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Sunday, March 03, 2024
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Converting at the charity stripe: Former Badger gives back through basketball

After a long career in Madison and overseas, Rashard Griffith returned to Wisconsin to fulfill a promise to his family.

Rashard Griffith strode hurriedly toward the Middleton High School fieldhouse in early November, the sound of dribbling basketballs growing louder with each step. Team tryouts began at 4 p.m. — Griffith’s phone read 4:30 p.m.

Joining a new team was practically second nature to Griffith, having played for 10 different professional clubs across the world. The star center’s playing days, however, were far behind him.

Griffith didn’t don a triple-XL jersey upon entering the fieldhouse — his Wisconsin Badgers hoodie and gray sweatpants sufficed. The first year coach’s tardiness wasn’t an issue, either. It was expected. 

As the hopeful Middleton Cardinals took the court 30 minutes prior, Griffith took a family friend home from a hospital visit. Several hours earlier, the 48-year-old drove a former teammate to their physical therapy session. 

Middleton’s assistant coaches happily handled the extra work in his short absence. In just several months of knowing their head coach, one thing became abundantly clear — helping others was ingrained in Griffith’s identity. And basketball was the outlet through which he gave back.

‘Basketball was my way out’

Griffith first gravitated towards basketball at 13 years old. As a six-foot-four-inch seventh grader, expectations were sky-high the moment he stepped foot on the court. After sprouting another five inches over the summer heading into eighth grade, those expectations reached orbital levels.

As Griffith’s stature grew, so did his confidence. While playing basketball on the playgrounds of the South Side of Chicago, the raw big-man routinely took on kids who exceeded him in both age and talent.  

Under the guidance of Bennie Parrot, his grade-school coach at Marcus Garvey Elementary, Griffith honed his talents in the gym. Long days were spent lifting weights, running drills and learning fundamentals. 

Griffith returned home to study basketball on television. He and his father sat glued to the screen watching the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan dominate the NBA, earning the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1988. Over time, observing the best player in the game’s work ethic, mentality and competitiveness rubbed off on Griffith. 

A fast learner, hard worker and naturally gifted player, Griffith quickly developed a name for himself among college scouts. As universities expressed interest in him, the towering middle-schooler realized the power basketball held. 

“Basketball was my way out,” Griffith said. 

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The orange leather ball suddenly unlocked several doors in Griffith’s life. A departure from the South Side. A path to college. A means to provide for his family.

The first taste of winning

Griffith enrolled at Martin Luther King High School in Chicago, one of the nation’s best basketball programs where Parrot worked as an assistant coach. It didn’t take long for the nearly seven-foot freshman to make his presence felt. 

Alongside All-American guard Jamie Brandon, Griffith led the Jaguars to a perfect season and state title in 1990. His sophomore season bore comparable results, with King losing just one game in the regular season before suffering a shocking defeat to Marshall High School in the Public League semifinals.

Griffith returned his junior year with a vengeance, averaging a career-high 22 points and 14 rebounds a game. The strong play propelled the Jaguars to another one-loss regular season and a bout against the Westinghouse Warriors in the Public League Finals.

Westinghouse employed a small ball strategy against King, which featured two standout big men in Griffith and Thomas Hamilton. The Jaguars couldn’t keep up with the lineup of nearly all guards, falling to the Warriors after squandering a late lead. 

As Westinghouse poured onto the court and King headed to the locker room, Griffith stayed seated on the bench. With a towel over his head and tears in his eyes, he watched the Warriors celebrate their victory.  

“I made a promise to myself that day,” Griffith said. “I’m going out the way I came in.”

Griffith fulfilled his personal vow the following season, leading the Jaguars to an undefeated record and state title — Griffith’s first since freshman year. He subsequently earned the 1993 Illinois Mr. Basketball award as well as offers to play for several top collegiate programs in the country. 

The national interest brought Griffith one step closer to the NBA, his life goal. For his mother, Elaine, it meant something more — a chance to become the first in his family to graduate from college.

‘Chicago raised me, but Madison made me’

Griffith chose the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was led by former Knicks head coach Stu Jackson but hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 47 years. The leap of faith to a struggling college was backed in reason — Griffith wanted to work for success. 

“His decision sent out a loud signal that the University of Wisconsin basketball program was a viable place to land for a high level highschool player,” Jackson said. “To that end, he was a pioneer.”

Despite being the first McDonald’s All-American to attend Wisconsin, Griffith’s spot in the starting lineup wasn’t guaranteed in 1993. At the first practice in the Field House, Coach Jackson laid out the parameters — all spots were open, and minutes would have to be earned.

With the scrimmage about to start, Griffith informed his teammates the fifth spot was his. On the first missed shot, he corralled the offensive rebound and dunked it with two hands. The authoritative slam was so forceful it knocked a screw loose from the rim.

“Well, we’re gonna be better,” Jackson remembered thinking that day. “Every team didn’t have one of those Rashard Griffiths.”  

Griffith’s dominance extended past the practice court. In the first game of his freshman year, the imposing center scored 27 points, snagged 12 rebounds and dished out six assists against UW-Milwaukee. With each passing game, Griffith blossomed into a complete player.

“Chicago raised me,” Griffith said. “But Madison made me.”

Alongside Michael Finley, Tracy Webster and Howard Moore, Griffith helped lead the Badgers to an 18-11 regular season. The improved record placed Wisconsin seventh in the Big Ten and on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament.

On the day of the tournament reveal, Jackson gathered the team at his house to watch the bracket unfold. Once Wisconsin’s name appeared as the No. 9 seed in the West Region, the living room erupted into a state of pandemonium. After nearly five decades, the Badgers were back on the big stage.

Behind Griffith’s 22 points and 15 rebounds, Wisconsin knocked off No. 8 Cincinnati in the first round. Even though they lost to No. 1 Missouri the following game, Badger faithful were ecstatic — Griffith and his teammates had kickstarted the turnaround for Wisconsin basketball.

A different path

By the end of his freshman year, it became apparent Griffith wouldn't be at Wisconsin long. With a departure to the NBA seemingly looming on the horizon, head football coach Barry Alvarez called Griffith into his office. In a conversation that the big-man considered a “setup between him and my mom,” Alvarez made Griffith promise to someday return and get his degree.

Griffith continued to excel his sophomore season, averaging a double-double and gaining the interest of several NBA teams. He forwent his junior year and entered the 1995 NBA Draft, where he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 38th pick.

Since Griffith was seen as a raw prospect, Bucks head coach Mike Dunleavy encouraged the 19-year-old to spend his rookie year overseas. Playing in Europe would allow Griffith to sharpen his game for a year, after which he could return to Milwaukee.

Griffith obliged, beginning his professional career with Tofas Bursa in Turkey. Despite the unfamiliar setting and difference in play style, he took the league by storm, earning the MVP award his first season.

Griffith’s strong performance wasn’t enough to sway the Bucks, who were only willing to pay him around the league-minimum. Though Griffith always hoped of playing in the NBA, the promise of more immediate money overseas couldn’t be passed up. Providing for his family took precedence over his dreams.

After signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv two years after, Griffith became a multi-millionaire at age 21. He later teamed up with Manu Ginóbili on Kinder Bologna, becoming the third team in European history to win the Triple Crown — every major championship in the calendar year — in 2000-01. 

Success followed Griffith to each country he traveled to, as stints in Turkey, Israel, Spain, Italy and Romania produced 17 won championships. 

In the summers, with the season paused, Griffith flew back to Wisconsin to visit Alvarez. Sharing a bottle of wine from whichever country Griffith was based in, the pair sat down to catch up on life.

“[Alvarez] would always tell me, ‘Hey, I'm looking forward to you keeping your promise by getting your degree,’” Griffith said. “So when the time came, I came back to school.”

Back to school

Following a decorated 15-year career abroad, Griffith returned to Madison in 2016 intent on graduating from his alma mater. The degree in community and nonprofit leadership immediately sparked his interest. 

“I wanted to learn how to give back the right way,” Griffith said.

Griffith enrolled in the School of Human Ecology in January 2017, 22 years after leaving Wisconsin for the NBA Draft. Moore and his family kindly provided their home as a place to stay. 

Griffith’s road to graduation posed several early obstacles. Many of the core requirements were incredibly foreign to him and far from being met.  

“Statistics was like Chinese to me,” Griffith said.

Leaning upon his professors and peers, Griffith powered through his classes. When time provided, the veteran big man mentored frontcourt players on the basketball team, where Moore served as an assistant coach.

Two years later, tragedy struck the Moore household. A Memorial Day weekend car accident involving a wrong-way driver took the lives of Moore’s daughter Jaidyn and his wife Jennifer while also leaving him critically injured. Jerell, Moore’s son, walked away with less serious injuries.

Griffith put his life on hold upon learning the heartbreaking news. Helping Moore and his son in their time of need became top priority.

A return to basketball

Griffith fulfilled his promise to his mom and Alvarez, earning his college degree in May 2020. When a position opened up the following year on the campus support staff at Middleton, Jerell’s high school, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I wanted to keep a close eye on him to make sure he stays on track to graduate and go to college,” Griffith said.

Additionally, working at Middleton allowed Griffith to look after Moore, whose house down the street he visited every day. Utilizing his new degree, Griffith served as a board member of the Moore Foundation, helping run the charitable institution in his teammate’s absence. 

The thought of coaching hardly crossed Griffifth’s mind during his first year at the school. But the departure of program staple Jeff Kind — the fifth-winningest varsity girls basketball coach in state history — offered a return to the sport he loved.

Griffith trained female athletes in the years prior, though coaching at the high school level proved far more demanding a task. Developing his players on the court was just as important as helping them grow off the court. As Griffith’s pastor put it, “You have one daughter, now you’re about to have 16 more.”

Griffith accepted the responsibility with open arms. Outside the gym, he developed close bonds with his players while serving on the campus support staff. Inside the gym, he expounded his immense knowledge of basketball onto them.

“Being a player for so many years, he sees different aspects of the game that none of us ever see,” assistant coach Megan Ray said. “He brings something really special.”

The Cardinals experienced expected growing pains in the 2022-23 transitional season, finishing 13-12 overall. But through thick and thin, the girls knew Griffith was there for them.

“Hard times are gonna come, but we knew this already,” Griffith said. “Bring that lunch pail and that hard hat. Let’s go to work and let’s do this the best way we can, which is together.”

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