In the two months since he became a pro, 22-year-old Darrell Griffith has inspired a musical renaissance in Salt Lake City. By moving to his beat, the Utah Jazz are no longer the worst team in the NBA's Midwest Division or the most incongruously named team in sports.
When Griffith left the University of Louisville at the end of last season, he had a national championship watch, several Player of the Year awards and all the nicknames he needed. One sobriquet was Dr. Dunkenstein, which recognized his assortment of monstrous running, spinning slams; another was Louisville's Living Legend, which seemed to ignore another favorite son named Muhammad Ali. But Griffith was not the kind of sure-thing rookie that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had been the year before. Their talents were more refined than his, and Griffith is smaller—he stands just 6'3½", though he insists on being listed as 6'4". Nevertheless, in his first 24 games Griffith has proved to be a little bit of Earl Monroe on David Thompson's legs, with Jerry West's penchant for doing big things late in games. In short, Griffith is the man who has made the difference in shaping the Jazz' record—13-11 as the week ended—a solid smash compared to the team's 4-20 after 24 games a year ago.
Opening night against Portland: Griffith goes for 26, including 13 in the fourth quarter, as the Jazz win. At Dallas, Griffith scores 33 with two three-pointers in the second half. Three days later against the same team he scores 37. Win and win. At Portland, after a one-for-seven first half, Griffith comes back with 27 points in the second. At Seattle, he scores 14 of the Jazz' 32 fourth-quarter points and finishes with 26. Win and win. Against San Antonio, he helps George Gervin miss 19 of 23 shots, swats two of them away and scores 29 himself. One of his baskets comes on a flying, screaming slam-dunk—the ball triggered from his right ankle—that nearly removes one side of Gervin's face. The play so excites Jazz Guard Billy McKinney that after the game he requests stomach medication. Win.
For all of this the rookie remains humble. "I don't name my dunks, I just do 'em," he says. Averaging 21.7 points a game on 47% shooting, Griffith is the Mr. Outside of the most prolific scoring pair in the league. Forward Adrian Dantley, the astoundingly strong Mr. Inside, leads the NBA with a 32.8-point average on 58% shooting. Seventeen times the two have combined for 50 or more points, seven times for 60 or more. Of those 17 games, the Jazz have won 13. "If you want to name one reason—one reason—why the Jazz are so much better, it's got to be Darrell Griffith," says broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley. "He's great, and I'm the guy who believes there hasn't been a great guard in this league since Oscar, Cousy and West retired. In your face, Red Auerbach!"
In your face, indeed. The Boston general manager could have had Griffith if he hadn't traded the first pick in the college draft to Golden State for Robert Parish and the Warriors' first-round choice, the third in the draft. Auerbach figured the Warriors would take Purdue's Joe Barry Carroll and that Utah, picking No. 2, would draft Minnesota's Kevin McHale. Cagey Red would then take Griffith. At least this seemed to be what Auerbach wanted when he talked to Jazz General Manager Frank Layden.
"Red kept calling me up, saying, 'I know you're going to take McHale. He's terrific. You can't pass up a big center,' " recalls Layden. "I kept telling him we wanted Griffith, even before Red traded his first pick away. He must have thought I was bluffing. In my wildest dreams I can't see why Boston did not keep the No. 1 choice and take Griffith."
Boston wound up choosing McHale, but by that time Griffith had become the first player ever drafted by the 7-year-old Jazz with their own first-round pick. The other choices had been traded away in the infamous, and ultimately disastrous, Pete Maravich and Gail Goodrich deals. The Jazz' 1979 pick, for instance, was used by Los Angeles to select Magic Johnson. Johnson and Griffith—the mind boggles at the backcourt those two would have made.
For a while it looked as if Griffith would be lost as well. He wanted to sign right away, but his agent, Bob Woolf, held him out of training camp while negotiating his contract. "I'd work out all day and then be sitting around my apartment in Louisville at night with nothing to do," says Griffith. "I'd go back to a gym on campus at midnight or 1 a.m. and work some more."
Griffith's final session took place in the wee hours of. Saturday, Sept. 27. Later that day he signed a five-year, $1.4 million contract, just in time to play an exhibition game that night against the Indiana Pacers in Freedom Hall, the very place where Griffith had become the Living Legend. When he joined the Jazz for their pregame shoot-around, his new teammates broke ranks to welcome him. In the game he came off the bench to score 23 points, and the Jazz had their only preseason victory. "It was to Darrell's credit that he felt so comfortable with us right away," says McKinney. "He could have had a big head, or felt guilty for missing camp, but it was 'Hey, I'm so happy I'm finally getting to play with you guys.' "
Before the contract terms were made final, one of the team doctors, Lyle Mason, had flown to Louisville to examine Griffith. Mason had a look of mock concern on his face when he showed the Jazz executives Griffith's X rays. "I can't seem to find any reason why he can jump so high," the doctor said.
Griffith's vertical jump can be measured much more easily than it can be explained. He propels himself 48 inches off the floor, so high that the top of his head is four inches above the rim. His older brother, Michael, believes Darrell began building up his legs when he started dunking at the age of 10 by launching himself off the wall of the Griffith garage. By the time he was in eighth grade he was regularly playing pickup ball against pros from the ABA Kentucky Colonels. After perfecting a 360-degree spinning dunk in high school, he spurned a multimillion-dollar offer to skip college and join the Colonels.
When he played in Bulgaria after his freshman year at Louisville, Griffith amazed the Europeans by bounding over a Belgian player and dunking. The Eastern-bloc reporters were convinced that he had undergone some secret operation or that he was literally "high" because of drugs. "I told them it was a God-given talent," says Griffith. "That confused them because I don't think they believe in God."
If his jumping and his speed were God-given, his other basketball skills came through hard, dedicated work. In his junior season at Louisville he underwent hypnosis to help improve his defense. Before his senior year he spent an entire summer dribbling around chairs to improve his ball handling. In the middle of last season he asked Cards' Coach Denny Crum what else he needed to become a great pro. "An outside jumper," said Crum. So Griffith developed one.
Jazz Coach Tom Nissalke likes to tell about his first meeting with Griffith, which occurred a month before the NBA draft. "Here was the best college player in the country," says Nissalke. "We were warned about how much money it would cost us to sign him, but when we went to talk to him he was such a little boy. He asked what our uniforms looked like, if we really traveled first class on planes, whether or not we said a prayer before games. Hell, we never talked about money. He never asked how much he would play or gave any indication of having a big head at all. That's why I was sure he was the player we wanted, and that we would get him signed."
Because he is a rookie, Griffith has made lots of mistakes: in 11 games he has had four turnovers or more. Sometimes his shot selection is erratic. Nevertheless, Dantley says, "He makes them." Despite the occasional error, Griffith's progress so far suits Nissalke. "Darrell's got all the tools for greatness," the coach says, "jumping, speed, shooting, passing, intelligence and humility. He's 100% coachable, and he's learning more each day."
And, let's face it, Griffith knew quite a bit before the day began.