<
>

How Brittney Griner Acts Is More Important Than How She Plays

Phoenix center Brittney Griner is scheduled to play her first game this WNBA season on Saturday at Minnesota. To say the least, it's been a difficult past two months for Griner, and returning to the court will be a relief for her.

She'll probably be received pretty well by WNBA fans. Certainly, she'll be heartily welcomed back by Mercury fans, who took to Griner instantly when she was drafted No. 1 in 2013.

But how is Griner seen by sports observers in general? There's a wide range of opinions, and that's no surprise. It's usually that way with Griner.

There are those who think her WNBA-imposed, seven-game suspension was too light for an April 22 domestic violence incident with then-fiancée Glory Johnson of the Tulsa Shock. Others say Griner has shown that she accepts her responsibility for what happened and that WNBA president Laurel Richie's suspension decision was fair.

It's important to remember Griner is not a victim of circumstance. She missed the start of this season because of poor decision-making -- some hers, some in tandem with Johnson. Learning how to avoid similar mistakes is why Griner is taking part in a diversion program -- she pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct -- and is in counseling.

Griner knew with Phoenix veteran star Diana Taurasi out this season -- that was announced in February -- the Mercury would need her all the more. Yet a month and a half before WNBA play started, Griner's life spiraled into a sideshow that included this suspension. It's time away from the Mercury for which her teammates have had to cover. They've done that pretty well, and are at 3-4 going into Saturday's game at Minnesota.

Certainly, neither Griner nor Johnson intended to have a dispute that escalated into something that resulted in police intervention. But it happened. Then Griner and Johnson married May 8, a decision Griner called a mistake less than a month later when she filed for an annulment -- the day after Johnson announced she was pregnant.

This clearly has been emotionally difficult for both Griner and Johnson, but let's be frank: Their relationship took on the air of TMZ-level absurdity with a marriage that was essentially over before it started.

I'm not absolving Johnson for her part in what happened with their relationship, but it also must be noted the charges against her for the April 22 incident were dropped.

And I'm not writing this column simply to scold Griner, or chide her for things that are no doubt embarrassing and painful. But part of being in the public eye, of being what Griner says she wants to be -- a role model -- means that your behavior on and off the court gets scrutinized. Owning poor choices should be part of Griner's growth, and she has indicated that she does own hers.

I've covered Griner's career since her freshman season at Baylor, and that included some very high moments, such as the 40-0 national championship season in 2011-12, and some very low points, including "the punch" against Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle in 2010 and the NCAA regional semifinal loss to Louisville that ended Griner's college career in 2013.

I've seen all the horrible, disgusting comments that are virtually always made by pathetic jerks on every story about Griner. I know she's heard those kinds of vile things from spectators and opposing players. I'm empathetic about what Griner has experienced.

Simply by being herself, she challenges some people's rigid gender stereotypes. She wears clothing in which she looks natural and comfortable. She doesn't try to conform to what would be totally inauthentic and flat-out wrong for her. All of that has taken courage, and it inspires others.

She typically is funny, personable and outgoing with fans and media. Her teammates have always seemed to like her, in college and in the WNBA.

But, I've often heard those who seem to know her best say that Griner is "just a big kid." And that personality trait can have a dual edge. It's one thing to be a "kid" who likes being goofy around teammates, riding skateboards and hamming it up in photos with fans. It's another thing to behave in immature ways that hurt yourself, other people and your team.

Griner has the talent to be one of the greatest players in the history of her sport. Even at just 24, she already has an eventful life story that's been about overcoming prejudices and sadistic taunts and trying to deal rationally with abject cruelty no matter how wounded she has felt inside.

However, Griner has two incidents of physical violence attached to her, with the in-game punch five years ago and the in-home fight two months ago. She doesn't have to pay perpetual penance for those things, but they also can't be undone.

Griner has been, and can continue to be, an ambassador for basketball and for LGBT awareness and acceptance. But that requires a full recognition that her decisions and actions don't affect just her but also the things she is associated with and cares about deeply.

As she steps back onto the basketball court, many will be rooting for her to quickly reclaim her place as one of the WNBA's best and most exciting players to watch. Knowing Griner, I expect that she will play very well. But it's the work she's doing away from basketball -- about really understanding herself and how to avoid repeating past mistakes -- that is far more important now than how she plays.