Darrell Griffith redefined the dunk in college basketball.
The dunk, which had been banned by the NCAA during 1967-76, was reinstated before Griffith’s freshman year at the University of Louisville.
The timing could not have been better.
Griffith, nicknamed Dr. Dunkenstein, was the ringleader of the “Doctors of Dunk,” who wore doctor smocks around campus and punctuated their games with spectacular slam dunks that hadn’t been seen in college basketball for 10 years.
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“We were the first team to be a brand,” said Griffith, who was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday night. “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.”
Griffith, who stood 6-feet-4 and had a 48-inch vertical leap, could do more than dunk. He led the Cardinals to a 101-25 record in his four years, capped by the national championship in 1980, when Griffith scored 23 points in a 59-54 win over UCLA and was selected the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.
“Whenever the team needed something, he gave it to them,” said former Louisville coach Denny Crum. “He’d just jump over people and shoot it and do whatever he needed to do to help us win games.”
Griffith’s nickname of Dr. Dunkenstein was inspired by the character Dr. Funkenstein, an alter ego of rhythm and blues artist George Clinton.
His most famous dunk came in the 1980 NCAA Regional final, when Griffith broke out on a fast break and windmilled an around-the-world slam that sparked an upset of LSU and sent Louisville to the Final Four.
The dramatic dunk did not surprise LSU coach Dale Brown.
“When he got that dunk, it was like someone threw a javelin in my heart,” said Brown, who was also inducted on Sunday night. “We recruited Darrell Griffith, and when I first saw him, I thought I’d never have to ever meet an astronaut or a cosmonaut, he was further out in space than they were.”
Griffith’s leaping ability made it easy for his teammates.
“Every day was a spectacular dunk,” said Roger Burkman. “With Griff, all you just had to throw it close to the rim, and he’d go up and get it. I remember throwing a lot of passes, thinking ‘That’s out of bounds,’ and he’d go get it somehow and make a spectacular play out of it.”
Griffith was the nation’s No. 1 recruit while at Male High in Louisville and had his pick of colleges and even pro offers. But staying at home was important to him.
“It didn’t feel right leaving, knowing the city was looking for a national championship,” Griffith said. “They never had one. That was my goal … to get my degree in four years and win a national championship.
“By the grace of God, it happened in in reverse order. I won a national championship and got my degree that summer.”
Griffith was the second player taken in the 1980 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz, where he spent 11 seasons. But nothing could match his college career.
“If I had gone on and won five NBA championships, nothing could have beaten the feeling of winning a national championship for your hometown, especially the first one,” said Griffith, 56.
Once his pro career was over, Griffith returned to Louisville, where he is special assistant to the president of the university and in charge of alumni development and community relations.
He also just dedicated the Darrell Griffith Athletic Center at West End School, a 13,000-square-foot middle-school facility on the site of his former elementary school.
“It’s a school for boys trying to get their lives straight and have a better chance in life,” Griffith said. “They never had a gym. They played 37 away games every year.”