LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Every year, the Atlantic Coast Conference honors a different “legend” from each of its 15 men’s basketball schools.

On Thursday, the league announced that this year’s University of Louisville honoree is Darrell Griffith.

As part of a project I was involved in recently, one task that fell to me was to try to sum up what Griffith meant to Louisville’s program and to the city in what was (for me) relatively few words.

The project never took off. But the occasion of his honor gives me a chance to share my few thoughts on Griffith. I’m sure there will be more to come.


As a Louisville native, Kentucky Mr. Basketball and a prep All-American out of Male High School, Darrell Griffith could've played college basketball anywhere. He was the nation's top prospect, and in 1976 was the only high school player asked to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. At the trials, his vertical leap was measured at 46 inches.

Today, he'd be a sure one-and-done player. But when he signed with Denny Crum and the Cardinals in 1976, he did so because he wanted to do something that would change his hometown forever. He said when he signed, "I want to bring several national championships to Louisville." 

Fans would hold him to it, but he wouldn't let that promise weigh him down.

As luck would have it, and it was a fortuitous stroke, the NCAA reinstated the dunk to college basketball before Griffith played his freshman year at basketball. It had been banned since 1967. 

Griffith, and his Louisville teammates, made use of it, in more ways than one. The Doctors of Dunk became a phenomenon.  

“We were the first team to be a brand,” Griffith said during ceremonies for the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2014. “You had (Houston’s) Phi Slama Jama, and then the Fab Five (of Michigan), but the Doctors of Dunk were the first college brand, because we were so new at what we did.”

Jim Terhune, a longtime respected reporter for Louisville's newspapers, The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, wrote at length about Griffith during his career at The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, and preserved many of his memories in his book, "Tales from the 1980 Louisville Cardinals."

In that book, teammate Tony Branch told about Griffith's immediate impact. At a pickup game in Crawford Gym, Griffith dunked on Artis Gilmore, the Kentucky Colonels' 7-foot-2 center.

"He didn't beat Artis to the basket," Branch told Terhune. "Artis was waiting for him under the basket. Darrell goes up and throws it down anyway. I knew then that Darrell had reckless abandon."

The 6-foot-4 Griffith defied physics. He could jump out of the gym. If only he'd played during the era of YouTube -- though you can still find plenty of his dunks if you look. When he jumped over a Polish defender in the World University Games in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1977, someone snapped a picture and was selling it a few days later. Griffith told Terhune he still has that picture in his basement.

But he would create many more Kodak moments for the Cardinals. Three seasons into his Louisville career, there were murmurs. In addition to pro overtures after every season, there were whispers that he hadn't delivered on his national championship promise. There were doubts. But in the late night hours in the Crawford Gym on campus, and in brutal practice sessions, Griffith's focus on attaining his goal during his senior season of 1979-80 became the team's focus.   His athleticism was never questioned. His ability for artistic dunks was known around the nation. His personality became the program's personality. And the program soared. The Doctors of Dunk, they called them. And he was Dr. Dunkenstein.

As a senior, he made good on his promise. In 1980, he scored 825 points, a school scoring record that still stands. He brought an NCAA championship to the city. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the headline, "The Great Griffith," after Louisville defeated UCLA in the title game (a game in which Griffith scored 23 of Louisville’s 59 points). And in a basketball-crazy state, he led the way in elevating Louisville to a perch previously only occupied by the University of Kentucky.

There was no customary wait for his jersey to be retired. The school did it after the season. He was second overall pick of the NBA Draft after his Louisville career, and was NBA rookie of the year for the Utah Jazz, for whom he played all of his 11 NBA seasons.

After the 1980 NCAA championship, Griffith won the John R. Wooden Award as college basketball's player of the year. He went to Los Angeles to accept the award, where legendary Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray wrote this about the ceremony (as recalled by Terhune in his book):

"UCLA players showed up in fascination. They wanted to get a look at Darrell Griffith at ground level. . . . Like the Abominable Snowman and California condor, Griffith is rarely found in low altitudes. . . . He's not a guard, he's a satellite."

In my years covering Louisville sports, I've learned that everyone has a Griffith story. Everyone can call up their favorite Griffith dunk, or moment. The 360-degree dunk. The round-the-world dunk at LSU.

Griffith took the basketball program, and university, into a new orbit. Today, he is a special assistant to the U of L president. He is an ambassador for the university. He is involved in various business interests, including a restaurant near the U of L campus that opened in 2014 and bears his name, "Griff's." A gymnasium at the West End School in Louisville was named after him in 2014, near the site of Griffith’s old elementary school, where he first dunked a basketball.

He promised to pilot the university to places it had never been. He did, and carried his hometown along for the ride.

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