Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images
David Griffin continues to fulfill lifelong dream
Griffin’s longtime friends view the Pelicans as an ideal next step in his career
Long after the last basket was scored and every fan had exited the building, a group of early-1990s Phoenix Suns interns would sit together and wrap up their game-night responsibilities, with the conversation often shifting to the future. While each 20-something had some kind of vision for what they hoped to achieve in sports, David Griffin’s dream stood alone, due to its seemingly preposterous nature.
“He told us that his sole mission in life was to run an NBA franchise, whether that was as a general manager or (through) coaching aspirations,” recalled a chuckling David Cooper, a fellow Suns intern with Griffin during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 NBA seasons. “Being typical college kids, we kind of laughed it off and said, ‘Sure, Griff!’ while we wondered what bar we were going to go to that night.”
“He’d say that kind of thing all the time,” remembered Jeramie McPeek, who like Griffin and Cooper filled an entry-level role as a Phoenix media-relations intern. “We spent a lot of late nights together, working for two or three hours after home games, updating stats, working on game notes. He would always talk about, ‘Someday, when I’m a general manager, I’m going to do this.’ (Cooper) and I would kind of roll our eyes. We thought, ‘This is a 23-year-old who’s never really worked in sports, but he thinks he’s going to be a GM in the NBA? Come on.’ ”
McPeek pauses, before making an important point about Griffin’s personality and how Griffin’s bold ambitions were viewed by close friends a quarter-century ago.
“We might not have believed him, but we loved interacting with him, too,” McPeek fondly recalled. “He had such a great personality, even back then, that it was so much fun to listen to his stories and ideas.”
“It’s a rare gift today to have an owner or other executive be able to represent your brand to the public, and David brings all of that. He builds winning cultures, and you can only do that if you’ve walked in the shoes of those around you.” "
Fast-forward to April 17 of this year, when Griffin was officially introduced by the New Orleans Pelicans as the team’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. Griffin – who has previously run teams in Phoenix and Cleveland – made an extremely positive first impression on his new Crescent City constituencies, regaling media members and Pelicans employees with self-deprecating humor and stories from his two-plus decades in the NBA. Those who’ve known the Arizona State graduate from Day 1 in the league weren’t surprised that Griffin generated rave reviews, including feedback from Pelicans staff members who said they were already “ready to run through a wall” for the executive. Having risen from the bottom rung of Phoenix’s organization to his current position, Griffin has had countless vantage points along the way.
“His experience of having worn a number of different hats helps him communicate effectively, not only with his (players and coaches), but with staff and those he has to convince to make certain decisions, but also with the media,” said Cooper, now an NYU professor who also owns a sports PR consulting business. “It’s a rare gift today to have an owner or other executive be able to represent your brand to the public, and David brings all of that. He builds winning cultures, and you can only do that if you’ve walked in the shoes of those around you.”
“He really builds a culture of family and togetherness,” said Matt Altman, a fellow Phoenix intern in the early 1990s who later worked for the Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, now owner of the Sportiqe apparel company. “He started from the ground up and has played a role in every aspect of basketball operations – from cutting videotape, to scouting and being on the road, putting a draft together. I remember the time and preparation he put in to know every single (prospect) and everything about them. There are a lot of people in the space today that haven’t put in the time from the ground up, but he’s seen it all. Because of his different roles, he understands talent and how to put a team together. He’s also dealt with all of the capology stuff, how the economics work with the salary cap.”
In over a decade working together for Phoenix, McPeek often marveled at Griffin’s knack for relating to members at every level of the Suns organization, something that made him extremely popular around the office and inside the team’s home venue (now called Talking Stick Resort Arena).
"He built relationships with people that made them want to get to know him more and feel comfortable talking to him. That’s been invaluable for him in terms of talking to players, agents, executives with other teams and people at the league office."
“He treated every single person in the organization the same way,” said McPeek, who suggests that the late Cotton Fitzsimmons – a legendary Phoenix head coach and front-office member now in the team’s Ring of Honor – influenced Griffin in this regard.
“It didn’t matter whether it was the part-time ticket taker, the janitor, the maintenance man, or the multi-million dollar athletes (Fitzsimmons) was coaching – he treated everyone with the same respect,” McPeek said. “Griff was the same way. He knew everyone by name. Even after I worked for the Suns for 10 years, it always impressed me that Griff knew all of these part-time people’s names, people I’d passed in the hallway and never even met. Griff knew their names and their families. He built relationships with people that made them want to get to know him more and feel comfortable talking to him. That’s been invaluable for him in terms of talking to players, agents, executives with other teams and people at the league office. He has that charm, but it’s genuine too; it’s not an act. He has a genuine love for people and it really shines through in developing strong relationships.”
"He is very relatable, someone you can trust and count on. You wouldn’t find anyone in the NBA who doesn’t think they can lean on him or call for advice." "
The sheer volume and depth of those NBA relationships became clear to Cooper in the summer of 2017, when he joined Griffin for a cross-country drive from Cleveland to Sonoma, Calif., after Griffin left the Cavaliers (he put together the roster that won the ’16 NBA championship, capped by a historic NBA Finals comeback vs. Golden State). As Cooper and Griffin traversed the plains, Griffin’s phone constantly buzzed with calls and text messages.
“The trip was about five days, and I can’t tell you how many phone calls he got from people around the league, picking his brain and making sure he was OK,” Cooper said. “He is very relatable, someone you can trust and count on. You wouldn’t find anyone in the NBA who doesn’t think they can lean on him or call for advice.”
A lifelong love
Griffin’s fellow Phoenix interns may have learned of his ambitious long-term goal in the early 1990s, but according to Griffin, it actually started when he was a child. A diehard Suns fan even as a pre-schooler, Griffin was apparently heartbroken by the 1975-76 team’s narrow defeat vs. Boston in the NBA Finals. It was the first time Phoenix had reached the championship round, something the Suns wouldn’t accomplish again until ’93, a few months before Griffin began work as an intern.
According to Griffin family lore, Phoenix’s triple-OT Game 5 loss to the Celtics prompted him to storm out of the room crying. “I was saying ‘I’m going to be better than (then-Phoenix owner and longtime executive) Jerry Colangelo!’" Griffin recalled. "It was because the team was absolutely everything to me – it was in the fabric of who I was as a person.”
Griffin’s details are understandably a little hazy – Phoenix’s triple-OT loss actually occurred in Game 5, before the Celtics clinched the series on the road in Game 6 – but the point remains that his passion for basketball and vision of one day being a hoops decision-maker dates back to early childhood.
“It’s funny, when I told that story to Jerry Colangelo later, he didn’t think it was quite as funny as I did,” Griffin noted, smiling.
The next step
After leaving Cleveland, Griffin excelled over the next two years as a media member, serving as a co-host on Sirius XM Radio – coincidentally, often with Pelicans broadcaster Joel Meyers – as well as a studio analyst for NBA TV. In the manner longtime buddies are known to do, Cooper jokes of Griffin’s TV work that “even though I tell him he has a face for radio, he’s been great on television,” before adding, “I know him personally, so I may have a bias, but he’s the smartest individual in the league, hands-down, from cap issues, to talent evaluation, to gamesmanship, to X’s and O’s. He’s very funny; there’s a wit about him that gets you to engage (in the topic). He makes you really think a little deeper about things that might seem mundane (on the surface). He has depth to his explanations, but in a way you can understand.”
"He looks at the community as family. He will say, ‘I’m in New Orleans, and fans of this team are family.’ He’s going to embrace them as such. Which I think is a unique mindset." "
During his two years away from front offices, Griffin’s name invariably came up as a top option whenever there was an NBA opening, but he noted frequently during his April 17 press conference that he wanted to be selective before agreeing to take over a team. For a variety of reasons, he ultimately decided that the Crescent City was the best destination for he and wife Meredith (also a fellow early-1990s Phoenix Suns intern). As he laid out his vision, he cited ideas such as matching his team-building philosophy to “the ethos of the city” of New Orleans and acknowledged the overwhelming pride locals have for being natives of such a unique place. When Griffin’s Day 1 message was relayed to Altman, he wasn’t surprised that Griffin emphasized themes such as “working together” and trying to incorporate the city into the franchise’s efforts to become a sustained championship contender – or as Griffin colorfully puts it, “a flamethrower.”
“He looks at the community as family,” Altman noted. “He will say, ‘I’m in New Orleans, and fans of this team are family.’ He’s going to embrace them as such. Which I think is a unique mindset – I don’t think every GM looks at it from that perspective. Coupled with New Orleans having that mentality as well, I think it will be a great fit.”
On ESPN’s daily NBA show “The Jump” Tuesday, Griffin reiterated the sentiment.
“The community here was really meaningful to me. (We) saw what it was like to deliver a championship in a smaller market that’s been told they can’t win something,” he said, alluding to the ’16 title in Cleveland. “There is an outpouring there that really changes the dynamic in an entire city. I think we’re going to build a team that represents sort of the ethos of the city. … From a competitive standpoint, from a chemistry and character standpoint, we want guys who are about the right things. I envision that’s what the team will look like.”
"At the time, when he talked about (running a team), we thought he was just a dreamer. But looking back on it, he knew all along what he wanted to do, and was confident he was going to do it." "
Each of Griffin’s former fellow Phoenix interns and longtime friends view the Pelicans as an ideal next step in his career. Griffin is excited about the opportunity to build a New Orleans roster “organically,” which wasn’t the case in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers were mandated to adopt a short-term, win-now focus with LeBron James. He’s stepping into a roster-build that’s much closer to the way Griffin viewed the NBA as a young fan and aspiring basketball executive.
“He would kind of analyze and break down what every team was doing with their rosters,” McPeek recalled of conversations he had with Griffin in ’93-94. “He would talk about how someday he would do it differently, or how he liked certain moves a team made.
“At the time, when he talked about (running a team), we thought he was just a dreamer. But looking back on it, he knew all along what he wanted to do, and was confident he was going to do it. For him, it wasn’t like, ‘This is what I hope or want to do. He believed he was going to do it. I think that played a big role in him getting to where he is today.”
“It was always his dream and passion to evolve to where he is today,” Altman said. “To me, he’s been an inspiration to watch his career unfold, to go from where he was in media (relations), then basketball operations and scouting, to where he is now. It proves that having vision is one thing, but you have to put in the effort. I saw first-hand the focus and drive he has.” Cooper: “He had a Zen-like focus on achieving this dream of his. It was with great pride that we all saw it culminate (with an NBA title) in Cleveland and now in New Orleans, where he’s able to continue to fulfill a lifelong dream.”