Since people began noticing how tall she was, how able she was to maximize her gifts playing basketball, Brittney Griner has lived in the sharp focus of a microscope pointed straight up at her 6-foot-8 frame.
So it’s no revelation that ever step she’s taken as a rookie in the WNBA has attracted curiosity. Even her own.
“Before I came [to the WNBA] I would get booed in some [college] cities,” Griner admitted. “I’ve actually heard some cheers in just about every place we’ve gone [in the WNBA]. It’s been cool and very different than what I thought [it would be like].”
The Phoenix Mercury took Griner, the 2012 Division I national player of the year at Baylor, first overall in the draft. Everyone assumed it would be the first step in re-establishing the team Diana Taurasi built as a league champion.
“The transition hasn’t been that difficult,” Griner said. “My teammates want to help me. I had some trouble in my early games with fouls and learning the plays, but now it’s kind of starting to come together.”
Griner has played well for the Mercury (4-4). She has scored double-figures in each of her seven games, averaging 15.3 points. She is shooting 61.6 percent from the field and has blocked 20 shots, 13 in just the last four.
“My opponents have played me hard,” Griner said. “But it hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary. Down in the post you are going to get hit.”
She has even missed a game with a sore knee, something she’s never had to deal before.
“But I’ve been getting stronger and feeling better every day,” Griner said.
Still, she is more than the biggest player in the WNBA. She appears to be its focal point. In a league filled with stars, she has been marketed center stage, along with other rookies Elena Delle Donne (Chicago) and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa).
You may have seen the league’s “Three To See.”
“It [the marketing] has been more than I expected,” Griner said. “Draft night was crazy and I think I’ve been on just about every news [outlet] there is. It was a lot. At night, I’d be beat, tired, to the point I’d say, ‘whoa.’”
But while she must fend for herself on the floor, her organization still feels the need to protect her off it.
Shortly after her selection by the Mercury, Griner admitted she not only was gay but that Baylor coach Kim Mulkey had quietly told her to keep her sexuality a secret.
“I am 100-percent happy,” Griner told ESPN The Magazine. “When I was at Baylor, I wasn’t fully happy because I couldn’t be all the way out. It feels so good saying it: I am a strong, black lesbian woman. Every single time I say it, I feel so much better.”
This was apparently done to protect recruiting and keep the religiously ultra-conservative Baptist leadership of the university off Griner’s long and slender back.
The fallout from Griner’s admission is apparent. Her relationship with Mulkey, apparently so close during her career, has been fractured, perhaps irreparably.
Griner’s father, Ray, told the magazine as much.
“It’s about dollar signs,” he said. “There’s nothing in it for Kim anymore, so she’s done with Brittney.”
The Mercury seem done addressing the issue. During a national conference call to promote Griner’s visits to San Antonio, Washington and Connecticut (Saturday at 7 p.m.), a member of the team’s media relations staff dismissed questions to Griner about the Baylor situation and whether other college players she knew may have experienced the same treatment from their coaches.
“Ah, let’s keep the interview to questions about her rookie season in the WNBA, the upcoming road trip and the transition to professional basketball,” the spokeswoman said.
That said – or not – Griner went on to say that playing with Taurasi “was intense.”
“She brings out the best in you. You don’t want to [disappoint] her because she brings it every day. I saw that from the first practice.”
On Saturday, Griner encounters another former UConn player, the WNBA’s MVP center, Tina Charles, when the Mercury plays the Sun.
“I remember playing her in college in my freshman year [a UConn win in the national semifinals],” Griner said. “She’s a great post, very skilled. I am going to need to do my homework and come into the game ready to go. She’s established how great a player she is.”
Perhaps the day will come when Griner takes on that role against a rookie player.
“I just want to be the person I’ve always been,” Griner said. “I think I can add something to the game, a different element like playing above the rim and by blocking shots.
“But I don’t look at as if I’m changing the league.”