Email Exchange: Remembering NBA Player Eddie Griffin

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Today’s article: “The Faded Smile,” Jonathan Abrams, Grantland

Michael Rosen:

Man, what a sad story. The name Eddie Griffin is one that definitely sounds familiar, but I have no memories of him playing in the NBA. His death is also one that only exists as a vague memory, so it was pretty interesting learn all about his story.

First, I just wanted to talk about the writing of the piece first. Jonathan Abrams is an extremely impressive reporter, and it shows in every piece he writes. He’ll have quotes from anyone and everyone that existed in his subject’s life, from those in the center to those on the periphery. The material of the quotes themselves are always deeply personal and reflective; in terms of feature writers I regularly read, Abrams’s pieces are definitely among the best reported. A drawback there is that sometimes, if I’m not reading carefully enough, I’ll get lost amongst all of the characters in the story. That’s just a minor drawback, though.

His stories always seem to follow a linear path, which, again, has its benefits and drawbacks. It’s always easy to follow the path of the story, I find, but sometimes it feels like his underlying themes aren’t always extremely evident. In this particular story, however, I thought he did a great job of weaving the universal idea throughout the piece. This is the quote that stuck out to me:

“But also, in a sense, you wonder if the structure of the league, did it let him down?”

That’s from Jeff Van Gundy, his former coach and obviously now a media personality on ESPN. Abrams is writing about Griffin, but he’s also writing about how fame, wealth and success can mask the seriousness of mental health issues. I think this idea is exacerbated by the hyper masculine world of professional sports, which is alluded to in the piece by a former teammate of Griffin’s. It’s a very difficult environment to be open about struggling mentally; it’s not perceived as a manly thing to do. Part of that, I feel Abrams was insinuating, played a part in Griffin’s eventual descent.

So for you, Cam: do you remember Eddie Griffin at all? What do you think Abrams’s overarching “point” was, if there was one?

Cameron Seib:

Glad you asked that first question, as it’s what I’d planned on starting with. I do remember Eddie Griffin.

As I was swiping down my Twitter feed this morning, I saw Grantland’s tweet linking to the article. Intact was the piece’s tagline, “The life and death of NBA player Eddie Griffin.” I almost immediately texted you, not even knowing you had the same article in mind. I’d envisioned today’s exchange being “Friday FunDay,” and Griffin seemed to me the perfect subject for such a thing. I was going to open with jokes about my early memories of picking him up as my backup big man in countless NBA Live 2004 fantasy drafts. Then I would talk about my last memory of Griffin, when cousins and I were watching the Christmas games years ago at grandma’s house and one recalled Griffin’s name to an uproar of laughter.

But then I got on here, actually opened the piece, and felt scummy. I thought the tweeted tagline was metaphorical. I had no idea Griffin was dead.

Oriented so as I started reading, Abrams’s work became, personally, a presentation of the problems with how our culture deals with mental illness, and how those issues are exacerbated in the lives of mentally-ill pro athletes.

Perhaps Americans aren’t unique in this, but our society puts a whole lot of emphasis on mental “toughness.” We’re not supposed to let things get to us. Grind, battle, and endure, we’re told. He who cuts his studying short, no matter if for legitimate reasons, is lazy. He who sweats at the idea of asking for a girl’s number is a pansy. He who cries is giving in to the despicable enemy of emotion.

Implicit in these “lessons” is that mental strain is solely self-constructed, and that we are in complete control to overcome it. Strained from hours of paging through a tedious textbook? Just tell yourself to focus. Starting to get jitters as your crush approaches? Bury them, remind yourself that talking to her is no big deal. Torn that your dog, or even a close friend passed? Remember, it’s up to you how you react.

Forgotten by many in these life-teachings, it seems, is that the brain is an organ. We treat mental and physical health dichotomously, but the brain is not unaffected by physiology in the slightest. It can be temporarily injured or permanently damaged, just like any other body part. Look at these images. Brains affected by Alzheimer’s and alcoholism are shriveled, physically altered. All this is to say, mental wounds, ones that aren’t evident by dripping blood or fractured bone, are the product of physical damages just the same. A mental illness, whether temporary or long-term, is not an imaginary construct, but the result of a physiological fuck-up.

Bringing this back to Griffin. Even had he never touched a basketball, he would’ve found himself a victim of this culture. He was an individual with clear anger issues, and some apparent depression, and such people never get the help they need. How do you think Griffin’s peers responded to his violent anger growing up? I bet it was a lot of Get over it, man. And what’s Griffin supposed to do with that? He clearly did not feel in control of his outburst, or else he wouldn’t have had them – do you think he ever enjoyed the fallout of punching someone? Griffin’s brain was injured, physically, and it already was an obstacle in his path to success. Further obstacles were placed on that road when those around him likely told him to stop giving in to his emotions, to stop acting so mentally weak.

And an NBA career probably only made things worse. We think of “mental health” and “happiness” as essentially synonymous, and many are apt to equate happiness with wealth and/or fame. When Griffin transformed into a millionaire, but remained his mentally-damaged self, I’m sure his lonely corner of the world only got emptier. We’ll give a pass to someone who grieves at the death of their mom or dad. But someone who’s still rather pitiful when they’re one of the richest men in the world? He’s not going to get any sympathy, because, again, not for a moment will those around consider his mental illness the product of real, observable damage to his body.

I’d imagine many of Griffin’s friends and family had distanced themselves in the months leading up to his death, waiting for their famous NBA acquaintance to just get over his problems. And as he sped towards that passing train in his SUV, I’m sure Eddie Griffin wished he could.

I felt crappy earlier partly because I had laughed at a person who’d passed tragically. What really made me question myself, though, was imaging this same story, but in a world where Griffin is still alive. I probably would’ve suggested we use the story as the subject of our Friday FunDay, and I would’ve giggled to myself while typing out jokes about stupid ‘ol Eddie Griffin, who had everything going for him but just couldn’t fight the problems he’d brought upon himself.

Hopefully writing this prevents that sort of thinking in the future, because it’s the exact foolishness I’ve posed as the problem.

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