Overdue hug can't heal hurt for Dorsey
Tigers star wary of reunion with his long-missing father
By Jim Masilak
Thursday, April 3, 2008
The last time Reginald Griffin held his son in his arms, the boy was 2 years old.
He hadn't yet become what his mother called the "tall, skinny, geeky-looking kid with big ears sticking out from his head" who was picked on at school, or the class clown who all too often ended up in the principal's office.
He hadn't yet endured the death of his stepfather, been sent to alternative school, taken up basketball against his mother's wishes, made it rain or led the University of Memphis to the Final Four. He hadn't yet ... well, yeah, he probably did have the million-watt grin that melted a city's heart but somehow left a father unmoved.
For more than 20 years, his every approach rejected by a man determined to "leave things the way they are," University of Memphis forward Joey Dorsey was left to wonder:
Had there been any warmth in that last embrace? Why would a father deny his own flesh and blood? Is this what it means to be a man?
"I tried to reach out to him for a long time, but he never gave me a response," said Dorsey, 24. "That was something that caused a lot of anger in my life for a long time."
Charlene Dorsey did her best to fill the void. When she wasn't working one of two jobs, she was mother and father to Joey and his younger half-sister, Candice.
"I was very overprotective," she said. "They weren't allowed to fall down and get hurt or get those clothes dirty."
Or play basketball. Nothing upset Charlene more than finding out that the neighbor she'd asked to watch Joey had taken him to the basketball court.
"She didn't want me playing basketball because it was on blacktop," he said, "and I always came home with a busted lip or black eye."
And when the street lights in his West Baltimore neighborhood came on, Joey had to be in the house. Or else.
"I wanted to go and hang out on the corner with my cousins," he said. "All of them dropped out of school. But I couldn't do that because my mom was gonna whoop me with that belt. She put it on me a couple times, and it made me the man I am today."
Still, because Charlene spent so much time at work, Joey was left to his own devices more than either of them would have liked.
"I didn't have that attention a child needs," he said.
Charlene had left Joey's father while still carrying his child. While they still saw one another occasionally over the next two years, Griffin eventually moved away and had not had direct contact with them since.
Attempts to reach Griffin for comment were unsuccessful.
Charlene remarried, but Joey was just 10 when his stepfather died because of kidney failure. Left once more without a male role model, he started asking more questions about his real father.
Finding his roots
When Joey was 13, Charlene took him to meet one of Griffin's brothers. She inquired about the boy's father, as she had done several times before without reply. This time, she was told that Griffin "would rather just leave things the way they are."
"You can imagine what that did to my son. It crushed him," Charlene said. "It crushed him."
Around that time, Joey was sent to New Foundations, an alternative school in Baltimore for children with behavioral issues.
"I feel as though the school system was treating him rough when they put him in that alternative school," Charlene said. "He might be a jokester, but he's not a bad kid."
Unattached to any high school, Dorsey became the subject of a recruiting battle once word got out about the 6-9 kid who was dominating the playgrounds. That's where Douglass High coach Rodney Coffield came in. He convinced the school board to let Dorsey play for his Baltimore neighborhood school while still receiving counseling at New Foundations.
"We didn't know what we were gonna get from Joey," said Tyler Smith, who played with Dorsey at Douglass and recently finished his career at Colorado State. "The first thing was trying to get him situated mentally. Once we got that going, Joey dominated the whole thing."
During his senior year at Douglass, Joey's hallway antics -- sunflower seed-throwing was a favorite -- resulted in a parent-teacher conference. He was defiant until Charlene arrived on the scene.
"As soon as she looked at him, he started crying like a baby," Coffield said. "I said, 'OK, I know how to get to him now.'"
Charlene said she never had another problem with Joey after that while he was at Douglass. He led the Ducks to a 28-0 record and a Maryland Class 3A state title in 2002.
After two years at Laurinburg (N.C.) Prep, Dorsey enrolled at Memphis, where he is among the career leaders in blocked shots and rebounding and is a huge crowd favorite.
The one person whose approval Dorsey most craved, however, remained aloof.
No Garden party
A little more than two years ago, Charlene received a phone call. The newspaper clippings she'd been sending had apparently worked: Reginald Griffin wanted to be reunited with his son. What's more, he wanted Joey to meet a boy named Joshua Griffin, the half-brother he didn't know he had.
"He was so excited," Charlene said. "He was gonna meet his father and brother for the first time."
The Griffins were living on Long Island in November 2005 when the Tigers came to New York's Madison Square Garden for the NIT Season Tip-off. Memphis officials, having been apprised of the planned reunion, made ticketing arrangements. Dorsey, having waited so long for this moment, was about to burst.
And then ... nothing.
"No show," Charlene said. "He was devastated. I think (Tigers coach John Calipari) was devastated with him. Joey said at that point, 'I don't even want to meet him.' And he meant it."
In November, Memphis returned to New York City for the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic at Madison Square Garden. After offering excuses for the previous no-show, Griffin again asked to meet his son.
"Joey wouldn't speak to him, but I wanted him to see him," Charlene said. "I said, 'Just do me a favor and meet him one time. After you meet him, you don't ever have to see him again if you don't want to.'"
While warming up, Dorsey spied a man sitting next to Charlene and felt as if he were looking into a mirror. It was his father, this time.
"I knew it was him before I met him," Joey said.
After the game was over, Dorsey found himself in his father's arms for the first time in 22 years. If the hurt didn't melt away all at once, it was at least placed to the side for a few moments.
"We just embraced each other," Joey said. "He ran up to me and gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, 'I miss you.'"
Charlene said that Joey "hardly had anything to say. He says he's been hurt too many times."
A star player for a Final Four team, Dorsey is a bit suspicious of his father's timing. He says he wants "to build a relationship with him, but not right now."
Still, meeting Reginald was a cathartic experience. And Dorsey speaks with pride about his little brother, Joshua, who's already well over 6 feet tall.
"That was the missing link in my life," he said, "and now it's not missing anymore."
-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311