CINCINNATI — Tucked behind Oyler School in Lower Price Hill, a calloused, blue-collar Cincinnati neighborhood on the banks of the Ohio River, is a pair of basketball hoops. The two goals abut each other, with half courts spreading out in opposite directions behind a chain-link fence. A few hundred feet away, on the other side of a wholesale building supplies warehouse, sits Evans Recreation Center, with another half court and three hoops crammed in on three sides.
Both spots are only a few steps from Rayvon Griffith’s house. And during the spring and summer of 2020, with schools and gyms suddenly shut down as the world struggled to manage an unexpected pandemic, you could be sure to find Griffith on one of those courts every morning, noon and night.
“We wanted to be safe, but I couldn’t just sit in the house and watch somebody else out there working,” said Griffith, who was transitioning between his freshman and sophomore years at local Taft High School. “Growing up, we always played outside, so that was never an issue. We found a couple nearby courts. The rims were still up, fortunately, because a lot of playgrounds took them down, and we got to work.”
Rayvon, along with his older brothers, Dale “Flea” Griffith and Trey Dees and some other players from the neighborhood started what they called a “breakfast club.” They met on the courts at 8 or 9 in the morning, five or six times per week, to play basketball and run through drills. Oftentimes, Rayvon was already there when everyone else arrived.
“We never had to beg him,” Dees said. “He was one of the kids who initiated it and embraced it.”
Flea said it was just as common to drive around the neighborhood and find Rayvon putting up shots on those same hoops later in the day. They are the courts that helped develop him, in the neighborhood that raised him, into one of the top men’s college basketball prospects in the 2023 class.
Griffith is rated a four-star recruit by 247 Sports Composite and is ranked as the 47th overall high school junior in the country. A lanky 6-foot-7, 180-pound wing who emerged on the recruiting scene as a dominant middle schooler and evolved into a skilled, all-around player, he recently announced his five college finalists — Kansas, UCLA, Alabama, Ohio State and Cincinnati — and set a commitment date for Sunday. The decision will mark a milestone in Griffith’s journey from a promising young player with big dreams to a young man with even bigger expectations, carrying his community — and maybe even his entire city — along with him.
“My mentality comes from where I grew up,” Griffith said. “I come from a rough environment, and I carry that chip on my shoulder, knowing I’m still there because I want my family to have a better life.”
Out of humble beginnings came the type of viral fame that’s unique to basketball recruiting’s quirky corner of social media. Griffith first surfaced as a middle schooler while playing for the North Coast Blue Chips, a grassroots basketball program, alongside a player named Bronny James. Highlight videos featured a young Griffith dunking on and swatting hapless, fellow middle schoolers, physically and athletically eclipsing his peers. And there was Bronny’s dad, LeBron, in those same highlight videos, standing and cheering Griffith’s slams, dapping him up on the sideline and offering words of advice.
“I remember watching his highlights on Instagram and YouTube, and I’m like, ‘How would you feel getting advice from LeBron at that age?’” Flea said. “And then there are highlights of him dunking, and that’s when I realized he really was special.”
That level of attention at a young age can be negative for athletes, particularly basketball players. Griffith steered clear of that fate.
“A lot of kids get that hype early and either become complacent or lose the passion for really working at the game. That’s something Ray has been able to avoid,” said Brook Cupps, Griffith’s grassroots coach with Midwest Basketball Club. “It’s been a matter of him continuing to work on his skill, and he’s put a ton of time in. He also plays really, really hard, which is one of those things that is really tough to teach if a kid doesn’t have that mentality set in them.”
In many ways, that initial attention turned out to be one of the best things for Griffith’s development because it sparked a collective effort. Griffith is the youngest of eight siblings. Flea and Dees are 11 and 12 years older than him, respectively, and both admit they were more focused on their own lives and careers when Griffith was in middle school. But as they realized Griffith had a chance to impact and alter his future through basketball, they took more responsibility for his progress, coaching and organizing some of his grassroots teams and serving as a sounding board for important decisions.
After playing on Nike’s EYBL circuit with Bates Fundamental the past two summers, Griffith moved to Midwest Basketball Club on the Adidas 3SSB circuit this spring, where he could be coached by Cupps and play alongside his son, Gabe, an Indiana commit who was a teammate of Griffith’s on the North Coast Blue Chips; Reed Sheppard, a five-star Kentucky commit; and another four-star talent in Maki Johnson.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with Ray and his family, and we all felt him moving over and playing for Brook was the best thing for his development. He’s getting coached by the best coach in Ohio in Brook Cupps,” said Andrew Martin, the director of Midwest Basketball Club. “Rayvon has always had a good motor, high energy, really good athlete, but his shooting ability has gotten a lot better and more consistent. He’s naturally good at a lot of the stuff you can’t really teach. Pair that with his ever-improving jump shot, and you have a kid who is going to be a very, very terrific prospect at the college level.”
Other mentors have played key roles in that evolution as well. The Cincinnati Public Schools district comprises 62 separate schools and roughly 35,000 students, stretching from the inner city to outer-ring neighborhoods. Yet in the 100-year history of the Ohio High School Athletic Association state tournament, only three CPS programs have claimed an Ohio boys basketball championship. DeMarco Bradley was part of all three: as a player at Woodward in 1988, as an assistant coach at Taft in 2011 and then as the head coach of Taft’s latest title run last month.
Griffith attended nearby Oyler in seventh and eighth grade, also part of CPS, but decided to transfer for ninth grade. He had no shortage of attention and considered the likes of Archbishop Moeller, Covington Catholic and other storied parochial schools in and around Cincinnati. Bradley was never much for recruiting players, but Griffith’s father, Cedric Foster, attended Taft, and Bradley heard from enough people in the community begging him to at least attempt to keep Griffith in the district.
“I set up a meeting with his family, and ever since then, Rayvon and I have been really close,” Bradley said.
Even as a freshman who quickly earned the bulk of attention on a team, Bradley recognized the same potential in Griffith that his older brothers saw. Having worked as a college assistant at Wichita State and having won national championships on the grassroots circuit and state championships at the high school level, Bradley also understood how much work it would take to get Griffith there.
“I had to remind Rayvon, ‘Now you’re not bigger than everybody else. Now you’re not stronger than everybody else. You gotta work at it,’” Bradley said. “And he really started working on his outside game and his body.”
As a sophomore in 2020-21, strengthened by those long summer days on the outdoor courts of Lower Price Hill, Griffith led Taft to the Division III state semifinals, where it lost on a buzzer-beater. Griffith actually caught the game-winning shot as it fell through the net, his head, then his shoulders, then his entire body slumping to the ground. He finished with a season-low nine points. Bradley attributed it to the same reason his scoring had fallen off in the second halves of the two previous playoff victories.
“I watched those three games over and over. He was tired,” Bradley said. “That’s one of the main things we worked on this past year, and that was my motivation to him — you gotta finish. We started really working on his conditioning.”
That was reiterated when Griffith attended the annual Pangos All-American Camp in Las Vegas as a rising junior last June alongside the rest of the country’s top high school prospects.
“It really woke him up, realizing this is the level he needs to get to,” Bradley said.
During the summer, Bradley picked up Griffith and took him to work out with Vinnie Johnson, a former Ohio State football player, three days per week.
“And I made him run cross country this fall,” Bradley said. “He even won a couple meets. You gotta compete.”
It paid off. Griffith, Bradley and the Taft Senators completed their “Revenge Tour” last month with a 48-45 win over Ottawa-Glandorf. Griffith averaged 20.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists for his junior season, shooting 52 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point range on his way to earning Ohio Division III Southwest District Player of the Year honors.
“What that means at Taft, a small school, inner-city of Cincinnati,” Martin said, “it’s been tremendous for that fan base and community.”
It has been a community effort in many respects, but it was always going to depend on Griffith being able to embody and surpass those early expectations. Fortunately, supplying his own motivation never has been a problem. Griffith has worked tirelessly at his game the past three years, often without the same resources and benefits as some of his peers.
“He’s always been super athletic, but the thing that stands out to me with Ray is his motor, how hard he plays, his passion for the game. He genuinely enjoys playing, and you can’t say that about every kid, nowadays especially,” Cupps said. “That’s something that is a little bit of a throwback for Ray. He’s definitely worked on his game and committed to being the best player that he can.”
Griffith capitalized on his physical gifts by improving his jump shot, ballhandling, conditioning and decision-making, whether it was spending the pandemic on those outdoor courts, running the bridge near his house or bugging Bradley to let him in the gym as many as three times per day, before and after school and later in the evening. Despite being crowned at a young age, Griffith has been fueled more by his missteps and ambitions than his hype and recognition.
“Just the way he approaches the game, that intensity he plays with, he’s not faking that,” Dees said. “He’s a hard worker. We kept him humble, and he kept himself hungry. He’s just a coach’s dream player.”
Family is important to Griffith. He’s close with his mom, Felicia, who constantly calls Bradley to make sure her son is staying on top of his assignments and homework or to double-check that Griffith isn’t pulling her leg about school being off for an in-service day. As the youngest of those eight siblings, Griffith has taken to referring to himself as “the last hope.”
Griffith’s college recruitment exploded soon after his middle school highlight videos took off. Former Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin was on him as an eighth-grader, and Griffith received his first offer from Kent State at a team camp during the summer before ninth grade. It has been a constant influx ever since then of mid-majors, then high-majors, but it was the most consistent, familial programs that managed to separate themselves.
“I’m big on consistency. Family. Brotherhood. I chose my top five off of playing styles that fit me but also the ones who were the most consistent with me,” Griffith said. “Checking in, sending a text, checking on me and the family, little stuff like that.”
Those five can play a little ball, too. Cronin, now the head coach at UCLA, kept up his relationship with Griffith after moving out west and reaching the Final Four last season. Kansas is fresh off a national championship. Alabama head coach Nate Oats has been a regular presence at Griffith’s grassroots games since reviving the Crimson Tide. Ohio State is just a couple of hours up the road and has some family fandom ties between Foster and Flea, who admits that the Greg Oden and Mike Conley Buckeyes were his squad growing up.
In fact, the hometown Bearcats had the most ground to make up with two coaching changes in the past three years and a rehab effort underway. Wes Miller was hired just more than a year ago, but he immediately made Griffith a priority.
“He said I was one of the first guys he called once he got the job,” Griffith said. “I’ve built a little bit of a name in Cincinnati, and being a hometown hero could be great. I feel like I could bring the people of Cincinnati what they’ve been missing, if that’s where I choose to go.”
That hometown hero narrative is a significant one locally among friends and family who want Griffith to stay close, as well as a Bearcats fan base itching for a return to prominence. Griffith would be Cincinnati’s seventh-highest-rated recruit of the 247 Sports era and the second-highest among local products behind only Yancy Gates. There are potential parallels to Gates, who signed with Cincinnati early in Cronin’s tenure and helped lead UC’s hard-won resurgence following the dismissal of Bob Huggins. With Miller set to enter his second season and the rebuilding Bearcats angling to join the Big 12 in 2023 — for what would be Griffith’s freshman season — his commitment could be a tone-setting moment for the program.
“I think it’s important to him. Any kid wants to be recruited by the college in their home city,” Flea said. “It puts an immense amount of pressure on you, but in a good way. Him going out in public and hearing people tell him they want him to stay home, it’s a good feeling.”
Whatever school Griffith chooses to attend, the May 1 commitment might be the most surprising aspect. Griffith previously stated he wanted to wait until his 18th birthday in October to announce his decision, just before the start of his senior season at Taft. But as hard-wired as he is about basketball, Griffith can be eccentric and impromptu off the court. Flea described his younger brother as having conversations with himself, during which he will discuss something with his family, take in all of the advice, come to an agreed-upon conclusion, then wake up the next morning and deliver his own altered verdict.
“Ray has always run his own race,” Martin said. “And honestly, when kids make this college decision, it takes a lot of weight off. So if you already know, and you’re comfortable and happy and excited to be where you’re at, shoot, let’s get it done.
“Plus when you commit, then you can start recruiting other guys who you want to play with you.”
Griffith can be that caliber of a prospect, especially if he elects to stay close to home and build momentum. Similarities to Gates aside, Bearcats fans are looking at Griffith as the catalyst to that hometown pride Luke Fickell has tapped into with UC football. Ohio State can sell a similar message.
That’s a lot to carry, of course, although venturing off to a big-name program presents its own challenges as well. But regardless of where he ends up, Griffith will arrive as a player forged by his surroundings and already accustomed to shouldering the extra weight.
“He has a chance to be special. It’s just about him keeping that grind and that hunger,” Bradley said. “But he comes from a community of blue-collar workers, so he sees it every day. And he’s always pushed himself to be the best.”
(Photo: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)