Griffin tried to overcome addiction, past behaviors

HOUSTON -- Eddie Griffin was going to give it one more shot, channeling all that talent back into a once-lucrative basketball career.

The fights, the arrests and most of all the alcoholism all seemed behind him as he worked his way back into playing shape in Houston this summer.

Many reached out to help him before and failed. Now, he was ready to show them all he could beat his addiction and succeed on his own.

The Minnesota Timberwolves had cut him in March, but maybe he could still become the superstar many projected him to be when he was drafted seventh overall in the 2001 draft.

In the end, Griffin couldn't outrun his demons, dying alone in a horrific traffic accident that sadly fit the other chapters of his troubled life.

Griffin was killed Aug. 17 when he drove his sport utility vehicle around a flashing gate at a railroad crossing and crashed into a passing freight train about 1:30 a.m. The SUV burst into flames and Griffin's body was burned beyond recognition. Authorities finally identified Griffin through dental records.

Toxicology reports are still pending, but those who know Griffin are assuming the worst -- that he went on one final drinking binge before the fatal drive.

"Eddie wanted to do the right thing, he truly wanted to," said Kevin McHale, the Timberwolves' vice president of basketball operations. "He could for a while and then things would happen in his life off the court or even on the court. His coping skills were not what they needed to be."

Griffin appeared in just 13 games with the Timberwolves last season, and none after Dec. 13. He pleaded guilty earlier in the season to inattentive driving after hitting a parked car while out late one night in Minneapolis. He was suspended by the NBA in January for five games for violating the anti-drug program and Minnesota waived him on March 13.

McHale said Griffin begged for help during his three seasons in Minnesota and even started taking Anabuse, a drug that makes alcoholics violently ill when they drink. But he admitted to McHale at one point that he was losing his battle.

"One of the conversations, Eddie said to me was 'I've gotta go. It's not healthy for me right now here,'" McHale said. "'It's not working. I'm in a bad spot.'"

McHale recommended that Griffin seek more help from former NBA player and coach John Lucas, who runs a program that specializes in helping former players with drug and alcohol addiction. Lucas enrolled Griffin in 2005 and Griffin successfully completed a six-month program, Lucas said, prompting the Wolves to offer him a contract extension.

This time, Griffin turned down Lucas' help, saying he was ready to get on with his life on his own.

And that's not what Lucas wanted to hear.

"In my business, that's not a good sign, it's a form of isolation," said Lucas. "If you isolate yourself, you forget where you've come from. You remember the sad things and sad times. You become your own worst enemy."

Griffin found more trouble not long after the Wolves released him.

On April 7, Griffin was charged with misdemeanor assault after an altercation with another man inside the house where Griffin lived with Jessica Jimenez, the mother of their now-3-year-old daughter.

Griffin had a second brush with the law just seven weeks later, arrested again on a misdemeanor assault charge after a fight with his brother, Jacques.

Griffin's attorney Derek Hollingsworth described the incidents as "misunderstandings" and said both charges were dismissed in July.

Hollingsworth said that was the last time he spoke with Griffin, who gave no indication that he was drinking again.

"I think it's always hard with anybody who has an alcohol problem, to tell if they turned the corner," Hollingsworth said. "But Eddie appeared to be in good shape, he was coherent, he made all of his appointments with me. Those are things that people who've turned the corner do.

"At the same time, when someone is suffering from alcoholism, it's always hard to tell what's going on in the dark hours of the night," he said.

Others also say Griffin seemed to be trying to get back on track.

He moved to Houston after the Timberwolves cut him and began working out in June with Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy, a former Rocket. Murphy runs private basketball classes for about two-dozen players of various skill levels and ages, from prepsters to professionals.

Murphy described Griffin as a model student, always on time for his daily 90-minute workouts and dedicated to improving. Griffin told Murphy that he had contacted the Denver Nuggets about a possible workout before the upcoming season.

Murphy and Wernick both said Griffin was considering playing in Europe if the NBA didn't pan out.

"He was there every morning religiously," Murphy said. "And I'm telling you, when I say this guy worked hard, I couldn't have been any more pleased with his progress. He was getting better and better."

But then came last Wednesday.

Griffin had previously asked to move up the start time of their workout -- from 9 a.m. to 8:30 -- and Murphy called him that morning to remind him.

"He said, 'Murph, I'm on my way.' But he didn't show up," Murphy said.

Murphy called Griffin again later that day and then again on Thursday morning, when Griffin was absent again. None of the players at the gym had heard from Griffin, either.

Two days later, all of them knew about the fiery crash at the railroad crossing in southeast Houston, but none suspected that Griffin might have been the unidentified driver pulled from the wreckage.

"I have a hard time believing he, all of a sudden, had a relapse and had gone back to drinking and this had happened," Murphy said. "Based on what I had seen from him every day, he had become frenetic about getting back to the league.

"I had absolutely no idea of any problems, alcohol-related or anything," he said.

As much time as he spent with Griffin this summer, Murphy admits their conversations rarely strayed from basketball. Griffin was quiet, introverted and focused during their workouts.

"He came to class, did what he had to do and then he went home," Murphy said.

Away from basketball was where Griffin always ran into problems.

In November 2003, while playing for the Rockets, Griffin was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, after a woman claiming to be his girlfriend accused him of punching her in the face and shooting a pistol at her car as she drove away.

Griffin missed practices and a team flight, and the Rockets suspended him and then waived him in December 2003.

New Jersey signed Griffin in January 2004 but then cut him less than two months later, when he checked into the Betty Ford Center to get treated for alcohol abuse.

Attorney Rusty Hardin, who represented Griffin in the 2003 assault case, said the Nets found a one-night hotel bill where Griffin had ordered 22 drinks up to his room -- all for him.

"He was a really, really kind, gentle soul who had an illness like, unfortunately, so many people," Hardin said.

Griffin was one of the nation's top freshmen at Seton Hall in 2000-01 and left for the NBA after just one college season. Lucas said it's too simple to say Griffin was overwhelmed by having too much money and fame too soon.

"He was a tremendous talent, but he didn't really love basketball that much," said Lucas, who had not spoken to Griffin since March. "He just didn't have a deep passion for it."

But Queen Bowen, Griffin's mother, told The Associated Press during a telephone interview that her son was still driven to play.

"Eddie is gone, and that's about all I have to say," she said. "He was a good person. He was working on getting himself together and getting back to playing ball. But he's gone now. I don't know what else to tell you."