ATLANTA -- Eric Griffin wasn’t expecting media duties following his pre-draft workout with the
Atlanta Hawks. He returns to the court with massive ice bags on his knees. It’s a standard cooling down for his prized assets which he’ll need for his upcoming workout in Minnesota.
Griffin is accustomed to ignoring expectations. After being shut out of organized basketball until his senior year of high school, he's now trying to become the first player from Campbell University to ever make it in the NBA.
“Very rarely do you see a guy that light on his feet, those kind of motor skills, that can jump like that, with that kind of length,” Hawks Director of Player Personnel Eric Pendergraft said of Griffin after his workout in Atlanta.
Though Griffin has become known for his supreme athletic ability, his mental toughness and his motor will be what makes him an NBA player.
He has survived a rough neighborhood, multiple fights, the judicial system and academic issues to mature into a legitimate NBA prospect in very little time on the court.
Now all he needs is an opportunity.
'Lost in the cracks'
Griffin always loved playing basketball, but for a while it didn’t seem as though the feeling was mutual. At Evans High School, a fraternal AAU basketball culture shut Griffin out for most of his teenage years. It was so bad that he was cut from the team all three years he tried out.
“The whole AAU team played basketball with the head coach, so it was like the team was already picked before the tryout,” Griffin said. “We would play basketball in the morning and I was better than some of the dudes that made the team. People always used to ask me on campus why I didn’t make the team. I just told them it was just favoritism.”
The treatment wore Griffin down and he considered transferring. Around that time, a man named Willie Anderson moved back to his old neighborhood after graduating from LSU and playing pro basketball overseas. Anderson started coaching when he returned and became the head coach at Boone High School.
While taking jump shots at a local basketball court, someone asked Griffin if he was going to play at Evans for his senior season. Griffin told him his thoughts about transferring and he put Griffin in touch with Anderson.
“I heard about Eric from a friend, because we essentially grew up in the same neighborhood.” Anderson remembers. “And I happened to hear about Eric from a mutual friend who said, 'Hey you gotta look at this kid.'”
Anderson saw a lot of ability in Griffin, but he also saw a lot of himself.
“Growing up in a rough neighborhood … either you sell drugs or you hustle or guys are kinda committing crimes or you kinda play pickup at the park.” Anderson describes. “A kid like this can get lost in the cracks, and a kid like myself who came from the same area where a lot of people say, 'You, you’re not gonna amount to anything,' and I turn around and graduate from LSU. And I saw the same thing with him, and I was like, this kid has some potential. He needs someone like myself who’s been through hell and back and can kinda show him the ropes.”
With Griffin’s father in prison, Anderson embodied a father figure. They began the process of transferring to Boone, which became difficult.
During his final year at Evans, a student pressed charges against Griffin for allegedly hitting him with a chair – a charge Griffin denies. He then missed his subsequent court date and his transfer was put in limbo. Anderson had to go back to work.
“I knew someone at one of the largest law firms down here and got some guys who came up in the community that came through to speak on Eric’s behalf,” said Anderson.
A history of fighting and a transfer for athletic reasons perturbed the judge. Anderson raised his hand to speak.
“Since Eric Griffin’s been at Boone High School, we’ve seen perfect attendance, no tardies, no discipline referrals and on top of that his grades have improved,” Anderson told the court.
The judge allowed Griffin to play at Boone under Anderson’s supervision, so long as Griffin abided by a 10 p.m. curfew.
Boosted by a five-inch growth spurt, Griffin played his first year of organized basketball as a senior at Boone High School, posting decent numbers, but not impressive enough to attract attention from many schools. Anderson knew Brian Green, the coach at Hiwasee Community College in Tennessee, and Green took a look at Griffin at an open tryout.
He offered Griffin a scholarship on the spot.
'Won't back down from anybody'
From Griffin’s words, Hiwassee Community College doesn’t sound like it does much for the tourism industry in Tennessee.
“It was probably the worst school that I have ever been to. It was in the middle of nowhere. The only store around was Wal-Mart. It was brutal.”
Griffin endured a tough year at Hiwassee, improving his play slowly while dealing with the lack of atmosphere. Things got worse when Hiwassee lost its accreditation in 2008 after losing a legal battle with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Griffin was stuck with nowhere to go. Anderson got on his phone again, this time to his former coach at LSU, Kermit Davis, now the head coach at Middle Tennessee State.
Davis knew Kris Baumann, a coach at Garden City Community College in Kansas who had experience coaching kids from Griffin’s background, and recommended Griffin on the word of his former player.
“[Davis] told me Willie’s got a kid, he’s from Orlando, got a great upside, good kid, just probably hasn’t had the basketball background he needed as far as starting from an early age and all that. But the kid had great upside,” Baumann recalls.
Griffin was ready to attend Garden City, but transferring schools became a problem again.
After Hiwassee lost accreditation, many of Griffin’s credit hours wouldn’t transfer over to Garden City. There was also difficulty obtaining his transcript, which Griffin attributes to Hiwassee trying to maintain control over him.
“I was the best player at the school and they wanted me to stay,” Griffin said. “So they weren’t trying to release my transcript. My coach had to talk to them, and they finally released it.”
Griffin escaped once again, but had a lot of work to make up the lost hours and qualify for Division I. He took two sets of summer classes along with a regular schedule in the fall and spring to gain eligibility.
“It was really, really impressive,” Baumann said. “You know, a lot of guys that just play and at the end of the day say, 'It’s just too much work for me. I’m gonna play Division II, or I’ll come back next year and just go to school.' And that’s kinda why he’s at where he is now, his drive to be successful.”
As he was tackling his schoolwork, Griffin also needed to adjust to his newfound size. He managed to put on some weight, but his strong personality made up for what he lacked in strength.
“He doesn’t back down from anybody. I mean, he had two, three fights when we first got him there, and I thought this skinny guy’s gonna fight everybody,” Baumann remembers. “Guys would try to go at him thinking they could kinda bully him and stuff, but he won’t let you bully him. He’s just a feisty dude, and that’s part of what makes him a good player; he won’t back down from anybody.”
Griffin matured under Baumann’s guidance at Garden City which helped immensely when Campbell University arrived to take a look at one of Griffin’s teammates, Martell Jackson.
Jackson is a 6-foot-10 center from Colorado who averaged seven points and four rebounds per game. Coaches from Campbell went to Garden City because they wanted his help on the interior. They left in awe of Eric Griffin.
“He’s raw, but I could see that there’s so much more in him.” said Campbell associate head coach Charles Brown. “He doesn’t realize it yet, and at times it can be frustrating as a coach, but he just hadn’t been playing that long.”
At Campbell, Griffin essentially had to start from scratch.
Brown and the rest of the coaching staff held meetings halfway through Griffin’s junior year to figure out how to handle their new talent. One idea paid immediate dividends.
“We put him inside and we basically said, 'You’ve got two dribbles in there to make a play. We’re gonna keep this simple. If you’re open, you can jump up and shoot. If you’re in the post, you can go to work on anybody, but you get two dribbles to do it.' And the very first game we did that, I think he finished with 26 and 13.”
When Campbell made him stick to the paint, Griffin’s game improved exponentially.
“The game became easier when he went inside,” Brown said. “He’d rather be on the perimeter, but once we put him in the post nobody could guard him. He just had his way with everybody.”
Griffin continued displaying his athleticism which earned him a bit of internet fame when he threw down a monstrous dunk against North Carolina A&T. From there, he really grew into his game, putting up 12 double-doubles, including big performances against Creighton (29 points, 14 boards) and Iowa (23 points, 13 boards).
In two years, Campbell took Griffin’s raw ability and molded him into a strong post presence. He averaged 15.7 points and 8.6 rebounds a game during his senior season, numbers which his coaches think could have been closer to 20 and 10.
“For him to accomplish what he did, with that short of history, it’s kind of mindboggling when you think about it.” Brown said.
As Griffin adjusts the ice on his knees to keep the water from dripping onto the court, he discusses his path to Atlanta and the draft. He addresses his perceived weaknesses: His opponents in college, his strength, his lack of playing time. He eagerly talks about his big games against Iowa, Creighton and East Carolina.
But he dismisses the rest, because that’s just going to take hard work. And hard work is all Griffin has known.
“I dedicated myself to basketball and just kept workin’ hard, and said I wasn’t gonna quit no matter what. No matter what coaches told me, I was gonna stay dedicated and keep working.”
Griffin overcame obstacle after obstacle, and everyone who has worked with him sees massive improvement -- and potential for more.
“His skill level and his knowledge are going to catch up to his athletic ability. And two years from now when you look at his athletic ability, and the knowledge he can pick up in two years, you’ll pretty much have be drafting in the lottery to get somebody with that kind of athletic ability and basketball skills,” Brown says.
He may not be far off. Pendergraft’s words echoed Griffin’s former coach following his Atlanta workout.
“If he keeps this kind of work ethic and attitude, no telling what'll happen in a couple years.”
That’s all music to Griffin’s ears, but he knows from years of experience that it really doesn’t matter what’s said. It’s about the hard work you have to put in to get there.
“Any team that gives me a chance, I’m gonna work hard. I just need a team to give me an opportunity.”