Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends": Western Michigan's Paul Griffin

February 6th, 2012
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Paul Griffin, one of the greatest players in the history of Western Michigan basketball. During his time in Kalamazoo, Griffin helped lead the Broncos to the 1976 NCAA tournament and left the school having scored more than 1,000 points and grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds. From there Griffin went on to play seven seasons in the NBA for the New Orleans Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs.

Jon Teitel: Your family has a very proud athletic tradition (your cousin played basketball at Grand Valley College, his son was an all-conference Division III basketball player, and his daughter was a Division I All-American volleyball player). Do you believe that athletic success has anything to do with genetics, and if so do you feel that you were born into the right family?

Paul Griffin: Genetics is a big part of it, but so is your mentality. Many parents tend to direct their kids into athletics but the kids have to want to succeed.

1976 NCAA Tournament

JT: You had 14 points and 15 rebounds in 42 minutes in an overtime win over Virginia Tech (the first NCAA tournament in school history). How big a deal was it for your team to win that game, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterward?

PG: It was a big win. We were on a roll and had only lost two games that year. After our exciting overtime win at Notre Dame we wanted to go as far as we could, and we ended up #10 in the final poll that season.

JT: You had nine rebounds and six assists in a five-point loss to Marquette (Butch Lee scored 16 points). Did you think that you were going to pull out the win, and could you tell at the time that Butch Lee was going to become a star?

PG: Marquette was #2 in the country so I was not surprised when they won the title the following year. We were pretty evenly matched and it was close until we had a few turnovers late in the game. Lee was great but they had a lot of players that year who went on to the NBA (Lloyd Walton, Bo Ellis, Jerome Whitehead, Bernard Toone). Coach Al McGuire also had a lot of postseason experience, so we had nothing to be ashamed of in a five-point loss. If we had beaten Marquette then we would have faced undefeated eventual national-champion Indiana.

JT: You graduated as the top rebounder in school history (1,008 rebounds), and you are the only men's player in school history to finish your career with 1000+ points and 1000+ rebounds. Did you realize at the time how prolific a player you were?

PG: I did not have that mentality. Many kids these days have been told how great they are since middle school, but I did not grow up around that kind of atmosphere. I did not think too highly of myself but I did want to play pro basketball.

JT: In the summer of 1976 you were drafted in the fifth round by New Orleans. Were you thrilled to realize your dream of making it to the NBA, disappointed that you did not get selected earlier, or other?

PG: I came into the NBA the same year that it merged with the ABA, and New Orleans was an expansion team. I figured that I would try out and give it my best shot, but I might have tried going to Europe if I failed. I was never a great scorer but I was good at everything else and knew how to play the game.

JT: You got to play with Hall-of-Famer Pete Maravich in New Orleans. What was it like playing with Maravich, and was he the best player you have ever seen on the court?

PG: He was great at all aspects of the game and was 5-10 years ahead of his time. Magic Johnson showed up in 1979 and everyone thought he was great, but Pete had more skills than Magic a decade earlier. If Pete had come into the league in 1979 I think he would have been as big as Bird and Magic, if not bigger. Pete averaged 44+ points/game in college while playing without a three-point line. If he played with the line he might have averaged an extra 15-20 points/game! He was a great player and a good friend.

JT: In 1979 you were traded to San Antonio as compensation for a free agent signing, where you became one of the "Bruise Brothers" (along with the Spurs' other big men). How did you like the nickname, and how did San Antonio compare to New Orleans?

PG: I enjoyed San Antonio more because our team was better and more close-knit, and the city was a great place to raise a family. The "Bruise Brothers" were nicknamed for what we were, which you could get away with back then. We played very hard and were very competitive.

JT: You played in 77+ games during each of your first five seasons. Did you take pride in showing up for work every day, or did you just will yourself to deal with all the bumps and bruises that occurred?

PG: I was a pretty tough guy who was very competitive and I loved to play. I did a lot of other things well beside score and they paid me to play, so I figured I should play hard. I did a lot of things that other players did not want to do (rebound, defend, etc.) and my coaches appreciated it. Several coaches told me that I would stick around for a long time if I was healthy so I just tried to do exactly that.

JT: You retired in 1983 due to a knee injury. Did you feel frustrated that you could not go out on your own terms, or satisfied that you had a nice long career, or a combination of both?

PG: It was very frustrating because I was hoping to play for another five or six years, but I cannot complain. It was tough to give up a great living, even though we only made a fraction of what the players make now. I only had to show up for work about eight months of the year, but after I got hurt I had no choice but to give it up and get a job in the real world.

JT: You averaged 5.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game during your seven-year career. What is your favorite memory from your time in the NBA?

PG: As a rookie going into Boston Garden for the first time and playing against Dave Cowens and John Havlicek, I realized that I had finally made it. I was very fortunate to be in that position. Just making the rounds and going out there to compete against guys who I had watched on TV while I was growing up (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Moses Malone, Rick Barry, etc.).

JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?

PG: I was out there trying to win games by playing hard and playing smart, so I hope they appreciated my contribution. There is only one ball out there so you need chemistry to win games (rather than just five individual scorers), and you also need people willing to do the dirty work. It worked out for me and the teams I played on: maybe the average fan did not realize that but my coaches noticed.

Griffin is also on Jon's list of best pro players in MAC history.

Akron: Bill Turner (1968)
Ball State: Bonzi Wells (1999)
Bowling Green: Nate Thurmond (1964)
Buffalo: Sam Pellom (1980)
Central Michigan: Dan Roundfield (1976)
Eastern Michigan: George Gervin (1973)
Kent State: John Edwards (2005)
Miami (OH): Ron Harper (1987)
Northern Illinois: Jim Bradley (1974)
Ohio: Gary Trent (1996)
Toledo: Larry Jones (1965)
Western Michigan: Paul Griffin (1977)