HOUSTON — Former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Eddie Griffin died last week when his sport utility vehicle collided with a freight train in a fiery crash, the Harris County medical examiner’s office said Tuesday.
Investigators used dental records to identify Griffin, 25, who began his tumultuous pro career with the Houston Rockets in 2001. He was waived by the Timberwolves in March.
“The cause of death and manner of death, which also includes toxicology results, is pending,” said Beverly Begay, chief investigator for the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office.
Griffin, a five-year veteran who was the No. 7 pick in the 2001 NBA draft, had battled alcohol problems since coming out of Seton Hall. He was suspended by the league for five games in January for violating its anti-drug program.
“Basketball was never an issue with him. He needed more life lessons, and unfortunately he was never able to reach his potential,” former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey said.
Houston police said in a report that the driver of the SUV ignored a railroad warning and went through a barrier before striking the moving train about 1:30 a.m. Friday. The resulting fire burned the SUV and the side of a railcar carrying plastic granules, police said.
The driver’s body was badly burned and there was no identification.
“I was able this afternoon to get some dental records from the one dentist he had gone to see in Houston, and they were able to use that apparently to positively identify him,” said Derek S. Hollingsworth, an attorney who has represented Griffin in criminal cases.
Hollingsworth said he spoke with Griffin’s mother, who was devastated by the news.
“Everybody tried to help him from the top to the bottom of the organization,” said Casey, who coached Griffin for 1½ seasons. “He just couldn’t get it straight. It’s a tragic ending for a beautiful kid. He had a beautiful heart.”
Casey said he hadn’t talked to Griffin in five or six months but he knew that Griffin was spending the summer trying to get back in shape to play in Europe next season.
Casey said he regretted not having reached out to Griffin in the past few months.
“The entire Minnesota Timberwolves organization is deeply saddened by this tragic news. Eddie will be missed by everyone who knew him,” said Kevin McHale, vice president of basketball operations for the team. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Eddie’s loved ones.”
Casey said Griffin was “like a son to Kevin. Kevin really enjoyed working with him and taking him under his wing.”
Mark Madsen, a former teammate in Minnesota, said Griffin was a mild-mannered person and “one of the best shot blockers and defensive rebounders I’ve ever played with.” He said Griffin will be missed.
“Eddie Griffin is someone who was never a super loud or boisterous guy in the locker room, but he was someone who everyone loved in the locker room,” Madsen said. “When he was doing well on the court we were all so happy for him. And when he was struggling, we were all struggling right there with him.”
Griffin had a series of suspensions, court dates and missed practices during his first two years in the NBA with Houston and New Jersey. He spent time in the Betty Ford Center for alcohol treatment in 2003-04.
Hollingsworth said he found Griffin to be kind and gentle — behavior inconsistent with how the player was described in police reports.
“He had a problem with alcohol, and I think that was a medication for him, and I think that led to a lot of issues,” Hollingsworth said.
Griffin, who played forward and center, signed with the Timberwolves as a free agent before the 2004 season. He showed enough promise as a shot-blocker and rebounder to be signed to an extension, but was waived in March after playing in just 13 games last season with the Wolves.
The Wolves put his locker right next to star Kevin Garnett, hoping the former MVP could help straighten Griffin out.
Griffin put up some big numbers on occasion with the Wolves, but continued to get into trouble off the court. He pleaded guilty last season to inattentive driving after he hit a parked car while out late one night in Minneapolis.
The Rockets released a statement saying the organization “is devastated and saddened by this terrible tragedy. Our thoughts go out to Eddie’s family and friends during this very difficult time.”
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
R.I.P. Eddie Griffin
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