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The tortured soul of Eddie Griffin

Seven years ago, the priest talking on the telephone insisted that he had done his best to spare a young basketball star, Eddie Griffin, a tumultuous tomorrow. Three weeks until graduation at Roman Catholic in Philadelphia, and the No. 1 high school player in America had flipped out in a lunch room fistfight. The principal, Rev. Paul Brant, expelled him, assigning Griffin a home tutor for his final assignments.

"What if we hadn't done it?" Father Brant told me then. "That was my biggest concern. If we hadn't let him know he had to take responsibility for his actions, later in life when he became a pro athlete, what would happen when he was faced with circumstances where he had to be accountable?"

For all the Father's best intentions and blessings, there never was salvation for this lost soul. Never peace.

For all his great promise, there always was greater disappointment. For all the sheer talent within those 6 feet, 10 inches, Eddie Griffin never was wired to be a basketball star.

"When I watched him this season," one general manager told me on draft day in 2001, "the court always looked like the last place he wanted to be."

All the sadness and confusion over his five torturous seasons in the NBA chased him to his final moments Friday in Houston, when Griffin barreled through a blinking warning and a barrier and exploded his SUV into a moving freight train. The flames burned him beyond recognition. They had to chase down dental records to confirm Griffin, 25, had been the driver with a death wish.

From someone who knew him well Tuesday night, his was a belief there was a "strong possibility" that this was exactly how poor, tortured Eddie Griffin chose to end it all. He fought moods and depression and booze. The NBA suspended him for violating its drug policy midway through last season, and finally Minnesota Timberwolves president Kevin McHale stopped believing he could salvage Griffin's career, his life. He gave up, too.

McHale had made Griffin his personal project. He believed in the sweetness that could be found free of the bottle with Griffin. He gave him a locker next to Kevin Garnett and tutored Griffin himself, but his unmoved student never had a love for the game to ultimately fight for a career.

Griffin knew his talent tantalized people and fooled them as long as he could. Despite getting thrown out of high school, despite chasing a Seton Hall teammate to the halftime locker room and slugging him in the eye for freezing him out – despite it all – the Houston Rockets still traded three first-round draft picks to the New Jersey Nets for the rights to the seventh pick in the 2001 draft.

Everything about Griffin suggested that he was destined to be a bust, but his promise intoxicated Rudy Tomjanovich. There always was someone to pick up Griffin, always someone to believe that they could find the doctors to treat him, the mentors to reach him. There was a beating and a shooting of a woman at his Houston home, and that was that as the future franchise star for Houston.

When the Rockets gave up in 2004, the Nets signed him for a month before that experiment fell apart when Griffin wouldn't stop pounding on the hotel door of a bride and groom whose wedding he crashed at a North Jersey hotel. There was an assault at a gas station in Houston at 3 a.m. one night, and after that, a crazy car accident while watching a dirty movie in his SUV. The stories got wilder and wilder with Eddie Griffin. You almost could start seeing that train coming down the tracks.

"Alcohol always got in the way," Rusty Hardin, his attorney, told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday night.

Around the NBA this summer, there was no one trying to sign Eddie Griffin. He was 25 years old, out of chances, and there was Eddie Griffin on the 5300 block of Lawndale in the darkness of a Houston night. He crashed through those blinking red lights, the lowered barrier, and maybe this was how it always was going to end for this poor, tortured soul. Yes, that train had been thundering down the tracks.