Eddie Griffin's terrible end

The Roman standout was a superior talent with serious troubles.

Posted: August 26, 2007

HOUSTON - It's a nondescript four-lane street, nothing fancy, with a post office and a self-service "Car Spa" on one side of the railroad tracks. The Lawndale Avenue Baptist Church sits just over on the other side.

There are no visible skid marks, old or new, by the tracks, no signs that Eddie Griffin - former Roman Catholic High School basketball star and NBA player - and his Nissan SUV slowed down on Aug. 17 before slamming into a southbound Union Pacific freight train.

That collision ignited a blaze and instantly killed the 25-year-old Griffin in a crash so horrific that it took four days for authorities to identify his 6-foot-10 body from dental records.

Nobody seems to know why Griffin crashed into the train, whether it was a terrible accident or something that spoke to what friends called Griffin's "inner demons." Griffin had a tangled, long history of depression and alcohol and drug abuse, and he had become more famous lately for his scrapes with the law than for his basketball skills.

Were drugs or alcohol involved in the crash? Toxicology results are pending. Was he depressed in his final hours? No one knows.

One thing is certain. The problems Griffin grappled with throughout his life ruined his NBA career and left his family and friends struggling to make sense of his terrible end.

"He'd give you the shirt off his back," said John Lucas, the former NBA player and coach who has turned to counseling troubled athletes. "I had two friends put out of their house. Ed took them in. They slept on his sofa. He put blankets on them. A lot of ways, he was selfless to a fault."

Then there was the time Griffin's Roman Catholic team was set to play Dajuan Wagner and Camden in a classic battle of the titans in a tournament at Temple.

Earlier that day, as tickets went on sale, promoter Jeremy Treatman glanced at the line of about 100 people at the ticket window. Eddie Griffin was second in line.

Treatman said, "What are you doing out here?"

Griffin, who went on to score 29 points in a dominating performance, replied, "I've got to get tickets for a lot of people."

Kindness was not his problem, Lucas said.

"His problem was dealing with life on life's terms," he said. "He couldn't find the 'on' button. . . . We could never find that 'on' button to say, 'This makes me happy.' "

Even if Griffin had made it to the top of the NBA, Lucas said he wasn't sure whether Griffin could have maneuvered through the potholes there, either.

"He never grew as an adult," Lucas said. "As an athlete, ever since you were 10 years old, everything was done for you.

"And now [we're] finding out that we are normal people with real living problems. But how we cope with those problems is different because we don't get those coping skills."

Despite that superior basketball talent, Griffin never had a smooth run through life.

His Houston-based attorney, Rusty Hardin, said he believed that Griffin's drinking began in high school but spiraled out of the control after Marvin Powell, his 34-year-old half brother and father figure, died of a heart attack three months before Griffin was selected No. 7 in the 2001 NBA draft.

Even Griffin acknowledged that Powell's death traumatized him.

"If Marvin were around," he told ESPN the Magazine in 2004, "it all would have played out differently. I needed some things to change, whether he was here or not. But I could have talked to him, and he could have helped me make the transition from teenager to man."

But Powell, who struggled with drugs, was gone, and Griffin's temper had become as well known as his drives to the basket. He was expelled before the end of his senior year at Roman Catholic for fighting with a teammate - he studied at home to receive a diploma - and then punched teammate Ty Shine in the locker room after a midseason defeat in his one college season at Seton Hall.

When he wasn't drinking, Griffin had "the innocence of a child," Hardin said.

But . . .

"He had a very violent temper when he was drinking," he said. "He always thought he could control alcohol rather than vice versa."

After being drafted by New Jersey and traded immediately to Houston in June 2001, Griffin found success, making the NBA all-rookie team in 2002.

But his problems lingered. He missed practices and a team flight in Houston, and was arrested in November 2003 for hitting a woman and firing a gun at her truck.

Hardin said Griffin usually had some explanation for his erratic behavior that often held up legally and lightened his sentence. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in that case and received 18 months of probation.

The Rockets waived Griffin a month later, and he signed with the Nets. But he never played a game for the Nets after he flunked a scheduled urinalysis called for by the terms of his probation.

Hardin said a Nets official met with him and Griffin for breakfast one morning at a hotel before Griffin was scheduled to give his urine sample about 7:30.

"A week or two later, it came back. He was like double the legal limit," Hardin said, "which meant he was intoxicated sitting here at breakfast."

Soon after, Griffin checked into the Betty Ford Center for six weeks and was later released by the Nets. It was around that time that he entered Lucas' alcohol treatment center.

Despite all that, Griffin was such a talent that the Minnesota Timberwolves offered him what turned out to be his last chance. They signed him for the 2004-05 season, and he played 70 games in each of the next two seasons, starting 20 games in 2005-06. He even signed a three-year, $8.1 million contract in August 2005. But the problems remained.

Griffin crashed his vehicle into a parked car - no charges were filed - and then was suspended in January for violating the NBA's antidrug program.

After the Timberwolves released him in March - they recently settled on his contract buyout terms - there were two more assault charges in Houston, where Griffin lived. Both were dismissed before trial. One involved an argument that evolved into "a wrestling match" with his nephew, as Hardin put it. The other was a fight that resulted from concern for a family member, the attorney said.

Until just a few months ago, Griffin hadn't played organized basketball since being waived by Minnesota. But since June, he had been working out each morning with former Rockets star Calvin Murphy.

He wanted to play overseas.

"That was the direction we were pursuing," said his agent, Jeff Wernick. "We had an offer from a team in Serbia, and I was actually trying to get hold of Ed to walk him through that."

During their time together, Murphy said he watched Griffin carefully for signs of trouble. But he didn't see any.

"I know he really, really wanted this shot [overseas] badly, because he told me that," Murphy said. "A lot of guys pay [me] by the week. Eddie paid for the whole two months."

Murphy said Griffin never missed a workout until two days before the crash. Murphy said he called Griffin early that Wednesday morning and asked him to show up early. He remembered Griffin saying, "I'll be there, Murph."

"He never showed up," Murphy said.

What concerned Murphy even more was that he left Griffin a phone message that day and gave him a hard time for not showing up.

Griffin never called him back.

When a train passed through Lawndale three days ago, the barrier blocking the two lanes of westbound traffic came down 30 seconds before the whistling freight train crossed.

The arm stopped about three feet short of the centerline. There have been conflicting reports about whether Griffin crashed through the barrier or drove around it. There were no signs that the arm had been damaged. If it had been replaced, the replacement was not a new one.

About 1:30 Tuesday afternoon, Wernick, Griffin's agent, called Derek Hollingsworth, one of Griffin's attorneys, from California, telling him, "I think Eddie's dead."

Wernick had just gotten a frantic call from Queen Bowen, Griffin's mother. Hollingsworth called her and found out that she had gotten a call earlier that hour from a police investigator asking whether Griffin lived there.

He didn't, but apparently his car had been registered to that address. The man explained that there had been an accident and a badly burned body had been found in the car.

Hardin called the Rockets, who checked Griffin's medical records. They showed he had root canal performed his first or second season with the team. The dentist found X-rays for one section of his mouth.

"Within hours, they had identified him," Hollingsworth said.

He said Bowen also related a conversation she had on Tuesday with Jessica Jimenez, the mother of Griffin's 4-year-old daughter. Griffin, Bowen said, had called Jimenez late the night of the crash saying he was trying to get home but was lost. So Jimenez told him to stay where he was and she would go get him.

"Then the phone went dead," Hollingsworth said Bowen told him.

Lucas said he has come to think that Griffin was a man who just wanted to be left alone.

And now that he is gone, Lucas said people are telling him they saw, like ghostly skid marks at the tracks, some signs of Griffin's impending doom.

"No," Lucas said he tells them. "You didn't."


Griffin Funeral

The viewing for Philadelphia native and basketball star Eddie Griffin will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesday at the First African Baptist Church, 901 Clifton Ave., Sharon Hill.

The service for Mr. Griffin will be held at 11 a.m., followed by burial at Northwood Cemetery (15th and Haines Streets) in Philadelphia.


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen

at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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