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Monson: Utahn Jeff Griffin wheels his way to the top of the basketball world

First Published      Last Updated Aug 02 2016 09:06 pm

Wheelchair basketball » A tragic accident opens a path to a new life that has taken him around the globe
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He could dress himself. He could tie his own shoes. He could get in and out of a bathtub on his own. "It took me 30 minutes to put my pants on," he says. "It was hard, figuring out how I could live out of a wheelchair. But I had to start living life again."

Griffin went to Utah State, studying political science and Spanish. Before the accident, he served an LDS mission in Spain. His friends encouraged him to go to a school dance, where he initially hid away, but eventually rolled out on the floor, waving his arms around to the thump of the music.

"I felt dumb, stupid," he says.

The women at the dance did not think he looked dumb, stupid. They lined up to dance with him. One of those women, named Emily, who sat on Griffin's lap during a slow dance — "Yeah," he says, "my first lap dance" — married her man a year later. Since then, the couple has had four children.

Griffin began playing sports, again. He learned to play tennis, golf and basketball. When swinging a golf club, he leans against a crutch as he passes through one-handed, and says he generally shoots in the high-40s for nine holes. Like every other golfer, he's probably lying a bit.

Basketball, though, is his best sport. Not only did Griffin play for Team USA at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, he is a star in a league called the NWBA — the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. His Wheelin' Jazz team regularly practices in Salt Lake City and competes against teams near and far. All told, there are some 200 wheelchair teams around the country, with 2.000-plus participants. Frank Layden once described Griffin as the wheelchair game's version of Karl Malone.

"I would compare myself to Dirk Nowitzki," Griffin says. "I sit tall. If you put a big player on me, I go around him. If you put a small player on me, I shoot over him."

All basketball wheelchairs sit 21 inches off the ground, and from there, it's up to the athletes to use their size, strength, speed and touch to do their business.

Griffin, now 43, has traveled the world balling away, from Greece to Sri Lanka to the Dominican Republic to Nepal to Japan to Canada to the Netherlands. He's most proud of helping establish junior programs for wheelchair athletes, an endeavor, he says, that gives youngsters a vision and hope for what they can accomplish in their lives.

Emily says her husband, who is now an LDS Seminary teacher, as well as player/coach of the Wheelin' Jazz, fires off an uninterrupted stream of positivity to those around him:

"He's the most positive person I've ever met. He exudes happiness. That's what I fell in love with. We've been married for 19 years now. He's been a blessing to me. He's my rock. … Everything he does just takes a little more effort. But he makes everything seem so fine. He makes things fun. Instead of making people feel sorry for him, he wants to show them what he can do."

There's no sugarcoating what's real. There are difficulties.

"Sometimes I see him fall," Emily says. "Just yesterday, the front wheels in his wheelchair got stuck in a crack in the sidewalk, and threw him out onto his knees. But he makes everything, all the day-to-day things, seem OK."

And they are OK.

"I've pushed myself," he says. "I've learned, you're only a thought away from changing your life. It begins there. I try to help people change their attitudes about life. I try to give hope that everybody can live a life of 'I can,' not 'I can't.' If I can do that, anyone can. I'm just a regular guy. I'm nothing special. I've never been extraordinary."

Au contraire on that last part, Jeff Griffin. Au contraire.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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