- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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It was hard watching Brittney Griner struggle to keep the smile on her face.
With each breath, it seemed a tiny portion of the joy she came onstage with slowly dissipated, like smoke fleeing the wick of a candle that has recently been blown out. Barely five minutes into the first session of this year's SXSW's sports plenary and one of the most accomplished players in NCAA history is broken.
When I asked her to begin the panel discussion by reading aloud a passage from her autobiography, "In My Skin: My Life on and off the Basketball Court," I had assumed the 22-year-old was over it.
The bullying from middle school.
The teasing from high school.
The ridicule and isolation that can sometime come when who and what society says you are supposed to be are not reflective of who and what you actually are.
Because the Venn diagram our culture etches into the national narrative makes happiness a subset of wealth, from the outside looking in, and we naturally assume professional athletes have it all. Griner has a Nike deal and 77-foot banner of her likeness draped over a building in downtown Phoenix before she took a single WNBA dribble. And yet here we are, in a crowded banquet room of an Austin, Texas, hotel, and the only sounds that can be heard are the occasional creaks a chair makes when the occupant shifts his or her weight -- and the gentle sobs of someone who is supposed to have it all.
They say it's important for kids to express themselves, but from the moment kids start to make choices -- what clothes they want to wear, what toys they want to play with, what activities they want to pursue -- society tries to define them and put them into neat little boxes. Girls are supposed to act this way, boys that way. And any kid who doesn't fit into one of those boxes gets labeled as weird or strange or different.
"I really don't talk about the past that much because it just wasn't good," Griner told me later after she had read the above passage from her book at our panel. "Even when I was writing the book I was reliving that pain all over again.
"There were times when I didn't want to do the book anymore because of all of the pain. But I felt that if I did it, maybe I could help someone else who was in school right now and having a very hard time."
In addition to the book, Griner is launching a smartphone app to help bullied teens and provide resources to school officials who are at a loss as to how to help them.
"The one question I would ask my teachers is, 'Why?'" Griner said, her voice starting to shake. "'Why didn't you do anything to try to stop what was happening to me? Why didn't you do anything to help me or any of the other kids who were being bullied every day?'
"But then I wonder if they even knew how to help. Or even if they understood how important it is that they do help. They might think it's just kids being kids, but really -- it's more. They could save somebody's life."
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, with LGBT youth being four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. It's a statistic that resonates more when familiar faces like Griner's are attached to it. She spends time in the book discussing what she calls "the dark days" and the time in which she imagined what would happen "if I didn't exist anymore."
Only the most callous of hearts could hear such a statement and not be touched. And usually those hearts have Twitter accounts.
Despite rewriting the record books, the names directed at Griner, even still, are as demeaning as the ones that began circulating soon after the "High School Girl Dunks" video clip made her a YouTube curiosity while at Nimitz High School. The ridicule via social media remains as relentless as the insults schoolmates would direct her way in the halls of Teague Middle School. Griner said one of her tormentors walked right up to her in the hallway, rubbed on her chest and then yelled, "See, I told you she was a boy."
The teachers nearby did nothing.
"I remember thinking once I got to college I would finally be free," she said. "And then I get there and I had to stay hidden. My teammates didn't have a problem with me being gay, but the school did. It was crazy."
Whenever an athlete -- be it Griner, the NBA's Jason Collins or NFL draft prospect Michael Sam -- publicly talk about their sexual orientation, inevitably the question "Who cares?" can be heard. And in many ways it is a legitimate response. If someone wants to be judged by their on-the-field performance, then why willingly choose to draw attention to one's private life?
"In My Skin" is Griner's way of answering that. In one passage, she writes: "Being true to myself has often been at odds with my desire to please others. I've spent years trying so hard to be the version of myself that would make the most people happy. Over time, though, I've come to realize that no matter how much I compromise, some people will never understand me. And accepting this truth has given me a new level of comfort and freedom."
And by expressing that comfort and freedom, Griner said she hopes to empower young people who, like her younger self, spent many nights feeling hopeless and alone. This weekend she is the Grand Marshall in the Phoenix Pride parade, and, along with Blake Skjellerup -- an openly gay Olympic speed skater -- will be doing a meet-and-greet at the celebration's youth zone.
"It was important to Phoenix Pride to showcase individuals whom are not only out, but actively using their celebrity to make the world a better place," said Dani Logan, the celebration's program manager.
"One of the hardest parts about growing up was not having any role models," Griner said. "I mean I don't know if that would have stopped kids from bullying me, but it would have given me some strength. ... There were a lot of days when I was tired of being bullied, that I didn't have strength."
There used to be a time when the thought of someone who was routinely the biggest kid in class -- someone who currently stands at 6 feet, 8 inches and 200 pounds -- as not having the strength to fight off bullying was ridiculous. But that was before the environment that 6-5, 312-pound Jonathan Martin had to contend with in Miami came to light, and suddenly the size of victims and bullies was diminished.
"From the very first day, we clicked," said Janell Roy, a high school teammate of Griner who remains close to her today. "We were like sisters, but she wouldn't tell me everything that was going on. I guess because she knew I would try to protect her, but there's only so much you can do, you know?
"But I saw some of it. Even in our locker room. They would say she was a guy and talk about her sexuality. Sometimes things would get real tense, and that would be hard for her. She didn't tell me all that had happened to her in middle school until years later. My sister's been through a lot."
Nearly 82 percent of LGBT students are verbally harassed and close to 40 percent are physically harassed, according to the 2011 National School Climate Survey. And unfortunately, there's no shortage of faces who fall into those categories.
Faces such as Jack Andraka, the high school whiz kid who in 2012 invented an early detection test for pancreatic cancer at age 15, talks about relentless bullying and thoughts of suicide. His story is not very different from Griner's. Their stories are not very different from the ones featured in the 2011 documentary "Bully" or the stories regularly heard by volunteers at organizations such as The Human Rights Campaign, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Alliance and The Trevor Project, which the San Francisco 49ers' Chris Culliver visited as part of his mea culpa for anti-gay statements made during Super Bowl XLVII media week.
All of it continues to drive Griner.
"I can't live my life and pretend as if everything is OK now that I'm a professional basketball player when I know it's not OK for kids who were like me," she said.
Which is not to suggest her basketball development is taking a back seat to advocacy work.
Far from it.
Though fans made her a WNBA All-Star, a knee injury kept Griner from playing in the game. And besides dunking in her first game and hitting a series-clinching jumper over Candace Parker in the first round of the playoffs, Griner's inaugural season was plagued by foul trouble and overshadowed by Chicago Sky's Elena Delle Donne, who won rookie of the year honors. There's work to be done, and she knows it. After signing to play in the Women's Chinese Basketball Association last summer, Griner hired longtime NBA assistant coach Dean Demopoulos to travel with her to help her develop her game.
"I don't know if I taught her anything new," he said. "When we met, she could pretty much do everything. She had the footwork, she had the touch. She can shoot. And I mean really shoot. I spent two years with Ray Allen, so I know what a shooter looks like -- she has a stroke. What we worked on was repetition. Taking the second-guessing out of her game and letting things come naturally."
The results? MVP honors in the league's All-Star game and coming a game short of a finals appearance.
"She could probably play the 4, the 3 -- she's that agile," Demopoulos said. "It's going to be interesting to see just how much better she's going to get, because she has a big glass and it's not near full.
"She got it, by the way -- that 'it' stuff -- she's got it. That charisma you want your franchise player to have. Only thing is she's got to change that diet. That girl ate Pizza Hut, KFC and candy for four months."
But if you let Griner tell it, that was the best thing on the menu.
"Let's just say the food was really interesting," she said with a smile.
And it is good to see her smile.
With high cheek bones, flawless cafe-au-lait-colored skin and shoulder-length locks with tips that appear to have been dipped in honey, the great irony about Griner being harassed for her appearance is that she is really beautiful. Sweet, too. The kind of woman who still smiles when referred to being her daddy's little girl even as her daddy still wrestles with who his little girl is. Early on, Griner writes that her father never wanted her to play beyond the backyard of their home. And when he learned she was gay, he told her, "I ain't raising no gay girl in my house! You can pack your s--- and get the f--- out!" And for two months she stayed at an assistant coach's home before reconciliation.
An estimated 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT, with nearly half being kicked out of their homes for that reason. Again, statistics resonate more when familiar faces are attached to it.
"I think we're getting better," Griner said. "I still love my family very much. But it's hard.
"I guess this is why I thought it was important that I did this book and shared my story. I don't like thinking about the past and all of that pain. But if talking about it helps just one person -- I'll do it."