Our number seven “Could Have Been” is a case of tragedy.
In the 2001 NBA Draft, Eddie Griffin was thought of as one of the top talents available. The 6’10” forward was completely dominant during his freshman season at Seton Hall, finishing the year averaging 17.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 4.4 blocked shots in one of the more ridiculous lines we’ve seen from a college big man. He even had some “stretch” skills to go along with his preternatural athleticism, knocking down 1.5 threes per game at 32 percent.
Despite some personality issues that saw him get into a fight with one of his teammates, he was still highly sought after when he decided to enter the draft. He was taken at number seven overall by the New Jersey Nets, who then traded him to the Houston Rockets for their trio of first-round picks that season: Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, and Brandon Armstrong.
The Rockets were in a full-on rebuild mode behind Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley following the retirements of Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler and the trades of Scottie Pippen and Hakeem Olajuwon, and they were counting on Griffin to help fill a huge void in the middle.
Initially, Griffin showed the promise he was drafted for during his rookie season, in which he finished 13th overall in the NBA in blocked shots (1.8 per game) despite playing just 26 minutes per contest. He also averaged 8.8 points and 5.7 boards — admittedly not huge numbers — but he showed enough potential that the Rockets planned for him as their starting power forward the following season.
And when they drafted future Hall-of-Fame center Yao Ming in the offseason, the Rockets finally felt they had a rebuilt core in place with Francis, Mobley, Yao, and Griffin.
But despite starting in 66 games during his second season, Griffin showed no real improvement — averaging 8.6 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks — and it soon became apparent why. Griffin long struggled with alcohol abuse due to likely untreated mental health issues.
His attorney, Rusty Hardin, told the Houston Chronicle:
“Eddie was like a man-child. He was a wonderful, gentle soul, but he was an alcoholic. Alcohol always got in the way. The one thing the Rockets didn’t know and none of us knew was the extent of the problem. It’s really tragic.
”What people don’t know is Eddie didn’t go out partying, he didn’t go wild or was a jerk. He was secretly drinking. He would have been the savior power forward the Rockets needed if not for (alcohol). When alcohol wasn’t involved, he was one wonderful, gentle giant.”
In the 2003 preseason, Griffin missed a series of practices and team functions and got himself suspended. Following the suspension, the bottom began to fall out, as Griffin was accused of domestic violence in which he beat a woman and later shot at her, an incident that led to his release from the team and subsequent enrollment in a substance abuse rehab facility. Despite signing back with the Nets, he missed the entire 2003-2004 season.
After leaving rehab, Griffin got his second chance, signing with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he never did get his game or his life on track, and he was eventually released by Minnesota a year after intentionally ramming his SUV into a parked car and garnering a league suspension for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy.
Everything came to head in August of 2007, when a highly intoxicated Griffin (his BAC was 0.26, or three times the legal limit), ignored blinking railroad warning lights and drove his SUV into the path of an oncoming train. Griffin’s car exploded, and the incident was so violent that he had to later be identified through dental records. It was eventually thought to be intentional on Griffin’s part.
So one of the most physically talented players the game had ever seen sadly left his mark for all the wrong reasons in a cautionary tale about the dangers of substance abuse and untreated mental health conditions.
Thankfully, we’re getting more open and honest about these types of issues as a society, but at the time of Griffin’s death, a lot of this was still being swept under the rug as much as possible.
Who knows what could have been had Griffin gotten the help he needed much earlier. Many thought of Griffin as one of the single most talented players they had even seen on the court. According to former Rocket John Lucas, who spent some time working with Griffin and who went through his own substance abuse struggles:
“Eddie is free now, Eddie was just a special basketball talent. He was doing well for periods. He would go up and down mentally and spiritually. But Eddie was a good person.
“He was undecided the last I talked to him whether he wanted to play basketball anymore or what he wanted to do. This is just really sad from a talent standpoint, it’s sad from a personal standpoint, and devastating from a recovery standpoint. From a recovery standpoint — but for the grace of God goes I.”