After taking Louisville to the 1980 NCAA championship, he was on the cover on Sports Illustrated, carrying the title of "The Great Griffith." Darrell Griffith was the leader of the Doctors of Dunk, the creative, unstoppable scorer who carried the Cardinals past Iowa and UCLA in the Final Four.
How could anyone guard him? "I'd keep me away from the ball," Griffith said then, "because when I get it . . ."An Iowa guard, assigned to defend him as Griffith scored 32 points in the semifinal game, offered a memorable description, which SI's Curry Kirkpatrick used to end his Final Four story.
"I've guarded other guys who could leap high before," the player said. "But all of them came down."
The Iowa player was a freshman named Bobby Hansen.
Ten years after that meeting, Griffith and Hansen are still closely linked. They share a job with the Jazz, veteran guards filling the weakest spot on one of the NBA's best teams. While another NCAA Tournament continues and the Jazz face the Clippers Wednesday in the Salt Palace as the NBA playoffs approach, questions still hover over the Jazz backcourt: How long will the Jazz make the best of Hansen-Griffith? Is swingman Blue Edwards really their guard of the future? Will they re-sign Griffith?
In the first few sentences of a recent Orlando Sentinel game story, Hansen was described as both a "journeyman" and "nondescript." Actually, he would be nothing more, except for Griffith's injuries. Once a third-round draft choice who struggled to make the team every fall, Hansen suddenly became a starter for 82 games when Griffith missed the '85-86 season with a broken foot. Later, when Griffith had knee surgery, Hansen joined in the Jazz's celebrated '88 playoff series against the Lakers.
"I never imagined I'd ever play one game with the Utah Jazz," says Hansen, in his seventh year. "They don't even have the third round of the draft anymore."
Griffith said, "If everybody on our team could improve like that, we'd be hosting the NBA Finals."
A 20-point scorer for five pro seasons, Griffith found everything had changed when he came back from the foot injury. For one thing, Hansen was now a genuine NBA player. For another, the Jazz kept adding guards - Dell Curry, Kelly Tripucka, Jim Farmer, Edwards. His playing-time and scoring numbers would never be the same.
Even now, Griffith frequently explains to his 11-year-old son, Darrell Jr., "When life goes on, your role changes."
Adds Griffith, "He still doesn't understand."
Last summer, the Jazz faced a decision on Griffith's future, not exercising an option guaranteeing his contract through '91-92. Result: July 1, shortly after turning 32, Griffith will become an unrestricted free agent, available to any team.
"Griff's in a difficult situation, and he's handled it well," says teammate Thurl Bailey. "A lot of guys would bicker and bicker."
Early this season, Griffith said of Jazz management, "It's obvious what their plans are." Things may have changed. By shooting decently and having Coach Jerry Sloan call on him more frequently at the end of games, Griffith could be playing himself into more years in Utah - and if not, other NBA teams will likely have interest in a designated shooter.
While still often frowning on 3-point shooting, Sloan has discovered the need for the outside game to take heat off Karl Malone. For the first two months of the season, Hansen was on a pace to break Griffith's team record for 3-pointers and earned an invitation to the All-Star Saturday shootout. Since then, Hansen and Griffith have seemingly returned to each's appropriate shooting status. Griffith's .374 shooting from 3-point range is the best of his career, and Sloan even runs a special play for Griffith occasionally.
Of playing for Sloan, Griffith said, "It was an adjustment on both sides. What I do best is what I do best."
While the Jazz have not started any contract talks with Griffith, team owner Larry Miller said, "Griff's given us everything we could ask of him."
Asked if he's changed minds in the front office this season, Griffith says, "Hopefully, I have. I won't know until they tell me."
Scott Layden, the Jazz's director of player personnel, says no decision has been made, but noted, "He's played very well, and the biggest reason is his attitude. He's helped us quite a bit." Griffith is reportedly seeking a three-year contract, though, which could be a stretch for the Jazz.
Griffith is the Jazz's all-time leader in games played (674), having overtaken longtime teammate Rickey Green last April. Since leaving the Jazz via the expansion draft, Green has landed in Charlotte and Indiana and seems a distant memory in the Salt Palace. In the wake of Green's unceremonious exit, at least Miller publicly hopes Griffith will stay. So does Griffith, who says, "It would be nice to finish up my career here, I'm not going to lie to you about that."
Having survived the years when winning 30 games was an achievement, Griffith has joined in the Jazz's rise to possibly contending for the NBA title. "I can appreciate that probably more than anybody; I've been on both sides of the coin," he said.
Griffith's role with the NBA's Midwest Division leaders is not quite like the Louisville days when, Hansen remembers, "Darrell was unstoppable." But maybe Griffith could finally win another championship, 10 years later.
During his freshman season, Hansen claims, he dreamed of Iowa playing in the Final Four. He reports having a similar same dream this season, about the Jazz and the NBA Finals. Said Hansen, "Who knows?" He could say the same about Griffith's - and, as always, his own - future with the Jazz.
Player G Min. FG-FGA Pct. 3FGA Pct. Avg.
Griffith 66 17.1 226-498 .454 58-156 .374 8.6
Hansen 65 27.3 212-475 .446 42-131 .321 7.6