THE SWEET SIXTEEN - #16 - ALFRED GRIGSBYJust when you thought it was safe to visit this blog, we roll out yet another list of great Golden Bears - this time Cal's finest on the hardwood. Why 16? Why not? 22 starters in football, 5 in hoops, 50 divided by 4 is about 12 - which doesn't sound nearly as cool as 16. Plus, if we limited it to 12 selections, we wouldn't be able to include this guy:
#16 - ALFRED GRIGSBY - FORWARD (1992-3, 1995, 1997)
California has had about thirty players who had more distinguished careers at Berkeley than Alfred Grigsby. Only two of them have a jersey hanging in Haas Pavilion, alongside Grigsby's #4.
What people tend to forget about Grigsby, after five surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation turned him into the all-time Harmon fan favorite, is that he was a rock solid blue-chip recruit coming out of Yates HS in Houston. I remember that period in Cal hoops well - Grigsby was the monster power forward who was going to take Cal to the Sweet 16 and beyond. That prophecy turned out to be true, but no one could have imagined how difficult the ride would be.
Grigsby started and averaged double figures as a freshman (10.2 ppg/6.2 rpg). By season's end he was one of the better power forwards in the conference, throwing down 19 at Pauley Pavilion in a valiant upset bid of the 2nd-ranked Bruins. The next year he posted similar numbers and led the Pac-10 in field goal percentage. He also supplied the inside muscle that helped the Bears reach the Sweet Sixteen - scoring 11 points with 6 boards against LSU and shutting down Duke's inside game in a memorable second-round upset.
And then Grigsby got hurt. Really hurt. He hyper-extended his knee, tore his hamstring and missed almost all of the '93-'94 season. He looked healthy coming into the '94-'95 season, and was on the Wooden Award watch list, but then a bulging disk in his lower back sidelined him for all but ten games. Cal fans questioned whether Grigsby would ever play again, let alone continue at such a high level. '95-'96 was a wash too when the back flared up after just a few games. What was heartbreaking was watching Grigsby try each year, and then shut it down when he couldn't stand up straight (let alone play). More surgery, more pain, more disappointment. Most Bear fans wrote him off.
But when the NCAA, in a rare moment of humanity, granted Grigsby a sixth year, he dragged his body back onto the court at the end of 1996. He had a new coach (somehow it was appropriate that Grigsby was absent for the Bozeman meltdown) who favored deliberate half-court sets and rugged defense. The Harmon faithful held its breath each time Grigsby ran up and down the court or grimaced after tumbling to the floor. But he kept getting up, and before long he was performing like the Grigsby of old (even if he looked like a completely different player).
He scored 11 in a December home win versus Penn State - his first double-digit scoring game in two years. Two weeks later, he poured in 21 points off the bench against #9 Arizona in Tucson. He led the surprising Bears in rebounding at 6.8 rpg in conference games, and seemed to get stronger as the season progressed. When Pac-10 Player of the Year Ed Gray broke his foot against Washington State, Grigsby was the emotional glue that held the team together through the season's final month and gained the Bears a #5 seed in the East regional.
In his last home game - the last game ever played at Harmon Gym - fans were treated to appearances by lots of Old Blues. No one got a bigger cheer than Grigsby, who was called to center court and honored with the retirement of his jersey. As the cheers echoed throughout the old gym, no one cared that Al Grigsby's college career was less than it might have been. No one cared that Grigsby might have become the greatest front court player in school history if only he had two good legs and a healthy back. Bear fans simply appreciated the struggle of Alfred Grigsby.
That magical ceremony wasn't it, of course. Two days later Cal upset Arizona at the Cow Palace 79-77, and then the Bears traveled to Tobacco Road to face Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Predictably, the game was close. Randy Duck and Tony Gonzalez won headlines by scoring 16 and 13 points respectively, but it was Grigsby who blocked Gabe Lewullis's tying three-point attempt to preserve a 55-52 win. Against Villanova in the round of 32, Gonzalez scored 23 points but it was Grigsby who played 39 minutes, hauled in 13 rebounds and completely shut down heralded Wildcat Tim Thomas. Cal was in the Sweet 16 and Al Grigsby was at the center of the celebration - just like we all thought he'd be.
Al Grigsby is the only Golden Bear to be named the team's Most Inspirational Player four separate times. They should rename the award for him.