Griffin overcomes odds to reach NBA draft
BY JAMES CARR
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.
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
“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‘
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
“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
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.
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.
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.”
father in prison, Anderson embodied a father-figure. They began the
process of transferring to Boone which became difficult.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
“For him to accomplish what he did, with that short of history, it’s kind of mindboggling when you think about it.” Brown said.
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.
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
“Any team that gives me a chance, I’m gonna work hard. I just need a team to give me an opportunity.”