‘That’s my roots’: Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin reflects on Wichita during NBA Finals

Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet has been stealing the headlines in Wichita during the NBA Finals, but there’s actually a Wichita native who has helped the Toronto Raptors to a 2-1 series lead over the Golden State Warriors.

Adrian Griffin, who was an all-state basketball player at East High from 1988-92 and led the Blue Aces to a state championship his senior year, isn’t in the same spotlight as VanVleet. But Griffin has been a crucial part of Toronto’s success as the lead assistant on Nick Nurse’s coaching staff.

And just like he did when he was an NBA player for nine years, Griffin is proud to represent Wichita at the game’s biggest level. The Raptors play the Warriors in Game 4 of the best-of-seven series at 8 p.m. Central time Friday in Oracle Arena.

“Every time I’m on the floor, as a player or as a coach, I represent the city of Wichita,” Griffin told The Eagle in an 1-on-1 interview. “That’s home. Almost my entire family lives there. That’s my roots. I always felt like coming from Wichita was an advantage to me.”

Nearly three decades later, even with a standout college career, nine years in the NBA, and nine more as an assistant coach, Griffin says some of his most fond memories came in those formative years at East High under coach Ed Southern.

Griffin, a 6-foot-5 bruiser, remembers getting called up to play varsity as a freshman and sophomore and the team’s leaders, Gene Butler and Mark Hutton, teaching him about the mental side of the game.

“They took me under their wing and taught me what it meant to take the game seriously,” Griffin said. “I remember getting to the games three hours before and they would cut off the lights and get some music going and mentally prepare. That made a big impression on me. It taught me to take the game seriously and to do my job because we’re all trying to win. That was instilled in me at a very young age and it carried with me for the rest of my career.”

Griffin was a breakout star as a junior, earning all-state honors, then his prep career culminated with the perfect ending: a Kansas Class 6A championship. Griffin, a crafty left-hander, averaged 25 points and 11.6 rebounds and again earned all-state honors.

“Having my parents there, my dad was still alive at the time, seeing them in the crowd and holding up that trophy, that was my favorite memory,” Griffin said. “And to do it with a great bunch of guys too. My cousin was on that team and we had some great up-and-coming guys like David Ricks. All of those guys were wonderful and awesome teammates. It’s special when you win together and you overcome adversity like that.”

From there, Griffin attended Seton Hall and left a three-year starter who averaged 16.2 points and 8.3 rebounds as a senior. But he went undrafted in 1996 and after a few seasons overseas, Griffin began his NBA career in 1999 with the Boston Celtics. He went on to play for the Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Seattle SuperSonics.

Griffin’s highlight as a NBA player came in the 2005-06 season, when he was a starter for a Mavericks team that reached the NBA Finals and took a 2-0 lead before LeBron James and the Miami Heat rattled off four straight wins for the title.

The idea of becoming a coach didn’t strike Griffin until his last year in the league, in 2008 with the Chicago Bulls.

“I was still under contract, but (the Bulls) were playing the young guys like Luol Deng and Ben Gordon,” Griffin said. “Instead of catching an attitude and getting a little resentful, I started working with those guys. I just liked them a lot and I wanted to see them do well. One of the coaches saw that and he pulled me aside and said whenever I finished playing, he would have a job for me.”

Sure enough, when Griffin retired after that season, he was picked up by Scott Skiles as an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks. He spent two years in Milwaukee, then five years in Chicago under Tom Thibodeau. Griffin first became a lead assistant in 2015 for the Orlando Magic, then did the same for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016 and 2017 before moving to Toronto for this past season.

“I never thought I would coach, ever,” Griffin said. “I didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t think I had the temperament for it. When I was growing up, given it was a different era, but the coach was a yeller and a screamer and I always thought to myself that’s just not my personality. But then I learned that you can lead in different ways.”

Now Griffin is one of the hottest names in NBA coaching searches after proving his chops as a lead assistant at multiple stops.

Returning to the NBA Finals, this time as a coach, has been a rewarding experience for Griffin.

And although he not in the spotlight as much as VanVleet, he couldn’t think of a better player to represent the city alongside him on the game’s biggest stage.

“Wichita, we raise them tough there,” Griffin said. “Pound for pound, Fred is one of the toughest players we have. He may be out-sized, but you can’t out-compete him and that’s what I love about him. He represents the city well. He embodies what the city of Wichita is all about: that grit and that toughness.”

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