The day before Brittney Griner led Baylor to an undefeated NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship last April, Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey, never at a loss for words, took a deep breath during her pregame press briefing.
What followed was a most stirring soliloquy about how complex, how impossibly difficult it is to look different, to sound different, to seem different but know you don’t feel that you are.
“Social media is the worst thing that’s happened … This [Griner] is someone’s child. This is a human being, people,” Mulkey said.
“She didn’t wake up and say: ‘God, make me look like this; make me be 6’8.” This child is as precious [a person] as they come, when it comes to being a good person, a sweet kid and coachable. She probably the greatest player I have ever coached and likely the easiest to coach.
“I love going to work and seeing Brittney Griner’s face. She just makes me happy.”
What hasn’t made Mulkey happy is what she’s heard and read about Griner; the assumptions and cruel jokes, the scandalous accusations; some ridiculous, most just blatantly mean-spirited about her.
“The stuff she’s had to read about, the stuff she’s had to hear, the stuff people say about her, the stuff people write about her, it’s gotta stop,” Mulkey begged. “That stuff’s gotta stop.”
What must it be like to Griner, the most profound player in her game? What must the pressure be like on her to perform or conform?
“I think Brittney has done an incredible job staying ‘normal’ with all the attention she has gotten,”’said Rebecca Lobo, 6-4, the former UConn national player of the year and now ESPN analyst.
“She seems to be a very confident young woman who is quite comfortable in her own skin. Unlike many tall women who are uncomfortable with their height, Brittney seems to embrace it.
“Early in her freshman year I asked her if there was any down side to being a 6’8″ woman. Her answer was only ‘that I’ll never fit into a cute little sports car. She’s a remarkable kid.’”
In her four seasons at Baylor, Griner has been to women’s basketball what Lew Alcindor was to the men’s game during his days at UCLA – a phenomenon. She has revolutionized the way her game can be played, potentially above the rim, using her size and acumen to illustrations.
And it started early. As a freshman she had 223 blocked shots, the all time single-season record. On December 16, 2009, she recorded Baylor’s first triple-double with 34 points, 13 rebounds and 11 blocked shots.
“She’s the most dominant force in women’s college basketball,” Lobo said. “She changes each game she plays, but I don’t think she’s changed the game simply because no other 6’8″ woman can do what she does.
“No matter how hard other tall women practice, they aren’t going to have the physical gifts [athletic ability, strength, mobility] that Brittney has. She is a unique force in the game.”
But because of her size, her physical features and her deep voice, she has attracted unwanted attention.
“I love being tall,” Griner said at last year’s Final Four. “There really wasn’t any teasing [when she was growing up]. I guess they were smart enough not to tease the big kid. But I loved being different. I like being tall. And as for the size 17 shoe [that she wears], I just go online, really. I can’t really go in the store. But online there are more options, more colors, different styles. It’s not bad.”
But when she was a freshman in college, it was all new and she had to learn tocontrol her instinct to physically respond to what was happening to her on the floor.
On March 3, 2010, Griner was ejected for punching Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle in the face as they were battling for position. As a foul was being called on Barncastle, Griner took two steps toward her before throwing a punch with her right hand, breaking Barncastle’s nose.
Mulkey imposed a one-game suspension, in addition to the one-game suspension mandated by the NCAA.
The incident only turned up the verbal on Griner from the annoynmous voices on the internet.
“And it’s [now] constant,” Mulkey said that day last April. “For her to handle it as well as she does, I just love the kid. I love the kid. I sit and I think: Why? Why do people do that this day and time?”
Being an extremely tall woman is not normally what a young girl would order if given a genetic menu.
“When I look at Brittney I do often think of what my life was like when I was her age,” said Seton Hall coach Anne Donovan, who is also 6-8. “What I also think is how comfortable she looks in her skin.
“That was not me when I was her age, certainly not when I was 18 or 19. I finally embraced my height when I was 20, but off the court I was a very shy and introverted kid. Brittney is not like that. She appears to be so very outgoing. You can see the shyness is some respects, but in general she appears very comfortable with whom she is. I admire that about her.”
Donovan, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer at Old Dominion,later coached the WNBA’s Seattle Storm to a championship (2004) and the 2008 Olympic team to gold in China. She take over as coach of the Connecticut Sun after the college season ends.
She remembers how long it took her to adapt to what she looked liked – and how others reacted to it.
“Very rarely does the stare of people get to me, but I am 50 now,” Donovan said. “But it took every bit of those years to walk through an airport to be able to not even think about what others were saying or thinking.
“And look, people know who [Brittney] is when she walks through an airport, unlike me. She has that entirely different element working for her. When I was playing in college, the sport was far more obscure [in the American consciousness]. She has a whole different angle [to deal with].”
With everything going on around her, Griner’s game has slowly developed over her career, lofty numbers aside.
“It’s true,” said Stefanie Dolson, UConn’s 6-5 junior center. “At some point you learn to accept who you are, you grow into who you are and say to yourself, ‘this is what I am left with. This is who I will be.’”
Griner has slowly learned how to use her size, and develop her temperament, to aid her performance.
“People may have the misconception that all big girls are tough and mean. But you know what, I actually believe you will find more gentle giants than bad ass girls,” said former UConn All-American Kara Wolters, who is 6-7. “Brittney seems sweet, like she’s just doing her own thing and [see wants] everyone just leave her alone. She not in someone’s face, you never see her talk [trash]. She just allows her game talk for herself.
“And her game has gotten tougher. Her game has grown to the point she doesn’t feel inclined to apologize for the size anymore. I got that vibe from her originally. She’s evolved from what I would call “excuse me” basketball to becoming the dominant player she is. She knows she’s been blessed with a gift and she going to kick your butt with it. She’s literally grown into her dominance.”
As a sophomore, Griner averaged 23 points, including a career-high 40 against Green Bay in a Sweet 16 game, and received first team All-American honors.
And then last year it all came to pass. Griner averaged 23.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and five blocks per game.She was named AP Player of the Year and on April 3, 2012, the day after Mulkey defended to the national audience, she led Baylor with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks to win the national championship game over Notre Dame.
Griner was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player and the Lady Bears completed the first 40-win undefeated season in NCAA history.
“She is amazing,” Lobo said. “I love watching her play. And I’m glad I never had to defend her.”
But even that night she had to face an uncomfortable moment when Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, simply intending to praise Griner, said something that sounded not quite right.
“I think she’s one of a kind. I think she’s like a guy playing with women,” McGraw said. “It’s just there’s so many things that she can do that I’ve not seen a lot of women -well, really, you know, there’s been some guards that had some skill like that. But as a post player she’s the best I’ve ever seen.’”
Griner saw no harm in the comment.
“I take that as compliment,” Griner said. “Definitely, I take it as a compliment.”
The next step for Griner is the WNBA and life playing overseas in the winter, where women basketball players make most of their money.
“She certainly is different than anyone playing the position in the WNBA right now,” Geno Auriemma said. “That makes it almost of a guarantee that she will have a different impact than anyone else has had. No one has come into the league like her ever. So she has a chance to impact the WNBA as much as she has impacted the college game.”
The Phoenix Mercury own the first pick in the April draft and will add Griner to a team with former UConn All-American Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and point guard Samantha Prahalis.
“I can tell you that Diana Taurasi is very excited about it,” Wolters said.
And maybe she will also be ready to give the Olympics a try. Griner was the only collegian among 21 finalists for the 2012 team picked by the USA Basketball Women’s National Team Player Selection Committee. But she decided not to participate, citing personal issues and school work.
In September of 2011, she had spent two weeks playing for Auriemma for the U.S. National Team as part of its European training tour. She was the only college player in the group.
Playing internationally will help her complete the growth cycle, said Donovan.
“I would say to her to try and keep it positive at all times,” Donovan said. “I would ask her to embrace the experience and go get a gold medal.
“And I would ask her to remember that professional basketball is different from college and that people can be very critical, perhaps even brutal at times in what they say. The innocence will be over in terms of what will be said. She needs to keep her cool and stay positive.”
Then again, Mulkey already knows that.
“This kid has had so much thrown at her that I wonder sometimes if she goes: Is it really worth it to keep putting up with all this? But she never does,” Mulkey said. “She never does.”