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Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Updated: March 30, 7:40 PM ET
Why slam Brittney Griner for dunking?

By Ramona Shelburne

They teach you early on in this business that if what you write gets a response, you're doing something right.

Still, it caught me by surprise when I clicked through the first pages of comments on the various stories we've published about Baylor center Brittney Griner's pair of dunks in the NCAA tournament.

For all of the positive comments, there were just as many vitriol-filled responses. Was there something different about Griner's dunks from those of Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie or Michelle Snow? What struck the particularly virulent chord?

Because this was a different negative reaction from the one articulated by Jason Whitlock back when Parker won the dunk contest at the McDonald's All-American Game in 2004.

Candace Parker
When Candace Parker dunked early in her career, some complained that it detracted from the focus on her all-around excellence.

This time around, the reaction wasn't about whether dunking highlighted the weakest part of the women's game; or the idea that Parker should be celebrated for her superb all-around game rather than for her dunks; or even whether Parker's dunks qualified as dunks because they weren't always clean.

No, this was something different. Whatever it was about Griner's dunks, it was enough to make folks uncomfortable and uncomfortable enough to get nasty. To understand what is going on, we asked those who would know best: Leslie; USC coach Michael Cooper, who coached both Leslie and Parker with the Los Angeles Sparks; Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma; and Sparks forward Nicky Anosike, who also played with Parker at Tennessee.

Their responses are surprising, blunt and sincere. Several common themes appear. But in the end, maybe the truest conclusion is the same one we opened this story with: If you're getting a response, you're doing something right.

Is anything ever going to be enough?

Leslie began dunking in high school when rain in Southern California forced her to practice her approach to the high jump indoors. In her recollection of that day at Morningside High in Inglewood, she just kind of did it and everyone in the gym went nuts.

First she dunked a golf ball, then a volleyball and, finally, a basketball.

"For me, it was just for show," she said. "People got excited about it so then I started dunking at every pep rally. I was actually in a dunk contest in high school. Took second place.

"It was really just for the entertainment value of it because it really didn't translate into my game. Like I'd dunk in practice or warm-ups, but once the game started it never really entered my mind."

The one time she changed up her approach, with the Sparks in the inaugural WNBA game against the New York Liberty in 1997, it didn't work out so well. Tired from all the hoopla surrounding the game, her legs were gone. She didn't just miss, she clanked it off the front of the rim and almost hurt her back on the way down.

Lisa Leslie
Lisa Leslie threw down the first dunk in WNBA history in 2002.

"I'm glad I went for it," she said. "But I wish I would've made it because that was like the moment that could've, I don't know, brought more people in. But we really had done so much in that one day, we were completely drained that game. I had no legs."

By 2002, she had set her mind on getting one down in a game again. It's hard to say why she did it or why it became important, just that it was. And when Leslie slammed home the first dunk in WNBA history against the Miami Sol on July 30, 2002, it felt like a watershed moment for the league and the sport.

For about five minutes.

"The dunk brought with it a burning question: When are you going to do it again?" she wrote in her autobiography, "Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You." "The ball had barely dropped through the net, but I could not escape the question.

"People also speculated about what the dunk might mean for the future of women's basketball. Would there be more interest? Would there be more respect? Those questions were not easily answered. Even after the dunk, it seemed like women still had to do so much to feel validated on the court. And the dunk did little to quiet the talk about the difference between men's and women's style of play. It is an ongoing battle."

Leslie is busy these days promoting her youth academy, working for the Sparks and serving as a color analyst on NBA games in Los Angeles. But it didn't take long for her to hear about Griner's dunks.

"I love to see the women's game evolving to where more women are able to dunk and Brittney Griner is able to drop-step and dunk and dunk with two hands," she said. "It's great for the game, and it gets people excited to watch."

She's not surprised, however, that the reaction to Griner's dunks has been mixed.

"People are never really satisfied," she said. "I dunked and people said it was just one-handed. Now Brittney's dunked two-handed and people are like, 'Oh, there's only one person who can do that.'

"I don't think any of us can ever live up to the expectations or things naysayers throw at us."

Making it look easy makes other things difficult

Anosike was 11 years old when Leslie missed that dunk against the Liberty in 1997, but she remembers it well and thinks that incident offers some clues as to why Griner's dunks have elicited such a different reaction.

"I remember watching the first game ever of the WNBA and Lisa goes up for a dunk and she totally got stopped by the rim," Anosike said, "and I think it kind of made people more comfortable in a way because it's like, 'Yeah, yeah, she's a woman, she's not supposed to be able to dunk anyway.'

Cooper The reason why some guys look at [women dunking] like it's no big deal is because they can't do it. If a woman can do something better than a guy, he's not going to make a big deal out of it because that's something he can't do.

-- USC coach Michael Cooper

"I think when women kind of struggle to dunk, it's a little more comfortable for people. But when you have Brittney who is doing one drop-step and then dunking, it's different," she said.

"The rest of the women they kind of need space to dunk. A fast break or something. But with Brittney's dunk, there were people right under the basket. She's not struggling at all to dunk. It kind of takes that whole struggle out of it and I think it makes people come to terms with the idea that there aren't going to be too many differences between the men's and the women's game anymore."

Is Griner making it look too easy? Maybe, following her example, there could be a day when women dunk with ease and it won't elicit a reaction.

Cooper, who has had the rare distinction of coaching both Leslie and Parker in their primes, said he thinks that Griner's dunks are rocking the boat a bit because dunking, and doing it consistently and easily, is one of the last things most men can do that women can't.

"The reason why some guys look at [women dunking] like it's no big deal is because they can't do it," he said. "If a woman can do something better than a guy, he's not going to make a big deal out of it because that's something he can't do.

"I've asked some of my friends, just average dudes, 'How come you guys don't come to a women's game,' and they'll say, 'One: They miss too many easy layups and as a weekend warrior, I can make a layup so why am I going to go watch somebody that can't make a layup. Two is that they can't dunk.'

"I think it's a little like why Spud Webb was such a 'wow' factor when he dunked. If we ever had a woman at 5-3, 5-4 that could go up there and dunk, that would shut a lot of these guys up."

Is Griner hitting a little too close to home? She's making people think things really might be changing; in five or 10 years, there could be 10 or 20 women dunking with ease.

"Oh, things have definitely changed," Cooper said. "I wouldn't be surprised if in five years you see a 6-8 player, who can play, on every team in the country. We're recruiting a player who is 6-8 right now. Stanford has got a young lady who is 6-7.

"You're going to see that now. Brittney is part of the new stage in women's basketball players who are coming on now."

From Georgeann to Brittney and what's next

The first dunk in women's college basketball history came on Dec. 21, 1984. A crowd of about 100 people watched as West Virginia's Georgeann Wells threw down a one-handed dunk against Charleston.

Wells had been practicing for years. Every day after practice West Virginia's coaches made her work on dunking. It took a year and a half for her to get the timing down and another year for the right moment to arise in a game for her to try one.

News of her dunk immediately went viral in the college basketball world, but because the only tape of the game was in the hands of the opposing coach, Bud Francis, who essentially took it to his grave, it didn't receive much lasting publicity or spark much debate. If anything, without video evidence -- which finally surfaced in 2009 -- Wells' dunk became something of a legend.

Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner's dunks in the NCAA tournament are eliminating the final barrier between the women's and men's games, and that has some people awfully uncomfortable.

What does this have to do with Griner?

Let's pretend things were different back in 1984. That Bud Francis turned over the tape and it was played on every national news show. That girls growing up with the game now had Wells' dunk to admire and shoot for instead of just Cheryl Miller's sublime all-around game.

The mid-1980s were a golden era for women's basketball. All-time greats like Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Kim Mulkey, Teresa Edwards and Janice Lawrence ruled the college game. Pat Summitt was just getting started on her run of national championships at Tennessee.

The players who grew up watching them became the stars of the 1990s, players like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. And the players who grew up watching the stars of the 1990s became the stars of the 2000s, players like Michelle Snow, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi and Nicky Anosike.

By the time Griner came of age, she'd had two generations of dunkers to model herself after. Not surprisingly, when YouTube videos of her began surfacing in high school and she hit the national stage, she named Parker as her favorite player.

Compare that to Leslie, who just dunked for fun one rainy afternoon.

"Just think, I've got my [4-year-old] daughter, Lauren, dunking on a small rim at home now," Leslie joked. "So now when she's old enough, she'll go dunk the ball because she's grown up with seeing it and knowing how to do it."

When will we stop saying, 'Wow'?

Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph probably had the best reason to take exception to Griner's dunk. Not personally, of course. But her team was on the receiving end of Griner's two-handed jam on Saturday.

Heck, Bud Francis was so competitive, he wouldn't even acknowledge he had the tape of his team getting dunked on, allowing it to sit for 35 years before his son finally found it in a basket of his old things after his father died.

Joseph, though, can see the bigger picture, even if it makes others uncomfortable.

"Great for the game," she said of Griner. "I think it's awesome to see. I don't blame her. … I would never want to see a player limit themselves. She's elevated our game."

Auriemma took it one step further.

"I just think it's probably still a novelty in the women's game that everybody feels 'Oooh, wow.' But I think the kid expects more of herself, and I admire her for that," said Auriemma, who coached Griner with USA Basketball last fall. "I think she sees herself as someone more than just that, so I think maybe we should all get to that point."

It's a concept we've heard before, and yet it feels different this time around. This isn't a call for people to celebrate Griner's all-around game or work ethic and stop talking about her dunks.

This is a suggestion that maybe women dunking isn't going to be a big deal for that much longer.

"I don't know why it's a big deal. She didn't seem to think it's a big deal," Auriemma said. "It's almost like everybody around her is making it a bigger deal than she is.

"Maybe at some point, if it happens a little more often, the novelty will wear off. But when I was with her in September [with Team USA], I encouraged her to just be aggressive, and if that's what it led to every day in practice, every drill, everything we did, God bless you; go ahead and do it. But nobody got that excited about it over there, from the team standpoint."

In Cooper's mind, that day isn't far away. A decade ago he saw Leslie more than hold her own with male players during summer pickup games at UCLA. "As long as they just played the game, if they didn't bump her and hit on her too much, she was wearing them out," Cooper said. "She could score on anybody up there."

Now, more Griners are on the way. And you have to wonder: how much longer will dunking be a big deal in the women's game? How many more times will we say, "Wow"?

A few more years, I suspect. So I advise you to stay away from the comments section a little while longer. But it's probably not that far away, which is why Griner has been making so many folks so uncomfortable.

espnW's Mechelle Voepel and Graham Hays contributed to this report.