New Orleans native son Tyree Griffin is a well-traveled man with the frequent flyer miles to prove it. Proving it, whatever ‘it’ is, has been his driving mission on a basketball court since middle school, when he battled childhood confidant Lamar Peters (New York Knicks) regularly. Now in his second professional season in Europe Griffin has the maturity to see the value of the road traveled, and the realities on the road that lies ahead. It is not about an NBA or bust mentality for Griffin but experiencing all the game has to offer, from financial benefits to life lessons that he can pass on to the next generation. That mindset is what he believes has him miles ahead when competing for his professional basketball life.
Griffin recently signed with Zalakeramia ZTE KK in Hungary after averaging 13.2 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal as a rookie in Serbia with KK Mladost Zemun. Griffin just knew he would “get a call. It was more of me being mentally prepared to leave. That was maybe the hardest part until you get where you going, then you like ok let’s get to work.”
Griffin has been working all summer waiting for an opportunity and is determined not to let a recent injury be a big setback. Griffin and Peters were the most respected players in the building for the grueling Coach Rory Poplion runs. There was also the work that no one saw, but that was the drive that helped Griffin grow into a true professional. Griffin, with the help of Peters and Coach Shuan Dumas, stayed ready for his next opportunity. He mentioned several times how appreciative he was of everyone’s help. It was New Orleans rallying around its own, to chase dreams around the world, literally.
“I just tried to stay in the gym when I could. COVID-19 played a part where it was actually get work in while you can, where you can. Coach Dumas helped out when he was able to, whether it was free play or getting a workout in. It may have not seemed like much but it helped a lot.” Griffin admits that since turning professional he has “grown drastically. It’s like coming from college then start to play professionally overseas you basically getting thrown to the wolves. It’s a great experience but something to adjust to.”
Griffin played college ball in Oklahoma and Mississippi, relatively close to home all things considered. He could be forgiven for feeling out of his comfort zone jumping straight to Serbia and now Hungary. The culture shock hit hard but Griffin got on the court and felt more at home.
“When I first got there I noticed how different it was immediately. After like two days I woke up like: ‘What am I doing here? Do I really want to play basketball if it’s here? I called my brother, Stan Parks (of Jet Life Athletics), and Lamar almost every day. I was like man I can’t do this it’s not for me. Then I played a game and then things felt normal.”
Griffin considers Jet Life as his forever team. “Jet Life Athletics is a group of talented New Orleans kids on the rise. They just helping put your name out there and trying to lead you in the right direction, looking for nothing in return. I can actually say that Stan Parks & Mousa work hard for anyone that’s affiliated with JLA in many different ways. They just want to see everyone win.”
Stan Parks of Jet Life Athletics added their roster of players, including Griffin, “are always in the city giving back and helping the younger generation with whatever. If it’s advice or helping out at a tournament or camp they are all about advancing the city of New Orleans and the next generation of athletes to achieve their goals. The Jet Life athletes help each other stay focused and motivated because we’re a real family that genuinely cares for one another. Whether it’s pushing each other in workouts or giving each other advice about how to handle different situations they have each other’s back.”
It was hard for people back home to have Griffin’s back from halfway around the globe. It went beyond the different rules of the game for Griffin. “Off the court, I’m going to be honest I was lost. They expected me to drive a manual car! Me being a rookie, I did not switch my phone service over to international. So now if I leave the house it’s no talking to no one. I had to basically grow up fast.”
Still, Griffin can see himself leaving a legacy in Europe, much like another New Orleans native, Kendall Dykes. He was adamant about staying for the long haul, saying, “Yes I can. Europe pays good money man and you can make friends and memories that’ll last a lifetime. The hardest part is being away from my family and kids. Whichever (opportunity) can help me feed my family that’s where I’m going, no brainer.”
As for his NBA dreams, of perhaps playing with or against other New Orleans guys on the biggest stage, Griffin says, “If it happens it happens. That’s something I want to do but if it doesn’t work in my favor it is what it is. I’m in my twenties. I have a lot of basketball left to play. I’m focused on just being an all-around good person and teammate. That might be the biggest stat that doesn’t make the sheet. I’m the point guard. I need a bond with my teammates knowing they’ll trust me in any situation and it’s vice versa, accountability.”
That understanding of where he is in life and on the ladder of professional basketball helps keep Griffin grounded. It also helps him best chart a professional path while being honest with the teams looking to sign him. That is how he found himself in Hungary.
“I’m the point guard. I control the tempo of the game. Every league is different. I signed with this team because it fit my style. It’s more pressing and run and gun. My first year I had caught on quickly. I never saw a player that was so good travel so many times. I learned the footwork that was the first thing. Then it was how seeing how physical everybody plays. I’m like Ok I’m the smallest player on the court I got to touch somebody first let them know I’m here.”
The New Orleans fight in him was going to come out eventually. Teams know what they will get from Griffin and he realizes what he wants in a club no matter the location.
“Everywhere it’s not the same organizations. Well organized clubs, players get paid on time. It’s actually a good weight program and different people helping you work on your game. People that seem to care beyond basketball. There’s also places that don’t pay you on time. You have a bad game, you get cut. Practice two times a day, no one there to stretch you. Playing one game a week that can get stressful for some guys, I’ve been there.”
He hopes this season can be his coming out party so that he can play for “any team in Euroleague. That’s basically playing against NBA guys. Who doesn’t want to compete at the highest level in front of 20 thousand fans going insane!?”
Griffin knows to get to that level, and beyond, he has to shed some of the habits developed America. Europe is a different game, from court dimensions to playing style and especially the amount of patience a coach will have with poor fundamentals.
“Guys like us that come from college sometimes thinking you can go 1 on 1 every play. Nah, it doesn’t work like that. Coach will snatch you quick. I feel as if you’re playing hard you can take any shot you want. Americans have a little more freedom because we can sometimes score the ball better than anyone else.”
Parks believes New Orleans produces the best athletic talent on the planet per capita, and Griffin is one of the best of that bunch, but “New Orleans kids get a bad rap from people outside of the city and we want to break that negative perception that people have about kids from N.O. Down here we’re just bred different and raised tough. We go through a lot. You have to be aggressive to survive a city like we’re from so that carries over to the court and fuels that competitive fire. There’s plenty of talent here that just needs that right backing and publicity to succeed in life. That’s where Jet Life athletics comes in we provide that and will continue to we have a strong support system and a tight-knit circle.”
Peters explained, “I been knowing (Griffin) since 8th grade when him and Coach Wilfred “Byrd” Antoine recruited me. That’s how it all started. Tyree was best in the state at the time. He always been overlooked. We been going through that our whole life. That’s what it like being a Katrina baby.”
It does not matter to Griffin if he ever lands in an NBA uniform. It does matter that his positive messages and professional resolve to make his family and community a better place makes it back from remote parts of Europe to his home in New Orleans. As long as he can provide for his family and help show other New Orleans products that there is a bigger game out there waiting to be played Griffin will consider all those long flights out of the newly renovated Louis Armstrong International airport worthwhile.