Aaron Griffin’s eyes met his grandfather’s in the crowd as he exited the huddle at the Dec. 20, 2013 game. It was the first time Griffin’s grandfather had been present at his grandson’s basketball game.
Webster University was down by a point with three seconds left on the clock, and Griffin gathered the offensive rebound. He was directly under the basket; he spun to his right and released an arched floating shot as he faded away from the rim. In that moment, Griffin only had two thoughts: his grandfather, who died in July 2013, and the “swoosh.”
It was Griffin’s fiancée, Kiauna Vaughn, who held the shirt above her head in the fourth row of the stands. The shirt featured a photograph of his grandfather and the words “In loving memory: Mr. Taylor Lott Sr.” Griffin said the symbol provided him strength to grab the rebound. Ball in hand, Griffin sunk the game-winning basket against Monmouth College (Ill.) on Dec. 20, 2013.
Lott never witnessed his grandson play basketball for Webster. A preseason ankle injury delayed Griffin’s start in the 2013-14 season. But Griffin said he thinks this is the way it was meant to be.
Growing up, Griffin’s grandfather watched him play every day on a small court with a wooden rim. But the paternal figure never saw the athlete compete for a team.
Prior to attending Webster, Griffin attended school at Rust College near Farmhaven Miss., where he lived next door to his grandparents with his parents and four siblings.
However, a lack of team chemistry dissuaded Griffin from playing for Rust.
“People just wanted to be superstars,” Griffin said. “I wanted to be on a team that is team-oriented, where everyone is playing for each other.”
But Griffin remembered a small team from St. Louis who played Rust in 2011. Even though the college had lost its game to Rust, Griffin saw a future for himself with them. Shortly after, he called Webster Head Basketball Coach Chris Bunch.
Video by Sam Masterson
Before Griffin became a Gorlok, Vaughn said she had to keep her fiancé focused on the search for the right school for him.
“Aaron didn’t care about the commute or his major; he just asked about basketball,” Vaughn said. “But me — I was grilling the coaches.”
Vaughn said she recognized a difference between Bunch and other college coaches they met. She said Bunch demonstrated a genuine care for his players. She saw an obvious connection between Bunch and Griffin.
But Griffin had never ventured farther north than Kentucky. A self-described country boy, he said he can often be dazed by the city life.
His GPA fell below a 2.0 after his first semester at Webster. Filled with guilt and disappointment, Griffin told Bunch he would be academically ineligible for the second half of the 2012-13 season.
“He said to me, ‘Coach, I really feel like I let the guys down, and I’m not gonna let this happen again,’” Bunch recalled.
Vaughn said her fiancé became very unhappy without basketball. For Griffin, what hurt the most was the realization he had let everyone down, from Webster fans to his family in Farmhaven. The experience convinced Griffin to take the term “student-athlete” to heart. Basketball became a second priority.
The Griffin within
Each year, the men’s basketball team spends a day at a local elementary school and entertains younger children. Griffin recalled how the team played with the kids during recess. The 6’6” forward did not hold back against his undersized opponents. Griffin was on the ground diving for loose balls, and needed nap time to recuperate.
“I’m just a big kid on the inside,” Griffin said.
Griffin said he will hold onto that innocence for the rest of his life. He hopes for a career in basketball. Since he was five, Griffin told his family he would put Farmhaven on the map with his play. Whether it’s overseas, a developmental league or a long-shot call from the NBA, Griffin wants to give back to the little community that gave him everything. But his other dream may benefit more than one community.
In the four-year gap between high school and college basketball, Griffin worked multiple jobs, including a stint at a nursing facility near his home. Aside from seniors, the establishment also cared for some younger residents who were mentally disabled. Griffin said he did not see their disabilities.
“All I can say is those people are very smart,” Griffin said. “Sometimes it seems like there is nothing wrong with them.”
He said when he explained his job to his peers, they could not believe he could perform some of the caretaking tasks, like changing the diapers of grown men or physically-impaired residents. That experience inspired Griffin’s desire to work with children one day, but opportunities at Webster turned that ambition into a reality.
The Webster basketball program holds a camp every year for young adults in the St. Louis Arc organization to interact with Gorlok athletes. Arc is a program that provides aid and entertainment for local adults and children with developmental diseases. At the camp, Griffin was a big kid again.
Arc representative Bre Ward said the young adults in the program call the Webster athletes “professionals” when they play against the team. She said even though a man like Griffin has an intimidating appearance, he is probably well aware of his non-verbal expressions. Ward explained that successful Arc volunteers usually have an awareness of how the young adults may perceive them.
“If the volunteer is smiling and enjoying it, they don’t look intimidating,” Ward said. “You have to be generous and be able to listen to someone else’s wants and needs.”
Griffin said after the camp in 2012, he was offered an internship at Arc in the summer of 2013. He declined the offer because he said he already promised his family he would travel back to Farmhaven.
McChicken, McDouble, medium fries and a medium drink is Griffin’s McDonalds meal. His brother, Charles Griffin, said he would take Aaron Griffin to any restaurant he wanted after his sibling scored 20 points and grabbed 21 rebounds for Webster against Rust College in December 2012. Charles Griffin also ordered the Griffin special.
Charles Griffin, Aaron Griffin’s junior of three years, took the two-hour drive to Rust from Farmhaven with his uncle and cousin to see his brother for the first time since he left home for college. The pair did not make it to the stands until just before the tip-off.
“When I saw them, it just did something to me,” Aaron Griffin said. “I zoned everything out.”
Charles Griffin told his brother to promise him 10 points and 10 rebounds—Aaron Griffin McDoubled it.
“It was so overwhelming, because I always knew he had it in him,” Charles Griffin said.
Charles Griffin said some of his favorite childhood memories were the times he beat his brother in basketball—there were not many. They only had a small court with a wooden rim, but Charles Griffin believes that court was where Aaron Griffin became so tough.
They were often the youngest when they played their family members and peers, but Charles Griffin said Aaron Griffin could not be kept from the court.
Pastor James Griffin, Aaron Griffin’s father, said his son’s personality and friendly demeanor are exactly what he and his wife preached to their sons. Aaron Griffin agreed and said the sermons his father gave taught him a great deal. James Griffin began each sermon with a joke. If people are not paying attention, the elder Griffin said, there was no point to preach. A laugh would keep them coming back.
Before one Webster game in 2013, the team erupted from the locker room and warmed up in the traditional layup lines, Griffin took a detour six rows in the stands to greet a few crowd members.
Again, the court could not contain him after sinking the winning shot against Monmouth. Griffin jumped behind the Gorlok bench and thanked one of his professors he had persuaded to attend as her first Webster basketball game.
That Dec. 20 game against Monmouth was Griffin’s first game back. His plan was to wear the shirt his family made after the death of his grandfather so his basketball inspiration could be closer than ever, but he forgot it in his rush to get to the game. Vaughn had to bring it late, and Webster trailed Monmouth by 13 points with only four minutes remaining.
Aaron Griffin exited the huddle and met his grandfather’s eyes staring at him from the crowd.