Game ChangerDec. 18, 2012
by Jerry Hill
As shouts of "We love you, Brittney!" rained down from both sides of Austin Avenue, Brittney Griner slid her 6-foot-8 frame off the back of a shiny yellow Corvette and finished the downtown Waco parade on her signature longboard.
While the parade was a celebration of the Baylor Lady Bears' second national championship in seven years, this moment was also a snapshot of exactly who Brittney Griner is.
Clearly, Griner is the type of dominant player that "comes around once in a lifetime," Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey says. "I just happen to be the lucky one that gets to coach her."
A truly exceptional player on both ends of the floor, Griner is the first player in Division I basketball history -- male or female -- to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots. And she's far from done.
"In my opinion, Brittney is the greatest player the women's game has ever seen," Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell says. "And until somebody else comes along, I'm not going to change that opinion. I think the biggest way that she's changed the game is that the lane disappears when she's in the game. You just don't get anything free at the rim. The opportunity for easy baskets goes away."
But she is so much more than just a dauntingly tall woman who can dunk a basketball and block shots into the fifth row.
There's the quiet, sensitive, good Samaritan type with a "very big heart," says roommate and former teammate Shanay Washington. "She's always giving."
Griner volunteers with the Salvation Army, Waco's Gospel Café and area recreation centers and speaks at schools so often that she could be mistaken for a teacher -- a very tall teacher. And the next time she turns down a photo or autograph request will be the first.
"If we're in the mall or something, she'll stop to take a picture, and then 20 people come up," Washington says. "That's everywhere we go. And she'll finish the whole line before we do anything else."
Then there's the untamed free spirit that longboards, paints her body for football games, keeps a pet snake in her apartment and grabs pom-poms to join the Baylor cheerleaders at the end of every basketball game.
"I'm just a big goofball," says the repressed cheerleader. "It's my time just to have fun."
Of course, it's all fun and games until your All-American post player longboards down a parking garage ramp and crashes into a wall, breaking her right wrist. That actually happened in May, a little over a month after Griner and the Lady Bears finished off a perfect 40-0 season with an 80-61 trouncing of Notre Dame on a memorable night in Denver.
"No helmet, not the right shoes, nothing," she says. "And I jumped off the board because I knew I wasn't going to make the turn. I was going too fast, down the hill, and caught myself so that I didn't go face-first. I just threw my hands up to kind of brace myself, and that's how I did it."
Nobody would have blamed Mulkey if that longboard had come up missing or broken in pieces. At the very least, surely she'd have to put restrictions on her star player's extracurricular activities.
"Yes, if she had a devastating injury on the longboard, it would change the whole complexion of our team," Mulkey says. "But I think Brittney is smart enough to know that if she longboards, just be careful. And understand when it's basketball season and when it's not basketball season. But I don't put those parameters on them. ... Where do you stop? At some point, you've got to let them enjoy it a little bit."
Whether she's on a longboard, doing her thing on the basketball court or acting silly as an avid fan at football or soccer games, it's easy to see that Griner has enjoyed her four-year ride at Baylor.
"She is a coach's once-in-a-lifetime kind of player," Mulkey says. "When Brittney Griner leaves Baylor, it's going to be one of those really sad moments, because I don't know that I'll ever be around another player like her, with what she brings to the floor and how she handles everything she hears and still is the person that she is."
Edwin Morrow, the father of former Baylor player Jessica Morrow and an assistant coach with the Houston Hotshots AAU organization, is credited with telling Baylor and Mulkey about the budding star. In a casual coach-parent conversation, Morrow said there was a certain 6-foot-3 junior high player that "you need to keep up with."
"We were just able, fortunately, to find out about her before anybody else did," Mulkey says.
That was long before Griner's "High School Girl Dunker" video went viral on YouTube (today, the video has more than 6.4 million views). By the time it started getting passed around the Internet, Griner had already committed to sign with Baylor and was putting Aldine Nimitz High School basketball on the map.
The crazy thing, though, is that Griner didn't even play on an organized team until her freshman year at Nimitz. Until then, she was outside doing tricks on her bicycle, fearlessly skating down the sidewalk or climbing trees.
"If you had asked me what I was going to be when I was 6 or 7 years old, I probably would have said a professional in-line skater or BMX rider," she says. "I was X-Games to the core -- Tony Hawk, Travis Pastrana, I'm into all of that. ... I put my mom through it, like scratches, scrapes, took all the skin off both of my knees, falling out of trees."
While her dad served in Vietnam, now works with the Harris County Sheriff's Department and was obviously the strict disciplinarian -- "This is how it is; there is no highway," he used to say -- Griner's mom played the "good cop" and was always there to pick her up after every fall.
The only emergency-room visit, though, came in a face-to-face meeting with a tree.
"I thought I was being cool, running backward really fast. And then I turned around, and there was the tree. It took everything off the whole right side of my face, and I had to go to the ER for that one. But other than that..."
This is when Mulkey quickly knocks on anything close to a wooden surface.
In her first three seasons, the only time Griner has missed came when she was suspended two games as a freshman for what became known as simply "The Punch."
The usually unflappable Griner was ejected and later hit with a two-game suspension in February 2010, when she punched Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle with a right-handed swing after a hard foul in a game at Lubbock.
"I don't believe this incident should define Brittney Griner -- either as a person or a player," Mulkey said at the time. "Anyone who has been around her knows that she's a great kid. Her actions last night were very uncharacteristic of her. Unfortunately, she let her emotions get the best of her, and that can't happen. Brittney is a special young lady, she is great for our game, and I believe she will learn from this mistake and will become a better person moving forward."
What's clear is that one "ugly" incident didn't come close to defining Griner. For all the physical abuse she takes on the court and the hurtful slurs she hears off it, she hasn't had even the hint of a moment like that before or since.
"It happened so quickly that it stunned all of us. None of us saw it coming," Mulkey says. "You couldn't clean it up overnight; you couldn't erase that it happened. What I told her was that you will be held accountable, and she was. But time and the true Brittney will help the public see what you are about. And I think it has. If she was a player for whom that was her true personality, there would be more instances like that. And there haven't been."
Just when you think it's as good as it's going to get, Griner surprises you and gets even better.
"I see that there's more of a calmness about her this year and a confidence of who she is," says Hall of Famer Ann Meyers-Drysdale, who presented Griner with one of her countless awards as the unanimous National Player of the Year.
As a still-unpolished player, earlier in her career Griner was too predictable with her post moves and turned it over far too often.
"Now, you don't know where to guard her," Mulkey says. "Force her to the middle, force her to the baseline, play her head-up, what do we do here? ... People were misguided when they said she didn't have any post moves. What kind of post moves can you have when you always have three people around you? If you guarded her one-on-one every game, you would see a ton of moves."
As a freshman, Griner was one of the worst free-throw shooters on the team, hitting just 68.4 percent. But when she missed eight of 13 free throws in a 65-64 loss to defending national champion Connecticut in November 2010, Griner basically willed herself to become better from the line, spending countless hours in the gym. By last year, she was up to 80 percent, knocking down 212 of 265.
"That game up there, that was just horrible," she says. "I really feel like I lost that game for us, and I didn't like that feeling at all. So I had to correct it. I always challenge myself with stuff like that -- stuff that I don't necessarily need to learn, but I just want to learn, like guard drills. I'll go and do guard drills with [assistant coach Damion McKinney]. It can't hurt, and it just helps my game."
Last season, Griner used those guard skills to knock down her first career 3-pointer, and she also finished a coast-to-coast fast break with a floater against Oklahoma State.
"I don't think there are any limits on how good she can be," OSU's Littell says. "And when you have somebody like that, she's not only special, but she makes everybody else around her special. Defensively, they can really cheat and get on the high side and deny things, because they know they've got the big one waiting back at the hole."
What makes her even more special is that Griner still doesn't understand how good she is. In her eyes, she will never live up to all the hype.
"She brings her work pail every day," Mulkey says. "A kid that talented could take days off, she could dog it in practice, but she never does. I tell people all the time, when I'm done coaching her, I won't even talk about the national championship, the dunks, the blocks. I will talk about that kid's work ethic. She has a sensitive side that wants to please me. She doesn't ever want to disappoint me."
Griner disappointed Team USA coach Geno Auriemma when she opted out of the Olympics this summer to focus on summer school classes and and to be near her mother, who was dealing with some health issues. But at 22 years old, her feeling is, "My time is coming."
"She brings an element to the game that is impossible to find," Auriemma says of Griner's shot-blocking ability. "You just don't get players who are game-changers like that. I don't think anybody else in the world has anybody like that."
Before she ever got to the Baylor campus, there was the thought that Griner would change this game forever. But Mulkey gives a dissenting vote.
"Unless we as a country continue to produce players like her," Mulkey says, "I don't know if you'll ever see another one like her. You may see tall players like her, but I don't know if they'll have the athleticism, the leaping ability... I don't know if you'll ever see one like Brittney Griner again. I've coached and played with some of the best to ever play the game, but they didn't dominate on the defensive end with the shot-blocking and their presence."
On pace to earn her Baylor degree in May, Griner will almost assuredly go to the Phoenix Mercury with the No. 1 pick in next year's WNBA Draft. (In fact, Griner's popularity may have helped prompt ESPN's decision to air the draft live in primetime for the first time in league history this coming April.) But before this free spirit spreads her wings and flies off, she wants to put Baylor in an elite class of back-to-back national champions.
"I really can't explain the feeling, but it was awesome," she says of last April's championship. "I want another one. I'm not satisfied. If I win one, I want two. If I win two, I want three. You just want to keep doing it."
- Consensus 2012 National Player of the Year
(Wade, Naismith, Wooden, AP, USBWA, ESPN.com)
- Consensus 2012 Female College Athlete of the Year (Honda Cup, ESPY)
- 2012 ESPY for Best Female Athlete
- 2012 U.S. Olympic Team finalist
- Two-time AP All-America first team (2011-12)
- Two-time WBCA Defensive Player of the Year (2011-12)
- Two-time Big 12 Player of the Year (2011-12)
- Three-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year (2010-11-12)
- Three-time All-Big 12 first team (2010-11-12)
- Three-time All-Big 12 defensive team (2010-11-12)
- Preseason 2012-13 AP All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year
- First NCAA player (men's or women's) with 2,000 career points and 500 career blocks
- 2 NCAA records (career dunks, single-season blocks)
- 9 Big 12 records (career blocks and blocks per game; single-season points, blocks, blocks per game, triple-doubles, field goals made and free throws made; and single-game blocks)
- 14 Baylor records (career scoring average*, blocks, shooting percentage, free throws made, and triple-doubles; single-season points*, scoring average*, field goals made*, free throws made*, rebounds* and blocks; single-game blocks, field goals made and free throw percentage)
What could happen this year:
- Needs 969 points** to set NCAA career scoring record
(she scored 929 last year)
- Needs 64 blocks** to set NCAA career blocks record
(she blocked 206 last year)
- Needs 575 points** to become 8th player ever with 3,000 career points
**as of the start of the season