Eddie Griffin: 1982-2007

By Rick Alonzo
Updated: August 22, 2007

S T. PAUL, Minn. — Former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Eddie Griffin was killed early Friday when his vehicle crashed into the side of a moving train in Houston, the Harris County, Texas, medical examiner’s office said Tuesday.

Griffin, 25, was driving a Nissan sport utility vehicle when he disregarded a railroad warning signal, according to a Houston police report, drove through the railroad arm and struck the side of a Union Pacific train about 1:30 a.m. Friday. The SUV caught fire as the train stopped.

Griffin died at the scene, cutting short his life and ending a promising but tumultuous basketball career plagued by legal trouble and alcohol issues.

Former Wolves coach Dwane Casey said he was shocked to hear of Griffin’s death. But he said he had feared something bad might happen to Griffin because of his personal issues.

Casey described Griffin as a “beautiful person and gentle giant,” but someone who was guarded.

“It’s a tragic end to a life that was going tragically in the first place,” Casey said. “It was hard to talk to Eddie because he was a guy that was hard to get close to. You just wonder of all the conversations you had, if you ever reached him.”

Griffin was alone in the SUV. He was not named on the original accident report because the authorities needed time to identify the body.

Griffin played five years in the NBA. The Wolves waived him March 13 after a series of incidents — the last a five-game suspension by the league for violating its anti-drug program.

“The entire Minnesota Timberwolves organization is deeply saddened by this tragic news,” Kevin McHale, vice president of basketball operations, said in a statement. “Eddie will be missed by everyone who knew him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Eddie’s loved ones.”

Casey, who coached Griffin for one and a half seasons, said the team and the NBA provided him with counseling. McHale was committed to helping Griffin, Casey said, though it wasn’t easy.

“He had that guard up so high, even with his teammates,” Casey said of Griffin. “I know (former teammate Kevin Garnett) tried to get close to him, and guys tried to get to know him, but it was hard to do.”

The Wolves signed Griffin to a free-agent contract in October 2004. He was re-signed in August 2005 for three years and $8.1 million. He signed the contract after spending 15 days in jail earlier that summer for violating probation, which stemmed from a guilty plea in a 2003 assault case.

“More than basketball, you wanted to see him get his personal life together and under control,” Casey said.

Griffin drew national attention after a March 2006 car crash in Minneapolis. He was alleged to have been masturbating while watching a pornographic DVD in his vehicle. Security tapes in a convenience store caught Griffin moments after the accident saying he was drunk. In December, he pleaded guilty to a petty misdemeanor for inattentive driving.

“Eddie went through some tough times in life, and unfortunately many of those times were made public,” Wolves forward Mark Madsen said. “But those incidents are dwarfed by the caring person he was. It’s a shock to all of us that he’s not with us now.”

After starring one year at Seton Hall University, Griffin was chosen seventh overall in the 2001 NBA draft and began his career with the Houston Rockets. The Rockets cut ties with the Philadelphia native in 2003 amid Griffin’s problems with alcohol. New Jersey signed him in January 2004, but he never appeared in a Nets uniform. He missed the entire 2003-04 season, when he was admitted to alcohol abuse treatment.

Those in basketball never questioned Griffin’s talent. At 6-foot-10, he had an uncommon ability to block shots and rebound. He had career averages of 7.2 points and 5.8 rebounds.

“He was a great talent,” said John Lucas, a former NBA player and coach-turned-mentor to Griffin and other NBA players who battled alcohol abuse.

Lucas said the last time he spoke with Griffin was in March, and he encouraged Griffin to join Lucas’ regular workouts for players in Houston. But Griffin never showed up.

“I’m very saddened,” Lucas said. “His trouble was well chronicled, but at the end of the day he was a gentleman. He had experiences that were misunderstood.”

Griffin was living with his girlfriend and daughter in Houston, Lucas said. Lucas had heard that Griffin had begun to work out in hopes of playing basketball again, perhaps in Europe.

Said Lucas: “I just think that Eddie is free now.”