Utah Jazz and Salt Lake City Stars forward Eric Griffin’s ongoing road toward the NBA is like so many other hopefuls’ circuitous paths … except for that one little divergence, the one where he was arrested for and thrown in jail on attempted murder charges.
“If it wasn’t for that, I’d already be in the NBA,” he said, looking straight down at the floor, shaking his head, after a Stars practice on Friday. “Absolutely. It messed up my life. I can’t let that stop me, though.”
The rest is familiar, including the same far-flung attempt to realize a dream dreamed by so many other fringe players, guys who have substantial dimensions and talent, maybe enough to make it, but not enough to have already done so.
It’s just that Griffin’s personal chronology was, indeed, interrupted — slammed into a wall with iron bars in front of it — 18 months ago, on a Friday, as he stood in a men’s clothing store in his hometown of Orlando, Fla., looking for a suit to buy and wear to his best friend’s funeral, a friend who had been shot to death just shy of two weeks earlier.
That was 569 days ago — when police flooded into the store, calling out, “Eric Griffin! Eric Griffin! Eric Griffin!” And Griffin stood nearby, indicating to the officers, “Yeah, it’s me. I’m here.”
In that moment, as they cuffed him and stuffed him into a police cruiser, a cloudy, uncertain path through professional basketball got a whole lot cloudier, much more uncertain. Hours later, sitting alone in a jail cell, having been placed in an isolated protective custody cell, for the first time he could remember, the idea of donning an NBA uniform was boxed out of his mind.
“It was a nightmare,” he said. “It was hell.”
A late bloomer
Griffin’s story requires us to back up and get a running start at it.
He grew up and up and up in central Florida, eventually settling in at 6-foot-9, a height that later would become more meaningful off the court than on it. His upbringing was nice, unremarkable. He did the things other kids did. He fell in love with basketball, although he never made the varsity at Orlando’s Boone High School — until his senior year.
“I was a late bloomer,” he said. “Very late.”
Relative to G-League and NBA competition, at 27, he still is.
“As a high school kid, I kept trying out for the team,” he said, “but I always came up short. My 12th-grade year, I finally made it.”
After stops at junior colleges in Tennessee and Kansas, Griffin enrolled at Campbell University in North Carolina, where he was an All-Big South selection his senior year. Thereafter, he entered the 2012 NBA Draft, but was not selected.
That sent Griffin, an athletic, defense-oriented, high-flying forward, on a five-year bump-and-skid through second- and third-tier professional teams and leagues in the United States and around the globe, divided by annual NBA summer league runs and try-outs during preseason camps.
He started with the Lakers’ summer league entry. Then, he played in Italy, Venezuela and Puerto Rico before hooking up with the Miami Heat’s summer league team. He played for the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ G-League team, before working his way through the summer league with the Mavs. He also had summer league appearances with the Clippers and the Cavaliers and a training camp with the Detroit Pistons.
“I was close to making it,” he said.
But never close enough.
The attempted murder charge widened the gap.
In the midst of a tragedy, an arrest
Griffin signed with a team in the United Arab Emirates in 2016, where he thrived. On April 16, hours before the final game for which Griffin played in the UAE, he got a phone call from his mother, Alma Bracy, informing him of the death of his close friend, Gino Nicolas, back in Orlando.
“You don’t ever expect your best friend to die in a drive-by shooting,” Griffin later told Fox Sports. “It’s something you can’t even imagine. I started crying when I heard it.”
As hard as that news hit Griffin, it led to a chain of events that would hit him harder in the days ahead.
After Griffin returned home to Orlando, there was a lot of rumor, a lot of loose talk that the boyfriend of Nicolas’ sister, Angel, a man named Treavor Glover, was friends with Nicolas’ killer.
Subsequently, according to incident and news reports, in the early hours of April 27, Glover was attacked by two armed black men while approaching his apartment outside of Orlando. Glover estimated to police that one of the assailants was 6-foot-2 and the other under 6-foot. Combined, the two men fired off three shots. Glover attempted to run away, but fell to the ground. While down, four additional shots were fired, one of which grazed Glover’s head, he reported.
Glover informed police that he thought the attack could be connected to Gino Nicolas’ murder, days earlier.
Later on the same day of the attack on Glover, he identified Griffin to police as one of the two shooters, also naming Griffin’s cousin as the second suspect. According to a report by Fox Sports, Glover identified Griffin in two separate photo lineups.
Next thing, two days later, when Griffin was suit shopping for his role as a pallbearer at Nicolas’ funeral, deputies arrested him. Then, the police put him on blast as an alleged revenge shooter for what Griffin said felt like forever.
“They interrogated me for about four hours, asking me about what happened,” he said. “All the stuff they asked me, I had a valid explanation for. I don’t know why they didn’t do their homework. People lie sometimes. They lie each and every day. The police just needed to get the right information. If they did that, I wouldn’t be here talking with you about it today.”
Griffin sat in confinement for the worst part of a week.
“It was like being in hell,” he said. “I’d never been to jail before. I didn’t know how to do anything there, nothing about how it worked. I lost 10 pounds because I was stressing. The food was nasty. I had to adapt real quick, how to use the phone, how to take a shower, there was no soap. I wasn’t scared, it was just frustrating. I knew I didn’t do nothing.
“Because it was on the news, a high-profile thing, they put me in protective custody. I was in lockdown for 23 hours a day. That was the worst of it. It drove me a little crazy. Jail is not meant to help you. It’s meant to break you. Just sitting in a cell by myself. I tried to talk to the guards, telling them this is my first time. Everybody knew who I was. It was embarrassing.”
A case of mistaken identity
There were a couple of serious issues with the charge.
The first was that Griffin is 6-foot-9, not 6-foot-2, as the shooter initially was described by the victim. The second was that Griffin told police he was at home the night of the shooting. That claim was backed by his presence at home when a sophisticated alarm system with motion-detection cameras was activated by Griffin’s mother at 11 p.m. That alarm, according to Fox Sports, was not deactivated until 6 a.m. the following day. No one had left or entered. A camera picked up an image of Griffin in a hallway in the house at 12:52 a.m., wearing a tank top and boxers.
The shooting took place around 1:20 a.m., five miles away, while Griffin said he was watching television in his bedroom.
A local sheriff’s department detective, in an email to Fox Sports, wrote that officers “effected the arrest of Eric Griffin based upon the best investigative details we had at the time.”
After that initial week, and a subsequent court hearing, where more evidence was presented, Griffin was released from prison by a judge on $15,000 bond. When he got out, he said his mom “gave me a big hug.” After an eight-week stretch, he was cleared, the charges dropped, and his mom gave him a bigger hug.
A state official explained that authorities had come to the conclusion that the victim made an error in judgment and that the victim had doubts about the identities of his armed attackers.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever been though,” Griffin said. “Getting my name cleared. Sometimes, it feels like people don’t want to see you make it. They want to pull you down.
“It ain’t good.”
‘They gave me a shot’
What that leaves for Griffin going forward is difficult to decipher or foretell.
At first, with whispers flying around the basketball community about Griffin, it was tough for him to get a gig anywhere. Eventually, he caught on with a team in Israel. And then, in June of this year, the Jazz invited him to join their summer league team, where he performed well. Next, they brought him to training camp and signed him to a two-way deal with the parent Jazz and the G-League Stars.
Griffin is grateful for the Jazz extending an opportunity to him.
“I respect them,” he said. “They gave me a shot. It was a good feeling.”
And so, now Griffin labors away with the Jazz-owned Stars, continuing on that meandering path toward his dream. He’s never played in an NBA regular-season game, but thinks about it often.
“You just got to wait for your time,” he said. “Be patient.”
For the Stars, Griffin is averaging 18 points and six boards.
“He’s an athletic, high-energy four who can play above the rim and stretch it out to the three-point line,” said Bart Taylor, the Jazz’s director of scouting. “He’s got good length and good agility for the position for where the game’s going. He’s big and mobile. He’s right there.”
But not quite.
“I’m playing OK,” Griffin said. “Pretty decent.”
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said Taylor and longtime personnel guy David Fredman spotted Griffin’s talent and knew he needed a chance: “We are not sure how it will all unfold, but, like all players we have under the Jazz umbrella, we hope to give him the resources to improve as a professional and as a player.”
That’s good enough for Griffin, who looks ahead without having forgotten the horror of being accused of a crime he did not commit. He lifted his arm to emphasize the point, exposing a tattoo on his wrist, a Bible verse: Matthew 7:7, which he recited: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
At this point, Griffin is asking, seeking and knocking. And waiting.
Deep down, though, he’s simply thankful to play a game for a living and to walk free.
“I’m a strong individual,” he said. “That stuff in the past didn’t break me. I’m still moving toward my dream. Never let up on my dream. Got to stay positive. Even when it’s hard. Even through bad times. Just got to keep pushing. Do not give up on my dream. Keep believing. That’s it.”
About Eric Griffin
• Born in Orlando, Fla.
• Played prep basketball at Orlando’s Boone HighSchool.
• Played in college at Hiwassee College and Garden CityCommunity College and Campbell University.
• Went unselectedin 2012 NBA Draft.
• Played professionally for Aurora FileniBPA Jesi (Italy), Guaros (Venezuela), Leones de Ponce (Puerto Rico),Texas Legends (G-League), Al-Nasr Dubai SC (United Arab Emirates),Hapoel Galil Gilboa (Israel), as well as summer leagues and/or trainingcamps with the Lakers, Clippers, Heat, Cavs, Mavs, Pistons.
•Now plays on a two-way contract for the Salt Lake City Stars/Utah Jazz.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.