Perseverance a common theme for Griffin and the Bulls
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We’ve tried to figure out all sorts of reasons why this Bulls team has become so successful. Besides the obvious, of course—the brilliance of MVP Derrick Rose, defensive play, hustle, the things we can see.
But any prosperous team transcends any one individual, no matter how superior, so we are left with vague explanations, like being greater than the sum of its parts or harder working.
There is a special and unique bond which unites this Bulls group of players, reflected in the collective experiences of themselves and their mentors. It’s been about perseverance, in their professions, as well as their games.
“Look at our coach,” notes Griffin, seated between Adams and Pinckney. “It took him 20 years to get to do this. He persevered through a lot. He doesn’t take one day for granted and he doesn’t let anyone take one day for granted.”
“Life is not perfect,” offers Adrian Griffin, one of the team’s assistant coaches who works primarily with Luol Deng. “But if you persevere good things happen. When things go bad and you fail, you can fall to pieces. But I learned life isn’t supposed to be great all the time.”
Although the Bulls players came here in many different ways from many different places it’s, in effect, something of a shared experience.
Carlos Boozer wasn’t close to being the Bulls’ top free agent choice. Keith Bogans is with his seventh team. Ronnie Brewer was released last summer. C.J. Watson has been through the D-League and Greece. Kurt Thomas is with his eighth team. Omer Asik wasn’t his team’s best big man in Turkey. Noah fell to ninth in the draft after winning two championships at the University of Florida, and Deng has been the unwanted and doubted stepchild of the Bulls’ hopes for years.
It wasn’t necessarily the way Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau envisioned a team, but it’s a team that fits him well. And a staff that makes equal sense.
“Some guys think the NBA owes them,” says Griffin, 36. “But you learn the NBA was here before you and the NBA will be here after you. MJ retired and the NBA moved on. It doesn’t stop for anybody. So you have to make the best of it while you are here.
“You watch us play and things are not going our way, you’ll see us buckle down,” said Griffin. “There’s team pressure here when you are five, 10 down not to cave in, but to pull together.
“Look at our coach,” notes Griffin. “It took him 20 years to get to do this. He persevered through a lot. He doesn’t take one day for granted and he doesn’t let anyone take one day for granted.”
That, perhaps, more than anything is what unites this group of Bulls players other than their ability and good fortune to become NBA players. They all had to persevere, and although it’s not intentional, it’s how Thibodeau identifies. Look at his staff.
Lead assistant Ron Adams, regarded as perhaps the league’s top teaching assistant, has coached around the NBA for two decades after stints in Belgium and Fresno State. Andy Greer, also not a former NBA player, beat around college programs like NIU and the Merchant Marine Academy before 10 years on four different NBA team benches. The former players are Rick Brunson, a journeyman NBA player with seven teams in nine seasons, and Ed Pinckney, a collegiate star at Villanova who played for seven teams in 12 NBA seasons.
They all experienced more regret than reward even if their positions are so enviable to so many now. But they learned a work ethic and an edge to survive that you see courses through the veins of this Bulls team.
They compete, which is our shorthand for not giving in when things don’t go your way or your dreams or ambitions fall to another.
Griffin's career included a role with the 2006 Mavericks in the NBA Finals and stops with the Bulls in 2004-05 and 2006-08 before landing on the bench with in Milwaukee and now in Chicago.
(Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
We see it reflected in the way they play and attack the game, and it’s a message that gets delivered regularly in the identities of their tutors and in the instruction.
Griffin’s is a good example.
He fits the staff profile, a nine-year NBA career after being undrafted, cut in the Philippines and laboring three years in the CBA.
“If you believe in something, you go for it,” says Griffin. “And you don’t look back.”
Griffin came from Wichita, Kansas, an unheralded 6-5 forward without great athletic ability or shooting skills. He eventually got a scholarship to play at Seton Hall when two recruits transferred at the last minute and coach P.J. Carlesimo was stuck.
Griffin had gotten a chance to go to the famous five-star camp in Pennsylvania, though he had to wash dishes for his tuition to stay. A Seton Hall assistant had seen him.
“P.J. called and it wasn’t like, ‘I’ve got to have you,’” Griffin recalled with a chuckle. “It was, ‘I need your decision because I’ve got to move on.’ My dad wanted me to stay home, but all I could think of was the Big East and a chance to get out on my own. But my father was a minister and I’d never heard cursing like that. Me and my brother had to make our beds and my dad came in to flip a quarter on them. He was an ex-Marine. If it didn’t bounce we had to do them again.”
The family was poor and the boys and their dad collected cans from dumpsters for money, went door to door to ask to mow lawns.
“It was tough, but he taught me and my brother how to be a man and how to care for your family,” said Griffin. “I couldn’t handle P.J. and I did want out.”
But Griffin says he stuck it out because the kids always said the Kansas guys were soft and couldn’t make it.
“In Wichita, you could walk by anybody and strike up a conversation, say, ‘Hi, what’s up?’” Griffin said. “I’d be on campus (in New Jersey) and say, ‘Hi,’ and they’d want to fight me. It was, ‘What you mean, hi? What you mean, what’s up? What you want?’ I called and said, ‘Dad, it’s different here.’”
After Griffin’s sophomore year, Carlesimo got the Portland job and under a new coach Griffin’s game blossomed and he was an all-Big East player. He went home to watch the 1996 draft, knowing he was a longshot but there was a chance.
“The family was there,’ Griffin recalled. “My dad worked second shift, so he wasn’t home yet. Everyone started so excited and then about 10, 11, mom says she’s got to get to bed and my sisters are young. I’m still hoping, but nothing.”
Eventually, Griffin says his dad comes home and asks him to go for a ride and all he says is not to give up.
Beyond the disappointment, as even Carlesimo with Portland passed him in the second round for a marginal prospect who never made it, Griffin was married and his wife was pregnant.
“You watch us play and things are not going our way, you’ll see us buckle down,” said Griffin. “There’s team pressure here when you are five, 10 down not to cave in, but to pull together."
“I knew I loved her and she was a good girl, and I knew I didn’t want to leave her,” says Griffin. “I did not want another man raising my kid. My dad was instrumental in my life and I couldn’t turn my back on my kid. We were so naïve. We look back now and wonder what we were thinking, but 14 years later we’re still married and committed to one another.
“It’s been challenging,” Griffin said, “but we’ve made things work.”
And so began his basketball odyssey, released after two weeks in the Philippines, rushing back to virtually beg for a spot with the CBA Connecticut Pride, three years and being the league MVP and almost a dozen NBA camps and never making it.
“You know when they say the coach wants to see you,” recalls Griffin of all those bitter realizations of failure and rejection. “It’s, ‘Thanks for coming in,’ or ‘It’s not your time.’ Always the same and you’re going back home. I remember the Mavericks cutting me once and sitting there crying. I was so tired of going through rejection. I called my wife and said, ‘Would you still love me if I gave up?’ You get tired of it, but it was in me not to quit; to push through when it was toughest.”
Then after going back to Connecticut for a third season, Griffin got a chance in two Celtics summer leagues. At the end, coach Rick Pitino told him in 17 games he didn’t make one mental mistake. Griffin’s skill was knowledge. It was natural to him. Doubled, you pass. Box out, make the right play. Coaches had told him he’d never make the NBA because he was too nice, not selfish enough. But he finally did and was signed by Boston, going from the smoky bus terminals to Red Auerbach’s cigar smoke wafting through practice.
“I remember the sense of walking on air,” Griffin says.
That began a journeyman’s career that included a role with the 2006 Mavericks in the NBA Finals and stops with the Bulls in 2004-05 and 2006-08 before landing on the bench with Scott Skiles in Milwaukee and here with Thibodeau, another of Thibodeau’s guys who daily deliver the lessons of perseverance and commitment through their messages and life experiences, Griffin working regularly with Deng.
“It’s not uncommon to lose sight of the big picture in life (or in a game),” says Griffin. “Even though they are pro athletes, they are young men and human beings and can feel the world is coming to an end, a bad game, the media on them, letting teammates down. It’s something we talk about, that the sun will come up tomorrow, that you have to make it through and keep going.
“A lot of us here took these different routes,” Griffin said. “Things were tough, but we got through. So those are the things you try to pass along, that it’s not easy, that it doesn’t always go your way, that it is hard, that if it’s worth getting there, it’s worth the effort and the trouble. You try to keep the guys focused, that this is truly a privilege, nobody owes you anything and if you put the work into it and don’t give up you can do something.”
It may be the game plan of the 2010-11 Bulls.