ATLANTA -- Eric Griffin wasnt expecting media duties following his pre-draft workout with the Atlanta Hawks. He returns to the court with massive ice bags on his knees. Its a standard cooling down for his prized assets which hell 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 neighborhoodeither 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 youre 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 whos been through hell and back and can kinda show him the ropes.
With Griffins 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 Erics behalf, said Anderson.
A history of fighting and a transfer for athletic reasons perturbed the judge. Anderson raised his hand to speak.
Since Eric Griffins been at Boone High School, weve 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 Andersons 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 Griffins words, Hiwassee Community College doesnt 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 Griffins background, and recommended Griffin on the word of his former player.
Davis told me, Willies got a kid, hes from Orlando, got a great upside, good kid, just probably hasnt 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 Griffins credit hours wouldnt transfer over to Garden City. There was also difficulty obtaining Griffins 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 werent 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, its just too much work for me, Im gonna play Division II, or Ill come back next year and just go to school, and thats kinda why hes 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 doesnt back down from anybody. I mean, he had two, three fights when we first got him there, and I thought, this skinny guys gonna fight everybody, Baumann remembers. Guys would try to go at him thinking they could kinda bully him and stuff, but he wont let you bully him. Hes just a feisty dude. And thats part of what makes him a good player; he wont back down from anybody.
Griffin matured under Baumanns guidance at Garden City which helped immensely when Campbell University arrived to take a look at one of Griffins teammates, Martell Jackson.
Jackson was 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.
Hes raw but I could see that theres so much more in him. said Campbell associate head coach Charles Brown. He doesnt realize it yet, and at times it can be frustrating as a coach, but he just hadnt 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 Griffins junior year to figure out how to handle their new talent. One idea paid immediate dividends.
We put him inside and we basically said, youve got two dribbles in there to make a play. Were gonna keep this simple: If youre open, you can jump up and shoot, if youre 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, Griffins game improved exponentially.
The game became easier when he went inside, Brown said. Hed 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 Griffins 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, its kind of mindboggling when you think about it. Brown said.
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 thats 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 wasnt gonna quit no matter what, no matter what coaches told me I was going to 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, youll 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. Pendergrafts words echoed Griffins 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.
Thats all music to Griffins ears, but he knows from years of experience that it really doesnt matter whats said. Its about the hard work you have to put in to get there.
Any team that gives me a chance, Im gonna work hard. I just need a team to give me an opportunity.