Griffin overcomes odds to reach NBA draft

BY JAMES CARR
@jamescarr89

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 ignoring expectations. After being shut out of organized

basketball until his senior year of high school, Griffin is now trying

to become the first player from Campbell University to 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 basketball 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 Griffin 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 which Griffin denies.

Griffin 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

Griffin’s 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. Griffin 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 here he is now, his drive to be successful.”

As his 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.

‘Mindboggling’ Improvement

Jackson

is a 6-foot-10 center from Colorado who averaged seven points and four

rebounds per game. Coaches from Campbell University 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,

Griffin 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 twenty and

ten.

“For him to accomplish what he did, with that short of history, it’s kind of mindboggling when you think about it.” Brown said.

‘Opportunity’


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 Eastern 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.”