Can Baylor's Brittney Griner possibly get more intense?
Those words wander through the well-lit hallway in the catacombs of Baylor University's basketball arena, carried on a Texas drawl. A few seconds later, in strides Baylor sophomore center Brittney Griner, a.k.a. BG, a.k.a. Big Girl. At first, all you see is a long, narrow expanse of dark sweat clothes topped by a mischievous smile framed by dreadlocks, and shod with, well, nothing. "Bet you never seen a 6'8" girl barefoot before."
She extends her arm for a handshake, and it keeps extending, ending in long, strong fingers that can easily palm a basketball. It's a hand made for dunking, which she did twice in a game last season, tying an unofficial NCAA women's record. It's a hand made for blocking shots, which she did 223 times, shattering the previous official NCAA women's record of 164. And it's a hand that became infamous in a game against Texas Tech last March, when Griner used it to punch Tech's Jordan Barncastle, setting off a noisy debate about gender roles, sports violence, athletes' looks -- even Big 12 basketball.
BIG GIRL DROPS her mammoth, size-17 sneakers and a satchel of gear on the floor, settles her oversize frame into a regular-size folding chair and starts talking like she's known you for years. In just her second year of college, Griner, 20, is already a familiar figure in the game. Ever since she started playing as a 6'1" ninth-grader, she's been turning heads. "Brittney walked into the gym, and my first thought was, Wow, she's tall," says Baylor guard Kelli Griffin, who played AAU ball with Griner in their hometown of Houston. Her second thought: I'm going to have a lot more assists.
When Griner was a 6'5" high school sophomore, a clip of her jamming in practice hit the Internet, and Big Girl became a viral-video legend. "My name changed to YouTube Girl," Griner says. As a college freshman, she electrified the women's game with possibility and controversy in equal measure. Her presence in the middle led a frosh-filled Baylor squad to the Big 12 quarterfinals and a run to the Final Four, during which the Bears upset Tennessee before losing to UConn in the NCAA semis. But that fabulous season was indelibly marred by the punch, which left Barncastle with a broken nose and Big Girl with a fractured reputation.
Yet those highlights and that one crushing low point reveal a common thread. There's never been anybody in the women's game like Griner. "I didn't see Wilt Chamberlain play," says Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, "but I've heard he was that kind of -- what's the word? -- revolutionary. I'm talking about her body, her structure, her ability to play above the rim. We've never seen the likes of her before." Indeed, Griner has played the game for only five years and is already on the short list of the sport's greatest shotblockers. "She brings to the women's game the possibility of goaltending," says Carolyn Peck, an ESPN analyst and former college and pro coach.
And to think the revolution almost didn't happen. Griner's father, Raymond, a Vietnam vet and retired law-enforcement officer in Houston, never pushed his daughter into basketball. Instead, he allowed the game to find her. Big Girl played soccer, which helped her develop her footwork. She played volleyball, which improved her hops. Only after taking up hoops at Nimitz High School did her potential become obvious. And only then did her dad help her refine it. Playing on concrete was out -- too hard on the knees. Practicing with the boys at Nimitz High? That was a no-brainer. "The boys showed her how to dunk," Raymond says. "They always treated her with respect." Perhaps a bit too much at first. "They weren't going hard," Brittney says, "so I would go set a screen and, like, lay a boy out. Then they were like, 'Forget it, you're a hooper on the court.' "
Her freshman line confirms the appraisal. Griner averaged 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.4 blocks per game, and that was on a loaded Bears squad. She runs the floor like a guard, dunks like a center -- and in a manner (alley-oops, reverses, 360s) unseen in the women's game. "She's in a class by herself in this generation of players," says Peck. "Offensively, when she matures into her coordination, how will anyone stop her?" Griner downplays any sense of the history surrounding her. "I always say I don't want to change the game," she offers, "just add to it."
But like any revolutionary, Griner is poised to overthrow the established order. Connecticut has won 78 straight games and two consecutive national titles. But between losing Tina Charles -- national Player of the Year last season -- to graduation and having Baylor and Stanford on the early-season schedule, even Huskies coach Geno Auriemma predicts their unbeaten streak will end soon. And if it's at the hands of the Bears, it will be because of Baylor's BG. Along with that will come another round of attention. Which is fine with her. "I love being big," she says. "I just like being different."
That's the side of her personality Griner is hoping people see. Ask her a simple question, and it can result in a one-woman show, with Griner playing different characters and using multiple voices -- from an angry high school principal to the women from The View. Last season Griner devoured a plate of bacon and then scored 27 points, had 10 blocks and hauled in seven rebounds during Baylor's Sweet 16 upset of top-seeded Tennessee. After the game, her coach decreed that bacon should be at the ready before every contest. But at the Final Four, a misinformed reporter assumed that Griner loved baking. With her voice rising like a morning talk show host, Griner imitates her interrogator, "So, what do you like to bake?" she says. "No. No. No. I said bacon, not bakin'. I like pork. I was talking about pig."
"She's like that. All. The. Time," says Shanay Washington, the Bears' talented wing player who spends downtime with Griner watching Phineas and Ferb and SpongeBob SquarePants, playing her in Modern Warfare on Xbox and talking her out of ideas like joining the lacrosse team. "She's just a big goofball," adds Griffin. On cue, 10 feet away, Griner twists her practice jersey into a tight whip and snaps it -- thwack! -- onto the backside of an unsuspecting Washington. Griffin just shakes her head.
SO HOW DOES that bacon-loving, cartoon-watching, jersey-thwacking Brittney Griner square with the Brittney Griner seen in more than a million YouTube hits? After all, "goofball" was not the word on the lips of anyone who saw Griner and her infamous punch.
The two games last year between Baylor and Texas Tech were exceptionally physical, even for a traditionally rugged rivalry. All year long, Peck says, fans had been "ruthless and relentless" in heckling Griner, and BG was constantly pounded in the post, often with double and triple teams. "As a human being you can take only so much," Peck says.
When Barncastle, who got tangled in the post with Griner, nearly threw her to the floor, something in Big Girl snapped. Griner's roundhouse right, like the power of her dunks, was new in the world of big-time women's hoops, and Mulkey understood its import immediately. After the game, the coach sought out a Tech athletic administrator, Red Raiders coach Kristy Curry and Barncastle, apologizing to all of them. "When my player is wrong," she says, "I acknowledge it." So did Griner, who served a two-game suspension (the NCAA told her to sit for one and then Baylor added a second) and has since repeated her public mea culpas, often saying, "The game was heated, and I got caught up in it" and "I was wrong. I feel like I let down a lot of people."
Griner hasn't spoken to Barncastle since the punch, and the Tech player, who is returning in fine health for her junior season, says she has "moved on" from the incident. The debate on the web, though, has lingered for months. And much of the chatter has strayed from the incident, deteriorating into ugly fan insults about Griner's appearance, intellect and morals. "People tell me to not go on the chat boards, don't read what people say. But I'm curious," Griner says. The result? "I have seen some horrible stuff said about me."
Mulkey says such talk has long bedeviled women's sports. "That's society," she says. "It's a sick part of society. But if she were playing on their team, those same fans would love her just like we love her."
There's probably another double standard at work, one involving gender stereotypes. When the Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony got into a scrap with the Knicks four years ago, he was fined and suspended by the league for his actions. But Melo took more heat from the online community for running away after the swing than for the swing itself. And it's never the first thing that comes up when discussing his career.
But Griner is unique, not just for the altercation, and her potential, but for her unisex game and androgynous carriage. The latter has been celebrated as a new form of female beauty in the Style section of The New York Times but derided by others. "I had somebody say to me, 'You should play more ladylike,' " Griner says, her voice becoming soft. "This is basketball. I'm supposed to go out there and, 'Oh, I broke my nail,' or 'Oh, you hit me'?"
She feels no need to change. "I have never been uncomfortable being who I am." And she's quite at ease on the court. "I'll keep playing 'til the doctor tells me I can't play," she says. "I'm going to be Brett Favre: 'Yeah, I'm retiring ... Naah, I'm coming back!' "
Until then, Griner will focus on beating UConn, winning a national title and revolutionizing the game. Or at least adding to it. Anybody who knows her says she can handle it.
Big Girl's ready.
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ESPN The Magazine: November 15, 2010
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