Mookie Blaylock's downward spiral and the family he dragged with him
At around 1 p.m. on May 31, 2013, Frank and Monica Murphy pulled out of a Taco Bell onto Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro, Georgia, about 20 miles south of downtown Atlanta. They were moving to the area from Plano, Tex., and had an appointment to see a house that afternoon. Their Chrysler Town & Country minivan was loaded with their possessions. Their five children were staying in a nearby hotel with Monica’s mother.
They were excited to be moving back to the Atlanta area, where they had lived for 10 years before spending the past 18 months in Texas. As an interracial couple—he, 43, was white; she, 40, was black—they found Atlanta more open and cosmopolitan than the Dallas area, and their employment situations had given them a chance to move back. Frank’s passion was playing guitar in metal bands, but he made a living operating a forklift and doing other blue-collar work, and had just been laid off by FedEx. Monica had recently become a licensed insurance broker, which meant she could work anywhere she wanted.
They pulled up to a stoplight, the second car in the line, Frank driving and Monica in the passenger seat. The light changed. Frank pulled out slowly behind another car. When he saw the black Escalade barreling toward him at a 45 degree angle, going about 50 miles per hour, he could barely begin to process what he was seeing, let alone react.
The answer to a music history trivia question: An ascending Seattle grunge band needed a name before going on tour as the opening act for Alice in Chains. During rehearsal lunch breaks they would buy basketball cards, and one day they got a chuckle out of the cute, melodic name: Mookie Blaylock. They were basketball fans and they liked Blaylock’s unselfish, fundamental style, so they took the name “Mookie Blaylock” and went on tour. Soon after, they changed their name to “Pearl Jam,” but they named their first album Ten in homage to Blaylock’s jersey number.
It’s debatable whether Blaylock is better known as a footnote in music history or for his 13-year NBA career, from 1989 to 2002, as a point guard for the New Jersey Nets, Atlanta Hawks, and Golden State Warriors. Blaylock was a very good but not great player: He made one All-Star team and six first or second All-Defensive Teams, and ranks eleventh in NBA history in steals. He is best known for his time on the 1990s Hawks who, like Blaylock himself, had sustained but not spectacular success, making the playoffs each year Blaylock was there but never advancing past the second round.
Defense was his specialty. Blaylock used his quick hands and precise hand-eye coordination to poke the ball from unsuspecting dribblers or big men whose concentration wandered. His defensive stance was practically a crouch, from which he’d spring, cat-like, to attack the ball.
On Tara Boulevard, Blaylock’s foot locked on the gas pedal, according to his attorney Don Samuel. He was having a seizure alone in his Escalade. He was about 50 pounds heavier than he’d been in his playing days. According to Samuel, he doesn’t remember where he was going that day. (Blaylock himself was not available for an interview for this story, per Georgia Department of Corrections policy.)
Investigators believe Blaylock, driving in the northbound lane, lost motor control about a half-mile before the accident site. Along the way he went through a red light, but he managed to keep the car straight for most of that distance. Until he drifted to the left, to the center median, down the grass ditch and back up, headed toward oncoming traffic. Tara Boulevard has three lanes in both directions, and cars in the first two southbound lanes were able to swerve and avoid Blaylock. But the Murphys were in the far right lane, and the cars to the left of him blocked Frank’s view. Most of the front side of Blaylock’s Escalade cleared the Murphy’s vehicle; the impact was passenger side to passenger side. The drivers were spared the worst of it.
When word of the crash hit the news, Pearl Jam posted a photo tribute to Blaylock on their Instagram account with the caption, “Sending good thoughts to Mookie.”
The surprising thing: Blaylock was sober. His ex-wife had left him, in part, because she knew he would one day kill someone with his driving. But she assumed it would be from his escalating alcohol intake; as it turned out, his seizure was caused by alcohol withdrawal. It’s a fairly common symptom for people with severe drinking problems.
Blaylock had suffered several seizures in the weeks before the crash, and was consequently under doctor’s orders not to drive. These orders went beyond a concerned piece of medical advice: Rather, Blaylock was presented with a form prohibiting him from driving, and he signed it.
Also: Blaylock’s license was suspended from a previous DUI. Also: He was wanted on warrants for failure to appear in court on a separate DUI from the previous March.
Since 1995, Blaylock had been arrested seven times for DUI, including six times since 2007. On a stop in April of 2010, his blood alcohol content was .360, according to police reports—four-and-a-half times the legal limit—and when he stepped out of his car, he left it in neutral so that it almost rolled backward into the police car. In November 2012, he blew a .272. His March 2013 arrest occurred after he hit another car in a grocery store parking lot, got out of his car and staggered around for a bit, then climbed back in the driver’s seat and tried to flee the scene, according to police reports.
It’s anybody’s guess how much worse his driving record would look if he weren’t Mookie Blaylock, beloved and wealthy local professional basketball player. Two of the times he was pulled over for DUI, the charges were ultimately reduced to lesser charges: reckless driving and failure to use due care, respectively. At least once during his career, cops decided not to charge Blaylock after pulling him over, and instead called a person close to him to come pick him up.
“When we ran his criminal history, one of the first questions we asked was, ‘Why is this man still driving?’” said Tasha Mosley, Solicitor General of Clayton County, Georgia, where the accident involving the Murphys took place.
In recent months, Blaylock’s girlfriend had been leaning on him to curb his drinking, according to Samuel, his attorney. Sure, he was still drinking at night, said Samuel, which explains the empty case of Crown Royal found in the backseat of his Escalade after the crash, but he had made some concessions, including hiring a driver. His driver was busy the day of the crash, though, according to Mosley: “We were just shaking our heads, saying, ‘With so much money, he could’ve gotten a taxi.’ Get a damn taxi!’”
In her alone time, when she needed some space, Monica Murphy would shut her bedroom door, turn out the lights, crank up the music and dance in the dark. Her favorite was Mary J. Blige, but her tastes were eclectic: Sometimes it was ‘70s soul like Al Green, sometimes ‘80s synth pop like The Cure.
She and Frank had met in a record store in Jackson, Mississippi in 1998. Frank, a guitarist in a gothic metal band, had a brooding, artistic temperament. He had just gotten divorced several months prior, and Monica’s kind, open temperament softened him. She was shy but open-minded, with the gift of making people feel like she understood them.
They were both creative types. Frank’s band, Incarceri 9, had made a splash in Atlanta several years prior, when they regularly played The Masquerade, a well-known alternative venue. Monica was involved in community theater and also wrote novels and short stories; Frank was always trying to get her to overcome her reticence about trying to get them published.
Their relationship had drawn stares in Texas and Mississippi, and had once nearly gotten them run off the road in Virginia. Perhaps this is part of why their shared sense of humor tended toward the dark and offbeat. South Park and Family Guy were favorites. “They didn’t single any one group out,” said Frank. “Everybody needs to realize: At some point in your life, you’re gonna get offended.”
“My mom and dad were always telling me, I was different person before I hooked up with her,” said Frank. “I had anger issues, and she mellowed me out. I guess because I was happy with her.”
On Tara Boulevard, when Frank came to, the EMTs and firefighters were already there. He had suffered a concussion, and his ankle was shattered. He looked to the right and saw that Monica was unconscious. The front side of the car was pushed into her lower body.
Blaylock’s car had come to a stop in the trees down the embankment. He had injuries to his legs and a large gash on his head, and when he went to the hospital, he suffered yet another seizure. Initial news reports would suggest he was on life support, but Samuel, his attorney, does not remember this being so.
Frank woke Monica up and said, “I love you” before she passed out again. This happened two more times: They always said “I love you” to each other when they parted company. The first responders put Frank on a stretcher and rushed him to the hospital in an ambulance.
Despite his injuries, he didn’t feel any pain that night, as he was preoccupied with Monica’s condition and putting on a strong face for their five kids, who are now 7, 10, 13, 15, and 19. Three times, Monica went into cardiac arrest and was brought back, but not the fourth time. The last time Frank saw her, she was unconscious in a hospital bed with tubes down her throat, a mental image he wishes he didn’t have.
She had been 26 when they met, and he was 28. “I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “But when you’re with someone who you’re comfortable with for that many years, you kinda grow together. So when that happens, you feel like a part of you is ripped out.”
Blaylock had always been quiet, kept to himself. Growing up in the rough, predominantly black Eastside section of Garland, Texas, just outside of Dallas, he kept his head down when he walked to the outdoor basketball courts. Even after he turned pro — after two years of junior college and two years playing for prominent University of Oklahoma teams — his taciturn, country boy demeanor remained. Instead of talking, he occupied his mouth with a lipful of dip and a toothpick. “Mookie had no problem being in a room with five or six other guys and never uttering a word,” said Sam Bowie, Blaylock’s close friend and a former teammate with the New Jersey Nets.
Dealing with the media was an uncomfortable ritual. He was shy enough to begin with, and the media made things worse, putting him on the spot, trying to fit him into their storylines and soundbites. “He had unpolished social skills, and didn’t want to make himself look bad,” one friend said. He especially hated how the mostly white reporters would take the words of the black players out of context and make them sound dumb, according to a source close to him.
He was more comfortable with the improvisational flow of the game, where he didn’t have to explain everything. He had a point guard’s feel for the cadences, a sense of when to push the ball or pull it back, and a knowledge of where every teammate would be on every set. Who cared if reporters made him feel insecure? When he was playing basketball — for which he made nearly $32 million over his career — his IQ was off the charts.
His headiness as a player was all the more remarkable considering that he was stoned a large part of the time. “He was one of the few NBA players who could smoke marijuana and play the best 48 minutes you’ve ever seen,” said Danny Solomon, a former Hawks ballboy who is still one of Blaylock’s best friends. “And he was doing it for so long that it took a lot to have an effect.”
Pot was one of his escapist pleasures, like the trout fishing vacations he took in Colorado or his golf habit. He first got in trouble for marijuana when he was suspended for the district championship game his senior year of high school. He was arrested for it twice during his career, including once in 1997, when he tried to take two ounces across the Canadian border as the Hawks boarded a flight from Vancouver after playing the Grizzlies. Smoking didn’t seem to diminish his focus; it takes an alert player to amass 2,075 career steals.
Indeed, aside from a small handful of scattered incidents, Blaylock was a low-maintenance player and a good teammate. Lenny Wilkens, Blaylock’s longtime head coach with the Hawks, once sat Blaylock down for a concerned lecture after his 1995 arrest for DUI, carrying an open alcohol container, and marijuana possession. But overall, said Wilkens, Blaylock “was serious about his play. He was always on time, and he was receptive to coaching. I enjoyed coaching him.”
So long as Blaylock kept showing up on time and doing his job, his addictions went unchecked. Marijuana was one of these. Alcohol, his use of which increased throughout his career and spiked afterward, according to sources close to him, was another. The strip club was a third.
Athletes are famously fond of strip clubs, but Blaylock wasn’t an aggrandizing, make-it-rain type. Rather, he was a quiet afternoon regular who, according to Solomon, went by himself more often than not. “His thing was going to the strip club and looking at women all day. And I mean, all day,” Solomon said.
The strip club was Blaylock’s safe place, where his status was validated, the parade of nude female bodies rendering verbose explanations unnecessary. At night, Crown Royal was his drink of choice—“If you had stock in Crown Royal, you’d have made a lot of money off him,” said Solomon—and his intake was extreme: a constant Crown on the rocks in his hand, plus seven to nine shots, according to Solomon. But he was mostly a calm drunk, the alcohol easing him into his own skin.
“He’d get into his Crown and he’d have one or two women go downstairs with him. From time to time, there’d be a little extra money for some things. He’d get his regulars who he’d chit chat with, and of course the liquor brings the talking out, so it was perfect,” said Solomon.
“I don’t know if you’d call it ‘partying,’ because he didn’t spend thousands. But he enjoyed getting out of the house. He enjoyed getting away.”
Blaylock wanted to be a good father to his five children, the first three from his first marriage and the last two with his current girlfriend. He talked about them constantly, according to Bowie. His own father, a semi-pro basketball player, had died when he was two. Despite his vices, Blaylock was otherwise frugal with his money and avoided the stereotypical athlete’s splurging; he wanted to be there for his children, even if—as his alcoholism escalated and the pull of the strip club grew stronger—he wasn’t actually home very often.
His marriage to his college sweetheart ended in 2001, and the drinking had increased after he was traded from Atlanta to Golden State for the 1999-2000 season. He tried, on and off, to cut back, but this turn for the worse made him look to those close to him like a lost cause, as if the alcoholism had clinched the battle against his better angels. One summer night in 2001, Blaylock did something he had never done before, and something people close to him describe as totally out of character up to that point: He became violent with his wife, in front of the children, according to a source close to the family. She left him and was given full custody.
Afterward, his ex-wife and her eventual new husband wanted Blaylock to maintain a relationship with the children, but they insisted he never drive them anywhere. In 2006, Blaylock defied that condition by driving the children the 300 miles from his mother’s house in Garland to SeaWorld in San Antonio. It was the last straw, and Blaylock’s ex-wife cut off contact between him and the kids for several years, until they were old enough to drive to see him themselves. (Blaylock’s two oldest are twin boys who now play football at the University of Kentucky.) Blaylock’s alcoholism had exacted a steep price: First his wife, then his children.
The SeaWorld episode showed Blaylock’s alcoholism dovetailing with his willfulness. Hence his seven DUIs, and the fact that he was driving with suspended license the day of the fateful crash, defying his doctor’s orders in doing so.
Jon Koncak, a former Hawks teammate, recognized this quality in Blaylock during their playing days. Koncak, like most of his former teammates, was fond of Blaylock overall. The two played golf together at a club Koncak belonged to. But afterward, on two occasions, Koncack noticed charges on his account that he didn’t recognize.
“To just show up and play, and not say a word, and not say, ‘Thanks,’ I just remember being stunned. That told me he didn’t quite get life in the real world,” said Koncak. “When [news of the accident] came out, I thought back on that, because it did give insight into what happened. You can draw a correlation.”
Blaylock’s pot arrest in Vancouver seemed to reflect a similar childish obliviousness. So did the time late in his career when, as a member of the Golden State Warriors, he skipped practice to play golf, after which he was stripped of his captaincy by coach Dave Cowens. Months later, Blaylock told reporters, “That happened, and it’s over. I don’t regret anything about that.”
It was both a blessing and a curse that Blaylock saved so much money from his playing career. He and his children never wanted financially, and he was able to live out the country boy’s dream by moving to a six-acre property in rural Pike County, 50 miles south of downtown Atlanta, and playing all the golf he wanted. Yet it also left him without structure, allowing his addictions free reign.
Six of his seven DUIs came after he retired. Between September 2010 and February 2012, he did three stints in jail for driving offenses, totaling more than four months. According to Solomon, he was going to the strip club “sometimes five times a week” during this time. In 2009, cops came to his house for a domestic disturbance after his girlfriend called them, though nobody was arrested, according to police reports.
After the fatal crash, before he began his sentence, he spent several months in jail for prior driving offenses, then went to an in-patient rehab facility for more than seven months. But prior to entering rehab, as a free man, he coped with the crash’s aftermath in predictable ways: By drinking, and going to strip clubs. “We’d go to the club and people would look at him and try to ask him about it. But he wouldn’t want to talk about it,” said Solomon.
Even the crash didn’t seem to chasten him when it came to alcohol and cars. Six months afterward, according to court records, he was out at a bar with a friend, Darryl Eubanks, and let Eubanks drive his car even though Eubanks was drunk and his license had been revoked. (Blaylock was sentenced to a fine and probation.) When he showed up to his arraignment on those charges, he was drunk, and was put in jail by the judge for contempt of court. “He was respectful, he wasn’t a loudmouth, he wasn’t carrying on, but it impacts his ability to make a valid decision,” explained the judge, Hon. Sidney Esary.
When he faced vehicular homicide charges for the crash that killed Monica, he retained Samuel, a high-profile Atlanta-based attorney to the stars who, along with his law partner, Ed Garland, has represented Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Dany Heatley, Ben Roethlisberger, the rapper T.I. and the Chief Financial Officer of the Gold Club during the strip club’s 2001 RICO trial.
Because Blaylock wasn’t drunk at the time of the crash, prosecutors initially thought they would only be able to charge him for misdemeanor vehicular homicide. This carries a maximum twelve-month jail sentence, but probation is the more common result. It was only by happenstance that they were able to upgrade the charges: In late April of 2013, several weeks before the crash, Blaylock had suffered a seizure while eating lunch in a swanky Atlanta restaurant, and was taken to the hospital. A responding police officer knew from that incident that Blaylock was prohibited from driving. When news broke about the fatal crash several weeks later, the officer emailed prosecutors with what he knew. The fact that Blaylock knew he shouldn’t have been driving allowed them upgrade the charges from second degree vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor, to first degree, a felony. “If that officer had never sent us that email, [Blaylock] would have been charged with second degree, because we would never have known about the doctor’s orders,” said Mosley, the Solicitor General.
The signed doctor’s admonition was the prosecution’s smoking gun, which not even Samuel could counter. “Mookie had specifically been told, ‘You’re not safe, you can’t drive.’ It was put in writing to him, and he signed it. That’s why we viewed it as an indefensible case,” said Samuel.
Had he gone to trial, Blaylock would have risked a 7-10 year sentence, which Samuel said would have likely fallen on the high end because of Blaylock’s prior DUIs. Instead, he took a plea deal for a maximum of three years in prison, provided he comply with certain terms: passing regular drug and alcohol tests for seven years, going to weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and doing alcohol abuse-related community service. He will be forbidden from driving for at least 15 years.
Blaylock's insurance paid for most of the $2.4 million settlement: $500,000 for Frank’s personal injury, $1.9 million for Monica’s wrongful death. Frank’s shattered ankle kept him from walking for six months after the crash. He still has a limp, and can no longer do the type of blue-collar work he used to do. He was also recently diagnosed with diabetes.
“My health has gone downhill,” he said. “When you have an accident and you couple that with depression, your body can react very negatively.”
He moved to Mississippi to be closer to his family, and he spends his time raising his five children, with some family support but mostly by himself. He tried therapy, but he says the therapists pushed Jesus on him even though he’s not religious, and the anti-anxiety meds they gave him made him feel worse.
“I’m not suicidal or anything, but sometimes I feel like I just can’t go on,” he said.
He is still angry with Blaylock -- and with the system that enabled Blaylock to keep driving. Specifically, he points to the two DUIs in Pike County from 2010 that were reduced to lesser charges. According to Pike County records, those charges were reportedly reduced at the behest of the office of District Attorney Scott Ballard. For his part, Ballard said he had nothing to do with the reduced charges: “That made me pretty mad,” Ballard said. “A lot of times down here the judge will meet with the defense lawyer and work out details of the case without our knowledge.”
Frank channeled a lot of his grief into a new acoustic album, which he released in January. It’s called Morktra, Swedish for “dark tree,” and it contains an instrumental song that emulates the sounds of the sirens after the crash. He got back together with his old band, Incarceri 9, and they are working on a new album. Frank's seven-year-old wants him to find a new wife, but the idea of getting married again seems far-fetched to him.
“For that to happen, I’m gonna have to get beyond the point where I wake up and I don’t think I’m just imagining everything,” he said. “I’ve gotten past the point where I’m crying every morning. And I’ve gotten past the point where I’ve stopped reaching for her.”
Samuel and Solomon both say Blaylock is extremely remorseful, and that, post-rehab, he’s committed to straightening himself out and bringing some good out of the tragedy. At his sentencing, he apologized to Frank, telling him the crash would stay with him for the rest of his life. Frank, however, hasn’t accepted it. “It seemed like he was just trying to [apologize] it to make himself look good,” he says. “I may be wrong, but that’s my opinion.”