocks. Roman Catholic flattened Camden, 72-47.
Griffin had sprained his ankle early in the game, but he powered through the pain. “That’s when I knew he was the truth,” Jacques Griffin said. “It was red and real swollen. He couldn’t even walk. He had to lay in bed for a couple of days because my stepfather put hot compresses on it.”
“All the people were there and I had to put on a show,” Eddie told Jacques the night of the game.
Reporters pestered Griffin, a projected top-five pick, all season about whether he would jump straight to the NBA. Griffin answered steadily and steadfastly each time: He would honor his commitment to Seton Hall University. Marvin Powell wanted him to experience college. “I had friends telling me to go pro,” Griffin told the New York Times, “but the people closest to me said I wasn’t ready, that I should get stronger and polish my game in college. Then go pro. I agreed.”
That almost never happened. Griffin nearly failed to graduate after an altercation over a card game at school with his teammate Marques Gantt. “It was stupid,” Seddon said. “I mean what can you say? It’s two high school kids being high school kids.”
Griffin had been in other fights at school. Salmon recalled needing to pick him up after another fight with a teammate. The offender had wiped the sweat from his brow on Griffin’s tie. “I get to the school, he got blood on his shirt,” Salmon said. “He’s going to the hospital, saying, ‘Man, I pushed the wrong button, Jim.’” Though it was rare, the Rev. Paul C. Brandt, the school’s president, identified an anger in Griffin.
“They started running around the school, trying to attack one another,” Brandt said. “The other student was running from him and Eddie was trying to attack him. It obviously indicated there were some challenges Eddie faced when it came to dealing with frustration, anger, and emotion that we didn’t see all the time. Literally, we saw it twice in three years.”
Brandt had come to appreciate Griffin’s quiet nature — if he hadn’t been 6-foot-9 no one would have known that he was among the most famous high schoolers in the country. But the school didn’t allow him to finish the year or attend commencement after the incident. Griffin kept pace by completing his schoolwork at home. He received his diploma a week after his classmates. Brandt hoped the punishment would be a wake-up call. “We needed, as a school, to be accountable to him,” Brandt said.
The fight bore no impact on Griffin’s Seton Hall status. Tommy Amaker, fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance, welcomed the nation’s top recruiting class, headlined by Griffin. Griffin’s future still seemed bright, especially with Powell steering it.
“I’ve seen great high school players lose their focus and wind up drinking on street corners from gin bottles in paper bags,” Powell told the New York Times. “I pointed this out to Eddie. And from the time he was a little kid, he wanted to be a basketball player, to some day play in the N.B.A. That was his dream. He had the intelligence to stay with it, and not be distracted by bad influences.”
Eddie Griffin originally wanted to play for North Carolina. The best high school players played in Philadelphia. The best college players, like Rasheed Wallace, played at North Carolina. But Griffin didn’t just want to play with Barrett. He also wanted to team with Toney-El again. When Phil Ford, a North Carolina assistant, told Griffin that the university was not interested in Toney-El, Griffin told Ford he was no longer interested in the university. “Phil Ford said he read an article about Marcus Toney-El committing to Seton Hall and how Marcus was trying to recruit me to go there, too,” Griffin told the Philadelphia Daily News. “He told me, ‘Marcus Toney-El never had a chance to go to North Carolina, but you do.’ That showed me they were cocky about their program.”
“It wasn’t something I asked him to do,” Toney-El said of Griffin bypassing North Carolina. “It was actually something I had to hear about, because he didn’t want to come back and tell me what had happened.”
Griffin, Barrett, and Toney-El talked with Amaker about their goals — not of leaving school early for the NBA, but of reaching the Final Four and the national championship game. Griffin stood out from the beginning. No one had recorded a triple-double in the nearly 100 years of Seton Hall basketball. Griffin secured one in his fifth game, with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 blocks against Norfolk State. “He was an unbelievably coachable kid, really great to work with,” Fred Hill, a Seton Hall assistant coach, said of Griffin. “He was kind of like a sponge, soaked up everything you asked him to do, never ever complained about putting in extra work.”
Seton Hall won its first five games and sprinted to the seventh ranking in the country when it traveled to play ninth-ranked Illinois. That’s where the unraveling began. There were upperclassmen who expected to take the places of players who had helped the team’s deep tournament run a year earlier. But the freshmen had usurped them. “Nobody was promised anything, handed anything,” Hill said. “We just had two great, great players in Eddie and Andre. It was apparent after a couple weeks of practice that those guys were phenomenal players.” Seton Hall took a 21-point lead against Illinois before giving it all back and losing in overtime. “That game showed that there was some kind of dissension,” Toney-El said.
Tension boiled over a few games later against Georgetown at the MCI Center. Amaker had called a pick-and-pop play for Griffin, but Ty Shine, a junior guard, didn’t pass to him when he became open. “You look me off again and see what happens,” Griffin warned Shine.
Amaker called the play again. Shine again shot instead of passing to Griffin. Salmon, sitting in the stands, recognized the frustration on Griffin’s face. Shine and Griffin argued during a break for free throws. Griffin left the huddle early following the next timeout and said to Salmon, “I’m going to fuck Ty up after the game.” Griffin made a beeline toward the locker room once it ended.
Toney-El lingered. He knew what was coming and wanted no part of it. “Marcus!” Salmon yelled at Toney-El from the stands. “Get in there.” Toney-El sprinted back and heard the commotion before seeing the confrontation. “As soon as I opened the door, that’s when the fight started,” Toney-El said. “I jumped in the middle. Other players come, and I get hit, so now everybody’s just in there hitting each other.” Kevin Wilkins, a senior, jumped into the fracas when it appeared Toney-El had intervened on Griffin’s behalf.
Griffin left Shine with a black right eye. Salmon tried forcing his way into the locker room, but was stopped by security. Toney-El returned to the court shortly after, without his jersey and in just his shorts and socks. “It’s too late, Jimmy,” he said to Salmon. “It’s too late.”
They were a divided, broken team. Griffin, Toney-El, and Barrett showered on one side of the locker room, away from the upperclassmen, just so the team could depart the arena without any more incidents.
For many, the fight confirmed a trend of confrontation and aggression. Salmon, though, said NBA personnel had called him afterward, delighted that Griffin showed that much passion. “Is it true that he hit this guy because he didn’t give him the ball?” executives asked Salmon. Griffin continued to excel at Seton Hall, finishing the season with averages of 17.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 4.4 blocks. But the team stumbled. It began the season with championship aspirations and ended it with a 5-11 conference record. Seton Hall didn’t even make the NCAA tournament.
Griffin tried to focus on basketball, but he was upset at Powell, according to Barrett. He’d heard rumors that Powell had talked to agents on Griffin’s behalf. Griffin, according to Barrett, was upset that his eligibility could now be in jeopardy. “He was hurt because he felt like he didn’t tell anybody that he was leaving after his first year,” Barrett said. “He wanted to have that option of coming back. So when he heard the rumors of his brother taking money from agents and putting him in a situation where it was forcing him to leave — I don’t know if it’s true. Nobody really knew if his brother was taking money or not. But Eddie was pissed about that. And he really stopped speaking to his brother for two, three months straight.”
Griffin and Barrett were in their second-floor dormitory a little more than a week after Alabama ousted Seton Hall from the NIT. Griffin picked up the phone, answered, and sobbed deeply for the next 20 minutes, until he finally told him: It was Marvin, Griffin said. He had died of a heart attack. “Now he started thinking, Man, is it my fault?” Barrett said. “I’ll never forget the day when he got the call … He’s going through it, because he wasn’t speaking to him. Now he’s got to be that rock for the family. He’s got to be that guy to do something good for the whole family to get their spirits back. So he felt like he had a lot of pressure on his hands, and he felt guilt for not speaking to his brother for so long.”
“We tried to tell him that he didn’t have to take it so hard,” Evelyn Powell said. “That he loved him and all he had to do was continue on with his life and do what he set out to do, because he always told his brother that he wanted to play basketball.”
The Seton Hall that Griffin knew was changing as well. John Allen, his close friend, would be a freshman next season. But Amaker had accepted a coaching offer from Michigan. Part of Griffin wanted to stay in college with his friends, and without Powell in his life he looked for anyone, anywhere to help him decide. He asked Barrett what he thought.
“You’re going to be a top lottery pick,” Barrett told Griffin. “Why are you asking me?”
Griffin also asked permission from Barrett’s father to declare for the draft. “Do y’all want me to leave?” he said. “I’ll stay if you want me to stay.”
“I didn’t want to be a one-and-done kind of guy,” Griffin said during a conference call announcing his decision. “I wanted to come in and at least play two years, but I did better than I thought I was going to do.
“I just felt that I was ready for it. It’s my lifelong dream to play in the NBA. I know it’s going to be a big challenge. Last year, I said that before I came out I wanted to know that I was ready. I feel that I’m ready now.”
A reporter asked Griffin what choice Powell would have wanted him to make. “I think he would have wanted me to go back to school and finish, but I really can’t talk for him,” Griffin responded. “He left three kids. His wife’s going to need a little bit of help, so I’ll definitely help them out.”
The New Jersey Nets selected Griffin seventh overall before dealing him to Houston for its three first-round draft picks (nos. 13, 18, and 23). “Usually, you have to go through a lot of pain to get a player like this,” Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich told reporters. “The main thing is we got someone special. There are benefits to having three picks, but how many times do you have a chance to get someone special?”
The Rockets were ecstatic. Griffin was mildly disappointed. He had hoped to be drafted higher. “My heart just dropped after the [Jason] Richardson pick [by the Warriors],” he told reporters, “because I thought that was me. I didn’t really look past the fifth pick.” But Griffin flashed that smile when his name was announced, and he hugged Queen Bowen, Marian, and Jacques, and greeted David Stern. The family celebrated at a New York restaurant owned by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. “He was still happy, but when you don’t reach your full potential, your full goal, that was a disappointing thing to him,” said McDaniel, his cousin. Griffin signed a contract worth $5.3 million over three years. He arrived to a Houston organization in flux. The Rockets were rebuilding around the tandem of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley and away from the power combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley. “We were building the team back up, and [Griffin] was a perfect, young fit to go along with Francis and Mobley,” said Carroll Dawson, then Houston’s general manager.
At 19, Griffin was the youngest player to ever play for the Rockets. He purchased a home for Queen Bowen in Houston and one for himself that he transformed into a man-child’s dream. He had video-game consoles in every room, a gigantic television, a pool table, and a pinball machine. “He got that money so fast when he was 19 years old, and I’ve seen him at 17 when we didn’t have nothing, when he was begging Jimmy [Salmon] for 10 dollars to get something to eat,” John Allen said. “He wasn’t different as a person, but his mentality was different. He had a big truck and the jewelry and that was something that me and him had never talked about.”
“I know to trust only the people that have been around me,” Griffin told The Record. But he rarely refused those who asked for help. “My brother, he had a big heart,” Jacques Griffin said. “When you’re in the inner city and then on top, everybody sitting there with their hands out, you meet people you don’t know. You meet cousins that you ain’t never seen.”
Eddie Griffin watched and waited at the beginning of the season. Tomjanovich did not know what to make of Griffin’s quietness. He had a roster full of mostly mute players. “It was pretty strange to have so many quiet guys on one team,” Tomjanovich said. “I remember my meetings with Eddie and the other guys, and, man, I had to really drag things out. I had to ask the right question to get him talking, because he just wouldn’t say a lot.”
In late December, Griffin had 25 points and 13 rebounds against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. “It was one of those games where you really saw what type of player he could be and the kind of impact he could have on a game,” said George Postolos, the team’s president. But Houston disappointed and a loss that night marked the team’s 16th straight. Still, over a 13-game stretch, Griffin posted his Seton Hall–like numbers — averaging 16.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks.
Throughout the season, Griffin talked frequently with Toney-El and Barrett. Griffin missed how he spent the day with his college teammates, rather than a couple of hours at practice before everyone went their separate paths. “I remember him saying his rookie season that he wished he would’ve stayed in college,” Toney-El said. “He had more fun at the college level.”
“The illusion of those bright lights,” Toney-El continued. “When people say they make the NBA, they think that everything is great. For Eddie, it just showed a lot of greed and selfishness. Eddie was never an attention-seeker. The attention and fame that comes with the NBA, he really didn’t like that part. He loved playing, loved being in the NBA, loved what it did for his life. But all the hoopla and pressure and fanfare that came with it, the greed and selfishness, he didn’t really like that.”
Griffin wanted to play and leave. Whether he scored 20 points or went scoreless, he rushed to the showers after games and slipped out before reporters could corner him. “Once you stopped him and got in front of him and asked him to stick around, he would,” said Nelson Luis, then Houston’s director of media relations. “But I think that was always his default, to get ready as fast as he could.” The Rockets scheduled a banquet at the season’s end at which Griffin would be named the organization’s top newcomer. Luis went over the itinerary with Griffin several times — when to arrive, where he would sit, how long he would talk. Griffin agreed to everything. He was nowhere to be found the evening of the event.
After several attempts, Luis finally got through to Griffin on his phone. “I was on my way,” Griffin told him. “We had a problem with the car and then I spilled something on my jacket. I’m trying to see if I can get back there.” That’s Eddie, Luis thought. He was respectful but reluctant. “It was a very convoluted story and it was obvious he wasn’t showing up,” Luis said. “That was sort of the way it was.”
Griffin was distant with the press and when he attended off-court obligations. Postolos recalled a gala when Griffin shunned the adults in the room but eagerly talked with Postolos’s 7-year-old son, Lucas. Griffin developed a friendship with Lucas and rushed to his hospital bedside when he fell and injured himself the next year. “You could tell that he had developed a connection there and that he had a genuine concern,” Postolos said.
Likewise, Griffin forged a rapport with two Rockets staff members. Keith Jones, the team’s athletic trainer, and Melvin Hunt, an assistant coach, are among the people who would not let Griffin walk past them without a conversation. “He was just such a young guy and still, even though he’d went through stuff growing up, there was an innocence about him,” Jones said. “Everything was fresh to him on the basketball side and moving to Houston and everything, and it mentally seemed like he had a gleam in his eye. As time went on, the basketball didn’t come as easy to him as he would’ve liked or as anyone would’ve liked, and he lost a little bit of that light in his eye.” Jones would routinely ask Griffin how he was doing. Griffin would offer the same response. “I’m a little tired,” he’d say.
For Tomjanovich, Griffin was an integral building block. The Rockets finished 28-54 in 2001-02. They lucked into the top selection and plucked Yao Ming in 2002, the best big-man prospect in years. Tomjanovich ran plays over and over with both Griffin and Yao at the elbow. Yao dove toward the basket and Griffin popped out. Tomjanovich hoped the pair would evolve into a new-age Olajuwon and Robert Horry. “If [Griffin] developed, that could have been a heck of a combination,” Tomjanovich said.
Griffin showed flashes — the kind that made him Moochie Norris’s ideal court mate — but he mostly struggled during his sophomore season. Police spotted Griffin speeding on Houston’s Richmond Avenue in early April 2003 and arrested him on marijuana possession charges. He called Hunt. “He felt comfortable enough to call me when he was in jail,” Hunt said. “That’s pretty intimate when you involve yourself that way.”
A remorseful Griffin met with reporters the next day. “It’s not going to affect my play, but mentally I’m down because I know I let a lot of people down,” he said. “I can’t erase it.” The Rockets again failed to make the playoffs in 2002-03 and Tomjanovich stepped down because of health concerns. Houston hired Jeff Van Gundy.
Before the draft that offseason, the Seattle SuperSonics offered two first-round picks3 for Griffin. “They didn’t even consider it,” Van Gundy said of Houston’s management. “They believed in him that much.” Van Gundy found a shell of the player once driven to win, the person Powell preached to about playing the game with passion. In one-on-one conversations, Van Gundy had no one more gentle or polite on his roster. But something was missing. “I saw a very laconic, unenthused, almost dispassionate player,” Van Gundy recalled. “The more I watched, he had these individual plays that amazed me. But for me, he wasn’t an ‘every play’ player.”
Selections that would become Nick Collison and Luke Ridnour.
“OK, Eddie, now we’re going to get started on your workout plan,” Van Gundy recalled telling Griffin in one meeting. “[Assistant coach] Steve Clifford is two doors down to your left. Go down there and speak to him and get on your schedule.” Griffin agreed to meet with Clifford. “Instead of going left to Steve’s office, he went right to the parking lot and left,” Van Gundy said. “He was nonconfrontational. He was nice, but he was hard to reach.”
Van Gundy never did reach Griffin in their brief time together. “I just wish he would’ve reached out more to the older guys and some of the older guys would’ve reached out more to him,” Jones said. Things were rocky at home, too. Bowen moved back to Philadelphia following an argument with Jessica Jimenez, the mother of Amaree, Griffin’s daughter. Jimenez moved out soon after, doubting their relationship when a woman named Joann Romero frequently called and visited. “Everybody always says when you step on the court, leave your personal business [behind] — but it’s not easy for everybody,” Barrett said. “It’s hard to actually manage the two. For some people, basketball is a part of their whole life and when you get other things involved in your life, you don’t really know how to separate the two. When you get into an argument with your spouse right before the game, I don’t care who you are, it’s going to be on your mind.”
Griffin joined his teammates for a morning walk-through on October 13, 2003, just before the team flew to Sacramento for a preseason game. “That morning I was fine,” Griffin said to ESPN.com. “Then it just hit me in the middle of practice. I started thinking about what was going on in my life and it got worse and worse. When they told everybody to meet at the plane, I went home and turned off the phone.”
Jacques Griffin called the team’s management, insisting his brother would board a commercial flight to California. Eddie Griffin instead remained on his couch for the next two days. He accepted a two-game suspension, but then no-showed a workout Van Gundy had planned for him. The Rockets suspended Griffin indefinitely. “He said it was like work,” Jacques Griffin said. “You know how basketball is, you just play it for fun. And then once he got to the NBA, it was like a job.”
Eddie Griffin had declined the Rockets’ overtures for counseling in the past, but finally his troubles were catching up with him. On October 25, Romero found Griffin at his home in bed with another woman. According to Romero, Griffin responded by punching her and firing shots at her fleeing car. As he had in the past, he downplayed the seriousness of his transgressions, and vowed to do better. “We just got into an argument,” he told Jones.
“Eddie, people don’t get in arguments and destroy a house,” Jones replied. “People don’t get in arguments like that. I mean, what’s going on? What is happening?”
Griffin had no answers. He underwent six weeks of treatment for clinical depression at Baylor’s Menninger Clinic. He talked about the loss of Powell for the first time and the burden of supporting others. “I needed some things to change, whether he was here or not,” Griffin told ESPN.com of Powell. “But I could’ve talked to him and he could’ve helped me make the transition from teenager to man.”
The Rockets released Griffin in December 2003. “He showed problematic issues with us and we released him, and so when it started to snowball, pro sports isn’t a landscape where you keep those problems and try to solve them,” Van Gundy said. “You try to move people on and I get that. But also, in a sense, you wonder if the structure of the league, did it let him down?”
Those close to him were stunned to learn that Griffin was battling his bouts of depression with alcohol. “If you’re doing it in secret like that, it’s hard for your employer to necessarily know,” said Rusty Hardin, a noted Houston attorney who represented Griffin during several of his brushes with the law. “This guy was showing up and playing, and if he’s back in his room and he’s not out at clubs, then they didn’t notice.” Drinking can be a toxic form of coping, able to numb the pain or escalate it. For Griffin, it was often both.
“As many hours — when things were going really bad — that me and Melvin spent looking for Eddie, in a car driving around trying to find Eddie, and worrying about Eddie?” Jones said. “There’s nobody closer with Eddie than Melvin.”
“We tried to talk to him as men and as two people who cared for him,” Jones said. They told Griffin that people would be playing basketball for a long time. But he had to figure out his life for himself. “He let us in close,” Jones said, “but I guess not close enough.”
“Think about it,” Melvin Hunt said. “At 18, 19 years old, he only had to work three or four hours a day. The rest of the day, he could be idle, and he had money.”
“He’s already, by nature, an introvert,” Hunt said. “That’s just who he was. If you spent 10 minutes around him, you realize that was where his comfort zone was. He was quiet, and to himself, and that just breeds alcoholism. I never knew he had problems with alcohol. I truly thought he had problems with marijuana, and I say that because it was such different issues. If you were around a person who drinks and you’re around a person who smokes weed, [they’re] different issues. And I just didn’t know because he was so quiet.”
Derek Hollingsworth, an associate of Hardin’s, watched Griffin spiral. “I remember walking [into Griffin’s house] and there were cigarette butts all over the floor, there’s a pool table in the dining room,” Hollingsworth said. “It was just a mess. There was stuff everywhere, people all in the house. It just seemed like as I got to know Eddie more, I really got the impression that he was depressed, that he was really sad and lonely. It really became clear to me that he felt trapped.”
Jim Yarbrough, a former homicide detective and now an investigator for Hardin, can remember the nights that didn’t make the police blotter. Once, Queen Bowen called Hollingsworth, frantically telling him that Griffin was out of control.
“Make sure you’ve got your gun, Jim,” Hollingsworth told Yarbrough. “You never know what’s going to happen there.” They found his house in shambles, and Griffin calm, apologetic, and remorseful. His knees nearly touched his face as they crammed him into Yarbrough’s BMW. Still, they wondered if they should child-lock the doors to prevent Griffin from jumping out.
“He was just a lonely person,” Yarbrough said. “[He just] didn’t really have a grasp of How do I fit into society?”
But potential fades only when talent does, when an NBA player can no longer jump or shoot or defend. A talented, troubled player can usually secure employment, no matter his struggles. There is always a team, a coach, an executive who thinks it or he can find the combination to unlock that player’s talent, to cure that person’s ailment.
Ed Stefanski hoped that would be the case when he signed Griffin to the Nets nine days after his release from the Rockets. Stefanski had traded Griffin on draft night three years earlier. But this was different, a low-risk and high-reward gamble. “We were missing a big,” Stefanski said. “If we could get a healthy Eddie Griffin together, boy, that would help us a lot.” Stefanski had a soft spot for Griffin, and wanted to help another Philadelphia native if he could. “I always felt for him and I was always worried about his fate,” Stefanski said. “The pressures of everything, people pulling Eddie in different directions all the time, he would’ve been happier just to live life and not have to worry, but he was blessed being 6-10 with a fluid jump shot and being a great athlete, and he had to play that game.”
Griffin was still only 21 when he signed with the Nets.
“I’m just so happy to be getting another chance,” Griffin told the New York Times. “I feel I accomplished so much in therapy. I was really depressed before, but I feel 100 percent better now.”
Griffin would not play a second for the Nets.
It started with promise and familiarity. Griffin practiced with the Nets and stayed at the Renaissance Meadowlands Hotel, the same lodging that Seton Hall used before its games. Allen, Barrett, and Toney-El visited. “It was just like AAU for that one night,” Allen said. “It wasn’t like he was on drugs or anything. Then, a few days later, he was in trouble for some stuff that he did in the hotel. This was just the same guy we was talking to a day or two ago about AAU stuff, that 17-year-old kid that I remember. How could he be in trouble for fighting somebody?”
One night at the hotel, Griffin showed up at a wedding he wasn’t invited to — he quickly befriended John Dodds’s wedding party at the bar, signing autographs and offering tickets to a Nets game. When the party broke up, Dodds retreated with his bride to their third-floor room. But Griffin wasn’t done. He showed up at Dodds’s room and repeatedly banged on the door. Dodds opened his door around 5 a.m., according to the Star-Ledger.
“He was sticking out his chest, trying to scare us,” Dodds told the newspaper. “It was like he thought he was all-powerful, like he was King Ding-a-ling or something.” Dodds spat in Griffin’s face and called him a racial epithet. Griffin charged him. Other members of the bridal party, hearing the commotion, quickly arrived. Griffin punched Dodds’s brother before they managed to close the door on him. But when the police arrived, they found Griffin calm and cooperative. He masked his fury. The police soon left, chalking the incident up to a post-party dispute.
“That’s probably the first time we realized how intense the problem was,” said Hardin, the Houston attorney. “He had gone through the entire minibar and then gone down and gotten more [alcohol]. They didn’t realize it until they got the hotel bill. He would consume, secretly, massive amounts of alcohol. Eddie was not a partier. He wasn’t going out and getting wild at parties. It wasn’t clubbing or anything. Eddie had a true, clinical alcohol problem that was not associated with having a good time.”
Like Allen, Toney-El didn’t know that Griffin. “The first week or so, he and I were together, if not every day, every other day,” Toney-El said. “Not once did we drink, or did he drink. So that’s kind of tough for me to believe that he was just on this binge-drinking trip, or just this alcoholic that couldn’t control it. Did he drink? Yeah, he drank, but I don’t think it was a monster for him.”
Griffin told the Nets in late January that he was not prepared to re-enter the NBA and planned to check into the Betty Ford Center. “I was not equipped as a basketball executive,” Stefanski said. “I tried to help Eddie, but I didn’t have the degrees or the expertise to help Eddie with what he really needed.” When Griffin returned to Houston a few days later, police arrested him for violating his court-ordered curfew after he had pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault charge related to the altercation with Romero. A judge ordered Griffin be placed into the custody of John Lucas and to enter his residential program. Lucas, a first overall pick by the Rockets in 1976 and former head coach in the NBA, had rebounded from his own substance-abusing past to counsel others.
“He was a great, loving person who loved his family,” Lucas said. “He cared about people, and he cared what other people thought about him. I think sometimes too much, to a fault. He just was a guy that never got too up, never got too down. Very even-keeled. He was never, never happy. He was always content.”
Griffin rehabilitated under Lucas’s watch and missed an entire season before the Minnesota Timberwolves offered him one final chance at resuscitating his career in 2004. They placed Griffin’s locker next to Kevin Garnett’s, hoping that the veteran All-Star’s maturity and determination would rub off on him. “Eddie’s always had the potential to be something special,” Garnett told reporters after the signing. “Eddie was the only person that ever stopped Eddie.”
Griffin had reasons to appreciate that 2004-05 season. He pulled in 12 rebounds in a single quarter in one game. He scored 27 points in a return to Philadelphia against the 76ers. After one promising season, Griffin impressed enough for Minnesota to entrust him with a three-year deal for $8.1 million in the summer of 2005. “We were extremely pleased with Eddie’s progress and development last season,” said Kevin McHale, who finished the 2004-05 season as Minnesota’s coach after the organization fired Flip Saunders. “He is a player who has a wealth of talent and potential, and we believe that he will continue to improve and become an impact player for us. We’re excited that he has returned to our team.” Griffin saw his playing time fluctuate under Dwane Casey, who took the coaching reins from McHale the following season. Casey preferred a more powerful interior player. “He would acknowledge when he made a mistake,” Casey said. “He was always looking you in the eye when you were teaching and coaching him.”
McHale and Jim Stack, the team’s general manager, encouraged Griffin to keep working. “It’s tough to get up and go to the game and know I’m not going to be playing,” Griffin said to the Pioneer Press in December 2006. “I just have to keep working hard in practice. I’m 24 years old. I still have a long career left. I’m just staying positive and keep working hard.”
Stack asked Griffin the same difficult questions that Hunt and Jones once did in Houston. He could see and smell the times when Griffin slipped. “I’d ask him if he had been drinking and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I have.’”
“We were stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Stack said. Griffin was frustrated that he was not playing. “It was up to the coach,” Stack said. “He just wasn’t fitting in the way the coach wanted him to and so it was kind of a vicious cycle, where the lack of playing time would lead to him drinking. It just got to a point where we couldn’t continue.”
Hardin, Griffin’s attorney, remembers being irritated by the stringent rules a judge had mandated for him. “They sensed a problem bigger than his own lawyers did,” he said. Hardin flew in to have breakfast with Griffin at a hotel. “We go down to the courthouse at eight in the morning to do a urine sample, because that was one of the conditions of his bond, and we find out a day or two later that he tested positive for alcohol and was over the legal limit when he went to court that morning,” Hardin said. “They had checked into the hotel at midnight, we’re out having breakfast with him at seven. I couldn’t smell any alcohol. I sat right across the table with him for 45 minutes and never noticed and neither did the coach. We were both shocked to find out that he was over the legal limit when we were having breakfast that morning when we went to court.”
The hotel incident had been bizarre. But things would get worse. At about 2:20 a.m. on March 30, 2006, Griffin plowed his Cadillac Escalade into a parked Chevy Suburban in front of Minneapolis’s Santana Foods store. Jamal Hassuneh had just exited his apartment and watched as Griffin hit his vehicle. Griffin exited the car and, according to a lawsuit filed by Hassuneh against the city of Minneapolis, told Jamal’s brother, Abed, that he was intoxicated and had been masturbating to a pornographic DVD inside his vehicle. Griffin entered the store and repeatedly told Jamal Hassuneh that he was drunk and pleaded with him to not call police. Griffin offered to buy Hassuneh a new car. “Any car you want, except a Bentley,” Griffin said on footage caught on the store’s video surveillance. “I’ll buy it for you tomorrow. Whatever car you want, man. You can get a Hummer, Navigator, Escalade.” Two officers arrived on the scene and observed that the front of Griffin’s car had sustained heavy damage and his airbags had deployed. The pornographic movie was still playing on Griffin’s dashboard.
According to the suit, as officers escorted Griffin away, he continued bargaining with them. “Please, I’ll pay you anything — 10, 20, whatever,” he said, according to Abed Hassuneh. “Don’t take me to jail. I’ll lose everything. Just take me home. I’ll take care of you guys. I have money in a safe.” The officers charged Griffin with driving without a license and inattentive driving. They escorted Griffin home, but denied being offered or accepting a bribe. “All his free passes are up,” McHale told reporters. “I could give you names of people in our league who still have all their free passes in their pocket waiting to use them, and I could also give you a list of guys who don’t have any more free passes. Eddie is one of those guys.”
Griffin played in just 13 games during the 2006-07 season before being waived by Minnesota. Griffin had even asked to be prescribed Antabuse, a medication that causes a drinker to be physically ill after consuming alcohol. “Eddie wanted to do the right thing — you might not believe that — and he could for a while,” McHale later told reporters. “But then things happened on and off the court. Anything that happened which made him feel bad, his coping skills were not what they needed to be.”
Griffin returned to Houston, where his legal troubles continued. On April 7, 2007, Griffin was charged with misdemeanor assault following a fight with another man inside the house Griffin shared with Jessica Jimenez. Less than two months later, he was arrested on another assault charge stemming from a fight with his brother Jacques. Both charges were ultimately dismissed. He began working out with Calvin Murphy, a former Rockets great, who conducted private basketball classes. “He was there every morning religiously,” Murphy said to ESPN.com. “And I’m telling you, when I say this guy worked hard, I couldn’t have been any more pleased with his progress. He was getting better and better.”
He hoped to resume his playing career, somewhere, anywhere. His agent, Jeff Wernick, had fielded an offer from a Serbian team. Griffin broached the idea of playing overseas with his old friends, Marcus Toney-El and John Allen. “And he told me he was in a good place,” Toney-El said. “That he hasn’t felt this happy in a long time, and he was excited about playing again.” Griffin warned Allen not to follow in his footsteps. “He was tired of everything,” Allen said. “He just wanted to play. And that’s really all he wanted to do.”
“I never knew about these problems,” Allen said. “Or maybe, at the end of the day, I just don’t want to know about these problems, you know?”
Other forces in Griffin’s life pleaded with him to stay committed to playing at the highest level.
“Man, hang on and wait on an NBA camp and try that,” Salmon, his former AAU coach, told Griffin. “You’re still young.”
“But he was looking forward to going overseas. That’s why I never accepted the story that he drove into this train. I’ve never accepted that.”
This is what Houston authorities reported about the crash on Lawndale Avenue at about 1:25 a.m. on August 17, 2007: A person drove west and disregarded the railroad warning sign, drove through the railroad arm, and struck the train as it traveled south. The vehicle erupted in a fiery explosion as the train pulled to a stop. The blaze enveloped the Nissan SUV and the driver died at the scene.
Sammy San Miguel was working at Stephanie’s Ice House on the morning of the collision. No one heard anything inside the bar, located about a block away from the crash. Someone stepped outside, saw the fire, and alerted others to come outside. The scene seemed odd to San Miguel. That crossing has flashing lights that indicate to motorists that a train is approaching. Patrons occasionally stop at the bar and order a drink while waiting out the train. “We’ve been here for 26, 27 years, so we were wondering how could he not see the train?” San Miguel said.
That week, Griffin had requested to move up the start of his workouts with Murphy from 9 a.m. to 8:30. Murphy called him that morning to remind him. “He said, ‘Murph, I’m on my way,’” Murphy told the Associated Press. “But he didn’t show up.”
Griffin had been with his brother Jacques earlier that night. “That whole weekend, Jessica [Jimenez] was calling me,” Jacques Griffin said. “And Eddie wasn’t picking his phone up. I was just thinking, Hey, that’s something Eddie usually does. Sometimes he just don’t pick his phone up. I said, Eddie all right. Eddie all right.”
The weekend passed and the family had not heard from Griffin — nor did they expect to.
Griffin had told people close to him that he’d planned to take his boat out for the weekend. Derek Hollingsworth, Rusty Hardin’s legal associate, received a call from Wernick four days after the crash.
“I think Eddie’s dead,” he said.
Authorities had called Queen Bowen, asking whether Griffin lived there. They identified his vehicle and traced it to Bowen’s address. But they still needed to identify the body. Hardin called the Rockets and the organization released Griffin’s medical record. Griffin had had a root canal while with the team and investigators used its results to confirm it was Griffin in the crash. Bowen told Hollingsworth that Jimenez said she had been on the phone with Griffin the night of the crash. Allegedly, Griffin told Jimenez that he was lost and trying to get home. Jimenez told him to stay where he was and she would find him. His phone died shortly after.
An autopsy determined Griffin’s blood-alcohol level was 0.26, more than three times Texas’s legal driving limit. “I’ll always wonder, just because the logical side of me says, I don’t know how you would hit the side of a moving train by accident,” Hollingsworth said. “Obviously, you could intuitively say that if you were really, really intoxicated — but still, it’s a train. There’s got to be a crossbar, lights flashing, it’s a train. It’s a big, loud machine.”
Seven years later, so much about Griffin’s death still makes so little sense to the people who were close to him. “I was just talking to him and he was telling me how excited he was, how he had a new start,” Toney-El said. “He was fresh. I just have a hard time believing it. The story is he tried to beat the arm that comes down to stop the train. He tried to go around that barrier and got hit by the train. I just don’t believe that.”
Evelyn Powell said that the accident happened just before Amaree’s fourth birthday, which Griffin had been anticipating celebrating with her.
“I really don’t want to talk about that,” Jacques Griffin said. “Brings too many memories back. It’s seven years and I’m still going through it.”
He isn’t the only one.
“Eddie was not off,” said Salmon, the AAU coach. “He was not crazy. People have said some things about him when he was none of those things. He might’ve been misunderstood, and he might’ve been very, very quiet. But he was not crazy.”
Toney-El now coaches at North 13th Street Tech, a school not far from Seton Hall. He has trouble believing the theory that Griffin committed suicide.
“The Eddie I know isn’t that crazy, first off,” he said. “Secondly, I know for a fact that he left Houston. He was headed toward Dallas. I know that. Eddie never travels without an ID. He didn’t have his ID with him, didn’t have his phone with him.”
The incident, inexplicable to many, has caused those close to him to search for answers. Toney-El and others have heard a story, a theory, that Griffin was planning to escort a woman to Dallas. Allegedly, the woman’s brothers were cops who did not like Griffin. “That’s all I’m saying,” Toney-El said. “Nobody ever looked into it, went after it. But I’m just not taking it on the chin that my man tried to beat the arm coming down to stop cars from crossing the train track.”
Keith Jones, the Rockets trainer, saw Griffin at a restaurant a few weeks before his death. Griffin offered that huge smile, a big hug, and his new phone number. “There was something deep down in him he couldn’t talk about or he didn’t know how to talk about, or he just felt, being a man, you’re not supposed to talk about it,” Jones said. “I shut it off. I didn’t want to know what people said. How he died, it’s tragic, and it hurts. It hurts to think about it.”
Mike Wild, Griffin’s high school teammate, had planned to stay with Griffin for an extended period before Griffin’s death. Wild still has a picture that Griffin signed for his son. “From your uncle Eddie,” the signature reads. “Keep striving for the stars. You’ll be special. I can’t wait to have our first conversation.”
Pictures of a smiling Griffin — as a child, as a high school star, shaking hands with David Stern — were projected onto a wall on a loop at his memorial service. About 200 people packed into First African Baptist Church in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, to pay their respects.
“I guess heaven needed a power forward,” Toney-El said at the service.
Attendees included John Lucas, Tommy Amaker, and Kevin Garnett. “The dude was a cool dude,” Garnett later told reporters. “He was a fine young man.
“You can’t believe everything you read. The Eddie Griffin I know was no different than the average athlete or the general person walking around … If you ask people that really knew the dude, they’ll tell you he was a real good person, man.”
Marian, Griffin’s sister, echoed Garnett’s sentiments during the service. “Everything you read, throw it in the trash, like he was so unhappy and it was all planned,” she said.
The pastor, Richard R. Dent, told mourners that in death Griffin had found the peace that eluded him in life.
“Where he has gone, no storm clouds are allowed to form,” Dent said. “There will be no heartaches and no headaches. It’s a place that the wicked will cease from following us and those who are weary will finally get rest … A lot of us think we’re free when we hit the lottery, but that’s not freedom. Free is when you leave a world of sorrow and go to a land where the Lord has promised us.”
Melvin Hunt recently sat down with Quincy Miller, a second-year forward for the Nuggets. Hunt is now an assistant coach in Denver, where Brian Shaw and his staff tutor younger players on the history of the game. They walk into visiting arenas and quiz them on the retired jerseys that hang from the rafters. On this day, Hunt schooled Miller about Eddie Griffin.
“I was just telling him how you can easily hide in this league,” Hunt said. “He didn’t really know who Eddie Griffin was. And we started telling him the story of how talented he was, how he probably should’ve been the no. 1 pick in the draft that year. We were just citing some of the goods and bads of Eddie.” Miller sat patiently, absorbing every word that morning.
Eddie Griffin is buried in Philadelphia’s Northwood Cemetery. He rests beside Marvin Powell. “We wanted them to be together, since they were so close,” Evelyn Powell said. It took Evelyn a while to even walk back into a gym. “Eddie was becoming a better person,” Evelyn said. “Eddie was becoming a man. Eddie was learning what life was going to expect of him. He knew how challenging life was and how many obstacles were going to come his way, and how he had to handle it because he was watching how Marvin did the things he was supposed to do.”
Evelyn spends lots of time with Amaree, Griffin’s daughter. “I always try to let her know that you never forget your dad,” she said. “You can never forget your dad. My kids will never forget their dad and they will never forget their uncle.”
Jacques Griffin sees his brother in Amaree. “She looks just like Eddie,” he said. “Just like him. Tall and skinny.”
They see Griffin’s legacy in a younger generation of relatives.
There’s a talented cousin who plays high school basketball in New Jersey. And another in Philadelphia. “Eddie did it,” said McDaniel, another of his cousins. “Unfortunately, he didn’t stay there for long. God took him away from us early, but dreams do come true. We just encourage all the other kids to keep dreaming. We got some up-and-coming ballers who I think have a chance to follow in Eddie’s footsteps.”
They include Marvin Powell Jr., who is now under the watch of Moochie Norris. Powell Jr., a rising junior, is already 6-foot-5. He may still have another growth spurt in him yet. He works hard like Eddie Griffin once did, and he’s gaining confidence in his jump shot.
“I miss that guy, just talking to Eddie and cracking jokes with him and asking him about his dog and the family and how everything was going for him,” Norris said. “I talk to Marvin every day, not about Eddie, but just about life in general — how he’s doing in school and in life. He wants to learn so much and be like Eddie and I think that’s what inspires him and drives him, and that’s why he works so hard.”
Griffin’s death is still unfathomable and unresolved to many, but his spirit lingers.
“Eddie is where he wanted to be,” Lucas said. “He’s happy. I don’t know that he loved basketball. I think he liked it because it provided for him. I do know he loved his sister, his family … But it was hard to get on the other side of Eddie Griffin.”
Others have struggled to contend with Griffin’s turmoil, to understand his pain. Lucas has a simple answer for what haunted him.
“Life,” Lucas said. “Living life.”
Illustration by Elias Stein.