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Owning The Middle

Brittney Griner wears bow ties, dates women and dunks with abandon. Call her names if you like -- she is done hiding from haters.

Brittney Griner wants to know if anyone will recognize her.

The world's most famous female basketball player tucks her dreadlocks into a gray hoodie, slides on bright yellow sunglasses and hunches her shoulders, trying to knock an inch or two off her 6-foot-8 frame. "If you didn't already know it was me, would you know it was me?" she asks, laughing. She ducks out of the Yankee Stadium press box, hoping to make it to a concession stand for chicken fingers and crinkle fries without stopping to sign autographs or take photos.

Photo Gallery: Brittney Griner

ESPN The Magazine takes you behind the scenes of its cover shoot with Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner. Cass Bird for ESPN The Magazine

The disguise does the trick. Dozens of people crane their necks, but nobody shouts her name or approaches. Food in hand, Griner walks to Section 226, slips into her aisle seat overlooking the third-base line and dunks a chicken strip into barbecue sauce. "I think this hoodie thing worked," she says, nodding happily. "Maybe I'll try it again."

One night earlier, on April 15, the Phoenix Mercury made the 22-year-old center from Baylor the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, generating a new wave of attention for a player who already was turning heads. On the court, Griner brings a blend of size and skill not seen before in the women's game. Off it, she has taken the unprecedented step of coming out publicly at the start of her pro career, allowing her to build her own brand -- she is the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike -- while influencing the marketing of an entire league.

Hiding in the open is a fun game for Griner now, akin to concealing a giraffe in a meadow. But she gets a far greater thrill from being exactly the person she wants to be for the first time in her life. She has long exuded a gender-bending vibe, yet the player who led her team to a national championship and dunked her way into the highlights was merely a muted version of her true self. Now, the real Griner is appearing as if in Technicolor 3-D, shouting her truth to the rafters.

"I am 100-percent happy," she says. "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."

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espnW & The Magazine: Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner discusses her sexuality, bullying and even has a response for the most creative negative comment she has received on social media.

Social Call

Griner used to keep her Twitter and Instagram accounts private, approving each individual request. But eventually she realized there was no point in policing her own digital space when so many people could say whatever they wanted about her on social media. Now, if someone wants to insult her, so be it. "My followers are the best," she says. "Usually they're on somebody right away, and I'm like, 'No, no, guys, stop -- that's exactly what the troll wants you to do.'"

A few days later, Griner sits in the lounge of the Hotel Palomar in Phoenix, across the street from US Airways Center, where the Mercury play. A 77-foot banner featuring her likeness is draped across the hotel's facade, and when a staff member approaches to offer Griner a glass of water, he practically bows as he shares how excited he is about her arrival. She tells the man she likes his bow tie -- she owns several herself -- and he smiles and adjusts the knot. After he leaves, she picks up her phone, scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, as she does routinely, to see what people are saying about her.

The hits come quickly: "You're disgusting." [Scroll.] "Ur a man." [Scroll.] "What are you? #man? #ape?"

"Here's one," she says, rolling her eyes. "'You have a penis.'" Satisfied that her troll chorus still cares, Griner puts away the phone. "Reading what people say makes me want to be me even more."

The cyber-bullying is just an extension of the face-to-face taunts she dealt with growing up in Houston, the youngest of four kids raised by Ray and Sandra Griner. At home, Brittney was into everything: riding her go-kart; watching military shows with her dad, a Vietnam vet; sewing with her mom; chasing squirrels in the woods surrounding her home. But at school, nothing felt right. By sixth grade, she was gangly and long and feisty, and although she was too big to be backed into a corner or stuffed into a locker, her classmates found other ways to torment her. Every incident was a variation on a theme. A girl would come up and grope at her flat chest, calling to the other kids: "See? Nothing!" Then the instigator would turn to Brittney and say those familiar words: "What are you?" Humiliation would morph into anger, and Griner would push the girl.

EnlargeBrittney Griner

As a kid growing up in Houston, Brittney Griner never stayed in one spot for very long. Courtesy of Brittney Griner

When her teachers and parents asked what had happened, she mumbled answers that meant nothing. How could she verbalize what they were calling her? A lesbian, a dude, a freak, a thing? It was easier to accept the blame and the reputation for fighting that came with it. She was trying desperately to fit in, dressing like the other girls, dating boys, but she was a collage of mismatched pieces, built from images she thought others wanted to see.

Her parents, brother and two sisters had no idea of her pain. Her father worked in the Harris County Sheriff's Office, and over the years he had brought home stuffed animals he won while patrolling carnivals; Brittney's room was filled with fluffy bunnies and bears that absorbed her tears. What is wrong with me? Why am I here? Her mind wandered to dark places where she didn't exist at all. She would hold the thought just long enough to consider the consequences: What point is suicide if I hurt my family, too?

She decided instead to find her place in the world. One day in middle school, she sat at the family computer, her fingers hovering over the keyboard as she glanced around to make sure she was alone. Then she typed the words "gay and lesbian" and watched as thousands of links flooded the screen. She clicked through the pages. "This is me," she realized. "This is who I am."

But sexual orientation was only part of the equation. Griner yearned to express herself differently, and she latched onto one concept in particular: the "stud" lesbian, one who has a more dominant personality and more traditionally masculine appearance. She discovered there were others like her, a community of people who eschew strict gender roles. As her self-discovery continued, she told herself that, come high school, she would stop pretending.

'Dress Identity'

When Griner goes shopping, she often looks for clothes in the men's section. People will say, "Hey, you're in the wrong place." But as she explains, "It's what I feel comfortable in. It's my dress identity." She tells a story from when she was younger: "I remember my mom doing my laundry, and my dad being like, 'Whose boxers are these?' And I said, 'They're mine' [raises hand slowly]. I've always been totally out there -- just on a limb."

In the fall of 2005, the six-foot Griner showed up at Nimitz High wearing men's sneakers, oversize jeans and a baggy shirt, trying the stud label on for size. Her friends looked her up and down and said, "All right, B, we see you," putting her at ease. She also took up basketball that year, making the jump from volleyball, then grew six more inches before her sophomore season. The taunts didn't stop -- when she entered a gym, guys would yell, "Yo, you can untuck now!" -- but Griner felt reborn. "I decided to just put myself out there," she says. "When I'm in a dress, it's like, 'What am I doing in this?' I feel trapped, like I'm in shackles and handcuffs and a straitjacket. So I was just like, F--- it, I'm going to wear what I want. I caught hell for it, but it felt so good being myself."

Life didn't necessarily get easier; Griner just got stronger. She came out to her parents her freshman year, prompting Ray to announce, "I ain't raising no gay girl." The former Marine set the house rules, and he forbade Brittney from inviting friends -- male or female -- over to hang out. Brittney and Ray clashed often, both too stubborn for their own good. By the time she was a senior, the self-described daddy's girl was done with Ray's idea of normal, so she moved out and stayed with the Nimitz junior varsity basketball coach.

Through it all, Brittney leaned heavily on her mother, Sandra, who cared only that her baby was happy, even if that meant letting her live under another roof. Brittney's siblings were supportive, too. "It ain't no thang," her brother, DeCarlo, joked when she came out to him. "We've known since you were in diapers." Even Ray came around eventually, once Brittney started playing for Baylor and he saw that her sexuality wasn't holding her back. "It was a process," she says. "I think some of why it's gotten better is because I've done so well with ball."

Today, Ray texts regularly with his daughter's girlfriend of six months. "Brittney wants people to accept her for who she is," he says. "I get that now."

While walking on campus one day during her first semester of college, Griner stopped another student to ask, "Do you know where the LGBT center is?" The woman tilted her head. "The what? [Long pause.] Um, no, no, we don't have one of those here."

Belief System

Although Griner doesn't consider herself religious in the traditional sense, she says she believes in "a higher being, a God." People have told her she is going to hell because of her sexuality. "They say I'm wrong and crazy for not thinking it's a sin," she says. "But I don't think God messes up. He created me, and I've been feeling this way from the jump -- ever since I can remember."

Griner, the nation's top recruit, had chosen Baylor, a private Baptist
university in Waco, Texas, because it was three hours from Houston. She and her parents say they knew nothing of the school's policy against homosexuality or of coach Kim Mulkey's code of silence on the matter. Griner says she came out to Mulkey during the recruiting process: "I was like, 'I'm gay; I hope that's not a problem.' And she told me that it wasn't." But within her first few weeks at Baylor, Griner was asked by a school official to delete a tweet to an ex-girlfriend. Soon enough, she found herself living in a glass closet.

It was easy to see Griner was the future of women's basketball -- as a freshman, she set an NCAA record with 223 blocked shots -- and anyone paying attention in Waco also knew she was gay. She often brought her then-girlfriend to team functions, even with reporters around. After a game early in her career, a booster approached Griner's girlfriend and asked, "Is Brittney happy here? What can we do to make her happy?" But Griner says she never explicitly asked Mulkey whether she could come out publicly. "I already knew the answer," she says. "I didn't want to hear 'No.' It was a recruiting thing. The coaches thought if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn't let their kids play for Baylor."

Fear Factor?

Women's college basketball has long operated in the quicksand of fear. The thinking often goes that if parents of a recruit can detect even a hint of gayness around a program (say, an unmarried female head coach), they'll point their daughter in another direction. There is only one openly gay woman running a Division I program, Portland State coach Sherri Murrell. (Indiana's Curt Miller is also gay.) Two years ago, Kate Fagan and Luke Cyphers explored the topic in an ESPN The Magazine story, "Unhealthy Climate."

The hypocrisy frustrated Griner. If her sexuality was such an open secret, why couldn't she talk about it openly? In her sophomore season, she got a tattoo of two skulls -- one happy, one sad -- on the lower right side of her back, as a reminder to "laugh now, cry later." She would get other tats, so many, in fact, that Mulkey required her to wear a long-sleeved T-shirt under her jersey. "Brittney couldn't show those tattoos or talk openly because it was Baylor," says Brooklyn Pope, Griner's former teammate. "It would have been frowned upon." (Pope caught heat from the coaches after she made a video of herself rapping and shared it online.) Jordan Madden, another former teammate, says Griner wasn't the only gay player on the team: "There were others. Kim always said all of it would look bad for recruiting."

Griner didn't do herself any favors when she punched Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle after the two tangled in the post during Griner's freshman season. Although she finished her career as the second-leading scorer in Division I women's basketball history and the leader in blocks, she says she didn't play as physically as she could have because she didn't want any more incidents: "People would have said, 'There she goes again, fighting.' But the refs let people run up in my face, screaming."

EnlargeBrittney Griner

Coach Kim Mulkey, left, and Brittney Griner helped lead Baylor to a national title and undefeated season (40-0) in 2012. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Sandra Griner says her daughter considered leaving school multiple times early in her career. Making matters worse, Sandra was diagnosed with lupus during Brittney's freshman season and now often uses a wheelchair. Brittney pulled herself out of consideration for the 2012 Olympic team to spend time with her mother; she was also exhausted from Baylor's record-setting 40-0 season, and she didn't want to miss summer classes. But those reasons didn't satisfy critics online who accused her of trying to avoid gender testing. "I read all of that garbage," Griner says, pointing out that she has already played for USA Basketball and intends to suit up for the 2016 Games.

"I'm not going to lie; there were difficult times for Brittney at Baylor," Sandra says. "I'm just so glad we're in that next phase now."

Ray Griner is more blunt. He says his daughter hasn't heard from Mulkey since Baylor's shocking loss to Louisville in this year's NCAA tournament. "It's about dollar signs," Ray says. "There's nothing in it for Kim anymore, so she's done with Brittney."

Mulkey was once viewed as a fierce defender of Griner. At a news conference during the 2012 Final Four, a reporter asked the coach about the insults Griner receives on social media, and Mulkey delivered a passionate response. "This is someone's child," she said. "This is a human being, people." Griner says she appreciated the gesture, but she couldn't help feeling that Mulkey was only defending part of her. "If you're up here protecting me, then protect all of me," she says. "We can talk about gender, but we can't talk about the fact that I'm a lesbian?"

Although Mulkey declined an interview for this story, she issued a statement through a spokesperson: "Brittney Griner represented Baylor University proudly on and off the basketball court, and she leaves behind an incredible legacy. I cannot comment on personal matters surrounding any of our student-athletes, but I can tell you Brittney will always be a celebrated member of the Baylor family."

Sweet Tooth

In addition to video games, Griner also loves candy. She often carries around Skittles, and she recently received an over-the-shoulder sack from Mars Inc., Skittles' parent company, filled with nearly 100 bags of the rainbow-colored candy. She also has a weakness for fast food. "Her eating habits are suspect," Griner's good friend Julio Trejo says with a laugh. The Mercury might need to introduce her to vegetables.

Griner's two best friends at Baylor were Julio Trejo and Nash Ingram, two guys who let her do her own thing on a campus where that wasn't always easy. The trio still skateboard together, play "Call of Duty" and root for the Miami Heat. "Brittney had a role to play at Baylor," Trejo says. "Now she is getting to be herself." When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said in April that he would consider drafting Griner, Trejo received a news alert on his phone and immediately sent her a screen shot. Later, Griner and Trejo stared, mouths agape, at a direct message from Cuban saying he would love to have her try out for the Mavs. Griner says she would take the challenge -- why not? -- but her focus this summer is on the WNBA.

"Since I left Baylor, I haven't done anything that's not truly me," she says. "And that's risky. Even being openly gay is taking a risk. People are either going to understand or they'll be like, 'Hell no, we're not accepting that.'"

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Brittney Griner was the No. 1 overall pick for the Phoenix Mercury in April's WNBA draft. Allen Kee/ESPN Images

Over the past 16 years, the WNBA has tried, ever so gently, to create space for itself in the saturated sports world. Marketing campaigns have cherry-picked players who best seem to represent traditional feminine ideals, but in trying to court mainstream fans, the league has struggled to become culturally relevant in its own niche.

Griner happily embraces what the WNBA has long shied away from: controversy. "It's always been, 'Oh, it's just so nice the girls can play,'" says Mercury president Amber Cox. "We want role models, but we need lightning rods to balance things out. In that sense, Brittney has taken us to the next level. If someone is invoking emotion in people, they care. And apathy has been our biggest enemy."

Griner's arrival coincides with intriguing new research about WNBA fans. League executives admit that their marketing efforts have been schizophrenic at times as they've searched for a common thread among their eclectic audience. Now the research shows a theme: People who support the WNBA have progressive views on gender. "They share the ultimate goal of living in a world where gender equality exists in all its forms," says league president Laurel Richie.

The WNBA has been building toward the emergence of a player who can embody this philosophy, and now here she is with her size 17 sneakers and 88-inch wingspan. "This feels like a magical moment," Richie says. "I think years from now, we'll look back on 2013 as the pivotal year for this league."

Measuring The Market

The WNBA collective bargaining agreement states that any sponsorship deal with an outside apparel company (adidas outfits the league) must be worth a minimum of $5,000. Nike tends to invest big money only in those athletes who move a lot of product, marketable stars such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. The vast majority of Nike athletes -- men and women across sports -- fall outside this realm, earning a nominal fee.

Nike is hoping Griner's marketing clout will transcend the court. The company takes a cookie-cutter approach to signing female ballers, combining a set amount of free gear with a small payment. Sponsorship deals start at $5,000 a year, and only a handful of WNBA players earn more, with $15,000 considered big money. Griner's deal is within this range; what makes it groundbreaking is the freedom. She will wear apparel branded as menswear, including the skateboarding line Nike SB, and she is allowed to pursue nontraditional marketing deals with outside companies. (Griner recently signed a one-year deal to play this winter in hoops-crazed China, where big-name female stars earn about $1 million a season, nearly 10 times the maximum WNBA salary.)

"She can change the way people think," says Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner's agent at Wasserman Media Group. "And her success will mean society is working a little better for everyone."

Androgynous models are coveted in high-end fashion, but the trend toward gender-neutral clothing has only just begun to reach the sports world, with NBA stars Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade blurring the lines in their tight jeans and fitted sweaters. No sports apparel company has taken it a step further and expressly targeted the gender-fluid crowd -- and whether Nike is willing to ride the edge with Griner remains to be seen. "We can't get into specifics," says Nike spokesman Brian Strong, "but it's safe to say we jumped at the opportunity to work with her because she breaks the mold."

Full Of Surprises

Griner, known to friends and teammates as "BG," can be a big goof sometimes, the kind of person who usually tries to lighten the mood -- say, by tapping someone on the left shoulder, then darting around to the right. Yet even her simplest, most spontaneous actions can seem rife with meaning -- say, when she breaks open a bag of Starburst's Flavor Morph candy and grabs a handful. "Here's the key," she says, popping one into her mouth. "The wrapping doesn't match the inside, so you never know what you're getting. It's awesome!"

Griner relishes the chance to show her evolved style, saying she doesn't see herself as a certain "type" anymore. Others might call her a stud, but she's just BG now. "It clicked for me," she says. "I used to do the whole baggy, hard-core, I'm-a-boy look. Then I went through a preppy phase. Now I have the athletic, bow-tie look. I found my style."

And along the way, she found an identity that feels like home. A week before joining the Mercury for training camp, Griner spent eight hours getting the flower tattoo on her left shoulder extended into a sleeve, complete with a hummingbird. "It's to show my girlie side," she says. "So many people exist between the two ends of the spectrum, but no one wants to admit it. If you're in between, they say something is wrong with you. 'We can fix you.' Well, I don't need fixing."

In the years since Griner first sat at her family's computer, looking for answers, the world around her has done some soul-searching of its own. Massachusetts became the first of 12 states to legalize gay marriage; the It Gets Better Project launched; President Barack Obama repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; and in April, of course, NBA center Jason Collins stepped out as the first openly gay male professional athlete in a major sport. Still, although Griner is a hero to some, she knows she will always be a villain to others. She's not afraid to play either role because she has done it all of her life.

On this April afternoon, though, she is simply chilling in the backseat of a van that has been shuttling her between media appearances in Phoenix. As she sips her frozen strawberry lemonade, she scrolls through Google images of pit bulls on her phone. She wants to adopt a dog, which would join her two other pets, Audii and Sage, the albino corn snakes she bought while playing at Baylor.

"Everybody is scared of snakes because they're different," Griner says, lowering the phone. "They're not the expected pet to have in society. But you know why? They're misunderstood. People say they're aggressive, but they're not what people think they are. When I see them, I think of finesse, elegance, grace."

She pauses for a moment.

"You just have to look at it in a different way."


Kate Fagan (@katefagan3) is a columnist for espnW.com.

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