For two weeks, Eddie Griffin had been doing something he'd done only sparingly his whole life: talk. About himself. He nibbled at the edges at first, describing how his career and his personal life had spiraled out of control. But it was mostly in the safety of group sessions, and never about the stuff that always had him feeling like a dark maw was about to swallow him.
Then Griffin walked into a therapist's office for a one-on-one. That's when he finally opened up about the man who'd introduced him to basketball, taken him in when he couldn't afford to and put him on the right path only to go astray of it himself. The man who, by dying, dropped a world of hurt onto the shoulders of an unprepared 18-year-old.
Eddie Griffin talked about his brother.
He choked out the words through tears he hadn't shed since March 21, 2001, when his cell phone rang on the second floor of a Seton Hall dorm and he learned that his older half-brother, Marvin Powell, was dead of a heart attack at 34.
Now Griffin felt something engulf him again. But this time it wasn't blackness. It was relief. "I knew it was something I needed to talk about," Griffin says. "I've always been the kind of person who holds everything inside. I broke down, but I felt so much better once I did."
Griffin recounts all this in the living room of his house in the Sugarland suburb of Houston. He moved here after undergoing six weeks of treatment for clinical depression at Baylor's Menninger Clinic. Electronic beeps and zoops, mixed with his kids' laughter, filter down the stairs. Griffin unfolds his 6'10" frame and moves down the hall, displaying a physical grace no one so tall should have. He calls upstairs, "Y'all are going to have to keep that down." All goes quiet.
A few minutes later, a dog barks from the basement and Griffin excuses himself once more. The quiet soon returns, as does Griffin. He says he now believes losing his brother triggered a depression that derailed his NBA career. At the lowest points, the dog could bark for hours and Eddie wouldn't have the energy to raise his head off a pillow, much less raise his voice to silence him.
What's most remarkable is that Eddie is talking about this at all. The total number of people he told about Marvin's death, the dread he felt about replacing Marvin as the family's caretaker, the uneasiness he felt over being a teenager and starting his career in faraway Houston, and the pressure he felt to live up to the Rockets' expectations after they had traded three first-round picks to get him in 2001? Well, before that day in the therapist's office? Zero.
"Eddie's not a talker," confirms his older sister, Marian Powell. But he's talking now, because, he says, it's the only way he can survive. The same guy who couldn't even respond to roommate Andre Barrett asking, "What's wrong?" after Eddie learned Marvin was dead, will now share his innermost feelings with a relative stranger.
There are, however, some things he still holds back. An attorney, Rusty Hardin, and a private investigator, ex- Houston homicide cop Jim Yarbrough, are here to make sure Griffin doesn't talk about his pending legal problems. Griffin hired Hardin to represent him on a misdemeanor drug charge (marijuana was found in the console of his car after he'd been pulled over for speeding last April). He also retained him to deal with a more serious charge: aggravated assault. In the early morning of Oct. 25, Griffin allegedly punched and fired a gun at a woman named Joann Romero outside his home.
"Can I guarantee he's all better and nothing will ever happen again?" Hardin says. "I don't think anyone can. But I'm encouraged hearing him talk about this stuff. That sure wasn't the way he was when we met six months ago."
For now, it seems as if Griffin has undergone a profound change. It took his life spinning wildly out of control to see that getting help, not playing basketball, had to be the priority.
THE CHANGE began last summer, when a rift between his mother, Queen Bowen, and his pregnant girlfriend, Jessica Jimenez, prompted Bowen to move back to Philly after two years of trying to watch over her son in Houston. Griffin's daughter, Amaree, was born in August, but Jimenez moved out a month later when phone calls and visits from Romero made her question Eddie's fidelity.
Amid the turmoil, Griffin was supposed to be preparing for Jeff Van Gundy, his new coach. Expected to compete for a starting job, Griffin would work out intensely for two weeks then hide in his house for the next two: "It got to where I couldn't feed my dogs or make my bed."
The beginning of the end of his Rockets career came two weeks into training camp, at an Oct. 13 morning run-through just before the team was to fly to Sacramento for an exhibition game against the Kings. "That morning I was fine," Griffin says. "Then it just hit me in the middle of practice. I started thinking about what was going on in my life, and it got worse and worse. When they told everybody to meet at the plane, I went home and turned off the phone."
Griffin spent the rest of the day at home, unable to move, his bull mastiff, Heny, barking with hunger. The next day, his older brother Jacques called the Rockets and said Eddie would take a commercial flight to Sacramento. He didn't. The Rockets reached Eddie the day after the Kings game and arranged for a special workout at Westside High. Again he didn't show, telling them he'd gone to Westside Tennis Club, the team's old practice site.
The following day, a meeting was arranged with Van Gundy. Eddie was there on time and accepted a two-game suspension. Van Gundy, encouraged, told him to come in an hour early on Oct. 17 to ride the bike and then practice with the team at 11:00. In Van Gundy speak, that means be ready to go at 10:00 sharp. Eddie strolled in at 10:04 and Van Gundy sent him home.
That's when Eddie told GM Carroll Dawson he might need help. Dawson arranged for him to meet a sports psychologist, who prescribed antidepressants and recommended he admit himself immediately to a treatment facility. Griffin took the meds and agreed to meet with the psychologist, but he didn't want to be institutionalized. "I wanted to try to fight through it," he says. "I wanted help, but I also wanted to stay with the team. The bad feelings would come and go, so I thought I could handle it."
After a week of his showing up promptly for his sessions with the psychologist, the Rockets again arranged private workouts for him. He didn't show for the first one. Then, in the early hours of Oct. 25, according to prosecutors, he punched Romero in the face and shot in her direction as she left his home just before dawn. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.
Griffin admits he knew Romero and had slept with her, but says the relationship had ended by then. He says he'd returned home that night with another woman and, shortly thereafter, Romero rang the doorbell. Her presence upset the other woman, who asked to be taken home. On the ride there, she agreed to return to Griffin's house, but when they arrived, Romero's car was in the driveway and she was inside, sitting on the couch. Griffin says he persuaded Romero to leave, but she returned later, walking in on Griffin and the woman in the bedroom. Griffin admits to getting out of bed to confront Romero but not to the violence that allegedly followed.
Whatever happened that morning, this much is certain: Griffin checked into Menninger three days later. If Marvin were around, says Griffin, it all would have played out differently: "I needed some things to change, whether he was here or not. But I could've talked to him, and he could've helped me make the transition from teenager to man."
Marvin, at their mother's request, had saved Eddie from swirling down the drain before. Bowen, a geriatric nurse, was the single parent of Eddie and his older brother, Jacques. (The boys spent only a few weeks each summer with Eddie Sr., in Georgia.) When the shy, quiet Eddie turned 10, she sent him to East Hartford, Conn., to live with Marvin, who had a wife, three kids and bills that a computer graphics job weren't covering. But he was the kind of guy who volunteered as a youth coach, and who worried about everyone else first. There was never a question about whether he'd take on Eddie. "I was getting into a lot of trouble in school," Griffin says. "Marv got me playing basketball and doing good in class. He was a hero to me. I wanted to make him proud."
Powell, the oldest of Queen's two children from a previous relationship, had left Philly on scholarship to play at the University of Hartford in 1984. He was second-team All-North Atlantic Conference his senior year and, despite being 6'6", is one of 15 players in school history to collect 500-plus points and rebounds in a career. He recognized similar talent in his long and lean brother, and after three years sent him back to Philly, so Eddie could enroll in perennial hoops power Roman Catholic High in '97.
But both brothers had their problems. In his senior year at Roman Catholic, Eddie got into a fight in study hall. The school required him to finish his degree with a home tutor and take anger management classes, which he says he didn't take seriously. About the same time, Eddie says, Marvin started to blow off appointments and family get-togethers, and not returning calls-signs, Eddie realized, of a more serious issue. "He was acting like an addict," Griffin says, "but I don't want to paint a bad picture of him, because that's not who he really was."
The day before Marvin died, he left a message on Griffin's cell phone. As with all of Marvin's other calls over the previous six months, Eddie didn't return it, his chosen form of punishment for a brother who'd picked up a crack pipe. "I was disappointed," Griffin says, "but I was sure I'd eventually speak to him again. Then he passed away and I never had the chance to make up."
IT'S AN unusually cold Southern California January afternoon, but it's comfortable inside the gym of a pristinely manicured private academy in West LA. A blue, floor-to-ceiling divider splits the court. On one side, grade-school girls bicker and laugh and stare into space between drills. On the other, the only sounds are the bark of his trainer, the bounce of a ball and the squeak of Griffin's shoes as he goes about restarting his career.
SFX, the agency that represents Griffin, has flown him here for a week of training before he heads to New Jersey. The Nets have bought the former No. 7 pick for the rest of the season for $371,000, with no guarantees beyond that. This is his third day of workouts, but it's been 10 weeks since he last played, and it shows. Griffin sets an imaginary side pick, then rolls to the basket to take a lob at the rim, one of the Nets' money plays. Ideally, the big man leaps and finishes with a dunk or lay-up in one motion, but Griffin has to catch, gather himself and go back up for all but one of the lobs. The workout lasts about an hour and finishes with a one-man full-court lay-up drill. The top half of Griffin's T-shirt is transparent from sweat.
"He doesn't have any body fat, so he should get back pretty quickly," says the trainer, Jim Saia. "I just want him in decent enough shape to practice."
Nets VP Ed Stefanski sits against one wall, arms crossed, murmuring appreciatively. Despite the rust, it's easy to see why Toronto nearly traded for Griffin and why both Detroit and Philadelphia tried to snag him off waivers. The layoff hasn't diminished his tantalizing combination of size, fluidity and touch, and he's still only 21. He catches the ball on the wing, pivots to the baseline and lofts a soft jumper off the glass. Catch, dribble, wrist flip, glass, swish, all with the ease of someone moving a chess piece.
It's hard to match the casual grace to the stats of his two NBA seasons: 8.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg. It's easier to see why he was Parade's high school Player of the Year, and why The Sporting News made him Freshman of the Year his one season at Seton Hall. (That stint was marred by a locker room fight with teammate Ty Shine.)
After the workout, Stefanski asks Griffin if he's going to the high school tournament that evening at Pauley Pavilion, a showcase that includes phenoms Dwight Howard, Sebastian Telfair and Robert Swift. Eddie shakes his head. "Curfew," he says, a sharp reminder that he's not yet free and clear. At least until his Jan. 20 court date, he's pretty much housebound at night except to attend his games.
Had Houston been able to wait and evaluate a post-Menninger Griffin, it would've been much tougher to let him go. Platooning no-O Kelvin Cato and no-D Maurice Taylor at power forward is crippling them, and no GM has a bigger heart than Dawson, who visited Griffin at Menninger even after it was obvious Houston wouldn't be bringing him back. Even now, Dawson asks a visitor, "What would you have done?"
But Griffin was less than a week into his therapy when the Oct. 31 deadline arrived for extending his rookie contract. The Rockets had already endured Griffin's lateness, missed workouts and public appearances, plus his arm's-length demeanor, for more than a year. At one point, Griffin even said he wasn't sure he wanted to play basketball anymore. "Basically, he's a real good kid," Dawson says. "I'm not sure anybody can say he's going to turn it around for sure. But I hope he does."
By signing with the Nets, Griffin has given them a sweep of that draft-day trade that sent him to Houston for Richard Jefferson, Brandon Armstrong and Jason Collins. And he could be ready by the time the Nets play in Houston on the last night of January. "I do wish the Rockets had given me another chance, because it's an opportunity of a lifetime to play with Yao," he says. "But I don't blame them. They treated me fairly."
Still, these days, Griffin is on a run of positives as long as his previous string of negatives. Jessica and Amaree are back in the house. Mom is back in Houston. Heny has eight puppies. And while there's some concern about Eddie playing in New Jersey, where he'll be close to his schoolboy problems, he has nearby support in Marian, who knows what he's going through because she went on her own spiral of depression after Marvin's death.
Marian will remind him to meditate and take his meds. And she'll write down three things he has to do for himself and stick the note to his mirror every day. "It feels like a fresh start," Eddie says.
If anything still haunts him, it's that he didn't pay attention to Marv's voice during that last message, how soft it was, the tinge of sadness, so different from all the previous calls. "He said he loved me," Eddie recalls, "and that, no matter what, he was always going to love me. He knew I was mad at him and understood I wasn't speaking to him because I loved him."
As much of a talker as Eddie is today, there's one detail he leaves out that must make that last message even harder to bear. "We tried to tell him, but he never believed us," Marian says. "Marv had been clean. For almost a year and a half.
"He'd turned his life around."