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Rashard Griffith’s Secret To Success

Howard Moore, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago, remembers vividly his first impression of Rashard Griffith:

“He was huge.”

The pair met in 1989, when Moore was a senior star at Taft High School and Griffith had just enrolled at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, a basketball powerhouse on Drexel and 44th in Kenwood. “He had this baby face, but a grown man body,” Moore recalls, almost 25 years later. “You could immediately see how much potential he had.”

Others saw it too. In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a more coveted basketball prospect on the planet than Griffith. With a wide frame, soft hands, and a good head on his shoulders, the Chicago-bred seven-footer garnered comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain and Lew Alcindor. “Even at this tender age,” one scout gushed about the 14-year-old at the time, “Griffith really could play with NBA players and make positive contributions.”

That dream never materialized. Unlike fellow Chicagoan Anthony Davis, who was selected first overall in the NBA draft last month, Griffith did not become a lottery pick. By the time he was 19, his draft stock had plummeted, despite posting gaudy numbers in both high school and college. He fell into the second round and never played a minute in the NBA.

Fortunately, Griffith didn’t hang up his sneakers. He made his living playing basketball in Europe, where he excelled for 14 seasons. It was an unorthodox career path for a teen phenom, but it allowed him to make good money doing what he did best. His story is one of a young man facing sky-high expectations and meeting them, eventually, on his own terms.

“Rashard faced incredible pressure to be great and took it head on.” Moore says. “He is a success story.”

Now 38, Griffith lives in Chicago where he helps raise an eight-year-old daughter. He agreed to talk with ChicagoSide about his life—Griffith’s first interview in years—but insisted on doing it by phone.

At the age of 13, Rashard Griffith had no interest in the sport that would come to define his life. “Gym just wasn’t one of my favorite things,” he remembers now.

As a seventh-grader, Griffith stood at 6’7”, and he sprouted another five inches in the summer before eighth grade, a gift no one on the hoops-crazed South Side would let him squander. So he took to the playground with a few of his cousins, learning the game while playing against kids far older and more skilled. For months, in an attempt to strengthen his legs, he walked with weights around his calves. Bennie Parrot, his coach at Marcus Garvey Elementary on the far South Side, worked with him every day on fundamentals and dragged him over to nearby Carver High, where alum (and NBA All-Star) Terry Cummings gave him pointers on how to use his body on the block.

It didn’t take long to see results. During a junior high all-star game the following spring, Griffith scored 24 points, corralled 17 rebounds, and blocked six shots…in 13 minutes of action. “They felt like third-graders to me,” he remembers, referring to the opposing players.

A recruiting frenzy ensued. More than 50 college programs sent questionnaires to Griffith’s junior high school, and Indiana University’s Bobby Knight dispatched an assistant coach to scout one of Griffith’s games. The local high school coaches were just as relentless, bombarding the Griffith home with phone calls “every hour on the hour,” as Sports Illustrated reported at the time, forcing his mother Elaine, a CTA bus driver, to unlist their phone number. The Sun-Times went so far as to print a giant color photo on its back page of Rashard standing next to a poster of Michael Jordan. The banner headline read “Chicago’s Finest.”

“From that point on,” Griffith says, “my childhood was over.”

Griffith decided to enroll at King, where Parrot was an assistant to head coach Landon “Sonny” Cox. Cox, a guidance counselor at the magnet school, had built one of the premiere programs in the country, stressing discipline, teamwork, and simple offensive sets. He also had a knack for recruiting superstars from across the city. [1]

“We won off our talent,” Griffith says. “He made sure we were in shape, he gave us a few plays, and he put us on the floor.”

In 1990, as a 7-foot freshman, Griffith started alongside All-American guard Jamie Brandon. “I knew what a turnaround jump shot was, I knew what a dunk was, and that was about it,” he recalls. But he took up valuable space inside, drawing attention away from the prolific Brandon, who finished his career ranked third on the state’s all-time scoring list, behind Tamms’ Charles Vaughn and Jacksonville’s Andy Kaufmann. The Jaguars ripped off 32 wins and took home a state title.

When his star guard departed for Louisiana State University the next season, Cox made Griffith the focal point of the offense, and Griffith responded by scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds a game. (He also shattered two backboards.) The Tribune’s playoff preview warned that beating the Jaguars—who started another giant in 7-foot-3 sophomore, Thomas Hamilton, and dropped just one game in the regular season—would be “a mighty tall order.” But in the Public League semifinals, a game later immortalized in the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” Arthur Agee and a small Marshall High School squad scored a stunning 58-51 upset, holding Griffith to just two second-half points.

Griffith’s junior campaign was eerily similar; the big man improved his defense and conditioning, averaging 22 points and 14 rebounds, and King lost only one regular season contest before squandering a late lead in the Public League Finals to Kiwane Garris and the Westinghouse Warriors. A narrative had formed: Griffith and Hamilton, as big and talented as they were, couldn’t win the big one.

The season-ending losses ate away at King’s star. The summer before his senior season, he watched tape and worked out harder than ever. “I came back and told my teammates and my coaches I’m not going to be stopped,” he recalls. He wasn’t. In 1993, Griffith turned in one of the most impressive campaigns in Illinois history. Despite playing against almost constant double-teams, he posted an average of 22 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks a game. His Jaguars went undefeated, beating Garris and Westinghouse by 25 in a rematch of the city finals, and outscoring Rockford Guilford 32-2 in the fourth quarter to claim the state title. Griffith was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball, was added to the Parade and McDonald’s All-American teams, and was featured in a Sports Illustrated article alongside Rasheed Wallace, “two giants who bestride the nation’s high school hoops scene.”

The NBA seemed a given.

After his senior explosion, Griffith could have gone to any college in the country. He chose the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament in 47 years. It was a surprising decision, but the bruising center had his reasons.

A self-described “mama’s boy,” Griffith wanted to stay close to home; the Badgers had a talented nucleus in sophomore forward Michael Finley and junior guard Tracy Webster; and head coach Stu Jackson had spent time in the NBA, where Griffith ultimately wanted to play.

“We told him he was the piece we needed to get to the tournament,” says Moore, who played at Wisconsin after leaving Taft, “and he bought into the notion that a group of guys from the Chicago area could make history.”

Griffith adds: “I wanted to put Wisconsin on the map.”

Jackson, now the executive vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, was thrilled to land his first marquee recruit, particularly one from nearby Chicago. “It didn’t take a genius to know he had great size and good hands,” Jackson says. “And I left his home with the impression that he was a fine young man with a very good upbringing.”

Like Cox four years earlier, Jackson slotted Griffith into the starting lineup right away, and the freshman made an early impact, pouring in 27 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and dishing out six assists in a 22-point blowout victory over the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on opening night.

“He had so much confidence,” Moore says. “He had a real chip on his shoulder.”

It took Griffith some time to “understand how to fit into our team concept,” as Jackson puts it, but he made the adjustment, scoring 13.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in his rookie season and helping the Badgers end their postseason drought with an NCAA berth. The highlight of the season was their opening round victory over Cincinnati, in which Griffith brutalized the Bearcats for 22 points and 15 rebounds. “Finally,” Jackson says, “our players felt like they were as good as anybody in the country.”

Jackson joined the front office of the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies the next season, and assistant coach Stan Van Gundy took over in Madison. The Badgers didn’t make a return trip to the postseason, but Griffith prospered, averaging a double-double (17.2 points, 11.2 boards per game), the first Badger to do so in almost two decades. It was the type of production that turns heads in the NBA. After the season concluded, the Tribune reported that Griffith “figures to be among the first eight players selected” in the 1995 draft. [2] He declared his eligibility on May 13.

In June of 1995, NBA hopefuls and executives descended on Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute for the annual pre-draft camp to evaluate the incoming class one last time. It was all that stood between Griffith and the NBA.

In retrospect, Moore wonders if Griffith’s advisers adequately prepared him for the high-intensity workouts. Jackson speculates that his former pupil could have improved his strength and balance during a third college season. Griffith, though, says it was simple: Nerves got the best of him.

“I remember when I walked into Moody, I was awestruck,” he says. “There was Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, all of these players I grew up idolizing. I put so much pressure on myself.”

He played horribly.

The Tribune later described his performance as “subpar.” While scouts raved about his size and work ethic, some questioned whether his low-post power game was polished enough for the pros, and the poor showing reinforced their fears. His draft stock tumbled. On the biggest night of his life, the Milwaukee Bucks—a team with Vin Baker and old friends Glenn Robinson and Terry Cummings in the frontcourt—snagged the Chicagoan with the 38th overall pick. There’d be no multi-year contract for him, much less a guaranteed spot in an NBA rotation. Griffith was crushed.

Still, he reported to camp that summer for the Bucks and impressed head coach Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy, however, was reluctant to bring the young player onto the squad only to stash him on the bench. “He’d seen too many players do that and lose their edge,” remembers Griffith.

So Dunleavy floated a novel idea to the 19-year-old: Head to Europe, where you can make a little more money, play heavy minutes against skilled players, and then return the following year to renegotiate with the Bucks. All Griffith needed to see was the discrepancy in pay between what his NBA team (near the league minimum of $225,000) and the Turkish club Tofas Bursa was willing to offer (about $700,000 for one year). In the fall of 1995, he packed his bags.

His mother and father accompanied him on his first trip, and he brought his Rottweiler and Ford Expedition, too. Still, the transition from Madison to northwestern Turkey was harsh. “It took some time to get used to the style of play and language, and it was hard not seeing friends,” Griffith recalls. “For the first half of the season, I completely sucked.”

He turned it around quickly, though, posting big numbers in the spring and earning the league’s MVP award. On a return trip to Wisconsin in the summer, Dunleavy acknowledged in a newspaper interview at the time that “he improved a lot from last year.” But the Bucks front office still wasn’t prepared to pay its second-rounder much more than the league minimum.

“Money kept me out,” Griffith says now. “I came back to camp and held my own, but they couldn’t offer me even half of what I was making in Turkey. I wasn’t going to do that.”

One season turned into two, which turned into a few more. In 1998, after signing a one-year deal with Maccabi Tel-Aviv for $1.2 million, he chipped in 13 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and helped his club win the Israeli League Championship, his first professional title.

The next two seasons, playing again for Tofas Bursa, he won back-to-back league cups, and in the best year of his professional career, Griffith and future NBA guards Manu Ginobili and Marko Jaric joined forces on the Italian team Kinder Bologna to win their league title, the Italian Cup (a domestic tournament), and the 2001 EuroLeague club championship. Griffith—who nearly averaged a double-double (14.1 points, 9.4 rebounds) in EuroLeague play—made the All-Star game and was named second-team All-EuroLeague, alongside fellow center Pau Gasol. He was a bonafide star, “one of the best centers in Europe,” according to one American newspaper story.

Griffith’s run in Italy impressed the Orlando Magic, who acquired his draft rights from Milwaukee in 2002. The team hoped to lure the big man back to the States, even though the front office couldn’t afford to match the $2 million salary he had earned the previous season. Griffith turned them down. His first serious American offer in a several years would be his last.

Talking to him now, one gets the sense that Griffith would have loved to suit up in his home country if the right organization offered him a contract comparable to what he earned abroad. Yet he betrays no bitterness about his choice to stay across the Atlantic, where he played until 2010. [3] Rather, he sounds like the rare prodigy who adjusted his fantasies to the reality he faced, a man who succeeded in both basketball and life, if not the NBA.

“I wasn’t going to get hung up on the NBA. The dream was about playing professional basketball,” he says. “Overseas, I’ve got a nice house and car, money in my pocket, and I’m playing at a high level. And I’m winning.”

As Moore adds, “he made moves that made common, financial sense.”

Two years ago, Griffith came back to Chicago after the death of his father. (His mother had already passed away.) He took the blow hard.

“I needed to take some time off to get myself together mentally,” he says. Since moving home, he’s enjoyed spending time with his daughter, who lives with her mother and prefers the soccer pitch and the swimming pool to the hardwood. He’s also volunteered at international businessman Reggie Martin’s new Education and Empowerment Foundation for Youth, based in East Chicago, Indiana.

Ultimately, Griffith says he’d love to coach, and he’d consider moving back to Europe if an attractive opportunity arose. It will never be home, but Europe is where “Chicago’s Finest” became a champion.

[1] Cox was consistently accused of violating IHSA and NCAA rules during his career, but none of the allegations ever stuck.

[2] Griffith was so confident that a team in the lottery would snag his draft rights, he speculated in one Tribune interview that he might start a children’s foundation in the name of his grandmother with the money left over from his multimillion dollar contract.

[3] Griffith made the Romanian league All-Star game in 2008, 2009, and 2010, his last active season.

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ADAM DOSTER is a freelance writer who tweets here and blogs about history, culture, and sports here. He lives in Chicago.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy Wisconsin Athletic Communications. In-page photo courtesy Wisconsin Athletic Communications.

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