Basketball always came easily to Eddie Griffin. It was life off the court that he had trouble handling.
The former Minnesota Timberwolves forward died last week when his sport utility vehicle collided with a freight train in a fiery crash, the Harris County medical examiner's office said Tuesday.
Investigators used dental records to identify Griffin, 25, who began his pro career with the Houston Rockets in 2001. He was waived by the Timberwolves in March.
The 6-foot-10 Griffin averaged 7.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.71 blocks in five NBA seasons. Born in Philadelphia, Griffin was one of the nation's top freshmen at Seton Hall in 2000-2001 and was named to the NBA All-Rookie second team in 2002.
Not long after he left college, Griffin became more known for his troublesome, off-the-court behavior.
Mark Madsen, one of Griffin's teammates in Minnesota, said Griffin was well-liked, despite his problems.
"Eddie Griffin is someone who was never a super loud or boisterous guy in the locker room," Madsen said, "but he was someone who everyone loved in the locker room. When he was doing well on the court we were all so happy for him. And when he was struggling we were all struggling right there with him."
Griffin was originally selected by the Nets with the seventh pick in the 2001 draft, then was traded to Houston for the draft rights. He averaged 8.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.63 blocks over his first two seasons with the Rockets.
In November 2003, Griffin was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, after a woman claiming to be his girlfriend accused him of punching her in the face and shooting a pistol at her car as she drove away.
Griffin missed practices and a team flight, and the Rockets suspended him, then waived him in December 2003.
"Basketball was never an issue with him. He needed more life lessons, and unfortunately he was never able to reach his potential," former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey said.
New Jersey signed Griffin in January 2004. The Nets tried to take steps to curtail his behavior, hiring a personal assistant to make living arrangements for him and instituting a curfew.
Less than two months later, the Nets waived Griffin after he left the team so he could check into the Betty Ford Center to get six weeks of treatment for alcohol abuse.
Minnesota signed Griffin to a one-year contract before the 2004-05 season. He appeared in 70 games, averaging 7.5 points and 6.5 rebounds, and the Timberwolves gave him a contract extension. His numbers took a steep drop the following season.
Increasingly unproductive, Griffin appeared in just 13 games for the Wolves last season, and none after Dec. 13.
Griffin pleaded guilty earlier in the season to inattentive driving after hitting a parked car while out late one night in Minneapolis. He was suspended by the NBA in January for five games for violating the anti-drug program. Minnesota waived him on March 13.
A police report says Griffin was driving an SUV, ignored a railroad warning and went through a barrier before striking a moving freight train. The resulting fire burned the SUV and the side of a railcar carrying plastic granules, police said.
Griffin's body was badly burned and there was no initial identification. Dental records later revealed the man was Griffin.
"Everybody tried to help him from the top to the bottom of the organization," said Casey, who coached Griffin for 11/2 seasons. "He just couldn't get it straight. It's a tragic ending for a beautiful kid. He had a beautiful heart."
The Wolves put Griffin's locker right next to star Kevin Garnett, hoping the former MVP could help straighten Griffin out.
Casey said he hadn't talked to Griffin in five or six months but he knew that Griffin was spending the summer trying to get back in shape to play in Europe next season.
"The entire Minnesota Timberwolves organization is deeply saddened by this tragic news. Eddie will be missed by everyone who knew him," said Kevin McHale, vice president of basketball operations for the team. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Eddie's loved ones."
Madsen said he lost touch with Griffin after the Wolves released him.
"The inside of his heart was just a very kind heart and in professional sports you don't always find that," Madsen said. "He was a mild-mannered good guy."
Beverly Begay, chief investigator for the Harris County Medical Examiner's office in Houston, said the cause of death and toxicology reports are pending.
Associated Press writers Matt Curry and Thomas Peipert in Dallas and AP sports writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
Former Timberwolves forward Griffin dies in SUV-train crash