Commentary

On and off court, Griner rises above

From physical play in the paint to personal attacks online, junior perseveres

Originally Published: April 2, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

DENVER -- Regularly in practice, Baylor makes a point of ganging up on Brittney Griner. She gets pushed and pulled, double- and triple-teamed. There's no such thing as a foul on her. She's just supposed to figure out how to deal with it.

The same thing goes, really, when it comes to comments that range from mocking to horribly hateful that are made about Griner on message boards and other public forums. Her teammates, coaches and family tell her not to look at them.

"They don't want me to, but I still do," said Griner, who on Monday was named winner of the Wade Trophy, the Naismith Player of the Year and the WBCA's defensive player of the year. "I go search my name sometimes and see what people say. They'll tell me not to because people are kind of mean, but it doesn't bother me.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesBrittney Griner has matured on and off the court since throwing a punch at a Texas Tech player in her freshman season.

"I know things they say aren't true. They are trying to get into my head and try to stop me. It's not going to work."

She says she can laugh off the comments or ignore them entirely. Such remarks do not really motivate her, she claims. She doesn't need that kind of motivation. Just the promise she made to Baylor Nation and coach Kim Mulkey when she came to the school is always enough to fuel Griner.

She pledged to win a national championship for the Lady Bears, and she'll get a chance Tuesday when Baylor faces Notre Dame (ESPN and ESPN3, 8:30 p.m. ET).

Griner said the quest for a ring isn't part of any personal validation for her. But if she can help deliver it, the title will be her gift to a school and community that have embraced her -- all 6 feet, 8 inches of the goofy, sweet, quirky, incredibly talented person who is Brittney Griner.

"There are players you coach that bring drama and are high-maintenance," Mulkey said. "When they graduate, you go, 'Thank God, they're gone.'

"But this kid has had so much thrown at her that I wonder sometimes if she goes, 'Is it really worth it to keep putting up with this?' But she never does. It's constant, and for her to handle it as well as she does, I just love the kid."

You just gotta go to your happy place. It's kind of hard to explain: When I'm on the court, my head's clear and I'm in a calm place. I've got two people on me? OK. Three people? All right.

-- Baylor's Brittney Griner, on how she handles aggressive, physical defenses

Griner is very tall and very athletic and has a deeper timbre to her voice than the so-called "average" woman. There is nothing really "average" about her, from her height to her shoe size. Genetically, she's an outlier. So what? Does that mean she deserves the cruel taunts about her gender? Are people really that threatened by those who are different? Unfortunately, some folks are.

"She didn't wake up and say, 'God, make me be 6-8, make me have the ability to dunk,'" Mulkey said. "This child is as precious as they come when it comes to being a good person. I love going to work and seeing Brittney's face. She just makes me happy."

The core of who Griner is -- a friendly person who can easily make fun of herself -- has been on display the entire season for a Baylor team trying to close out with a perfect record. She has grown in her ability to laugh and make others laugh, especially when she deals with a media corps that takes more and more of her time.

"You've got to be able to give and still keep some part private," Griner said.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/J.D. PooleyBrittney Griner has averaged 23.2 points and 9.4 rebounds, with 201 blocked shots, in leading Baylor to a perfect 39-0 record.

On the court, she's averaging 23.2 points and 9.4 rebounds, with 201 blocked shots. She has shown she can handle any defense thrown her way. Including in Sunday's semifinals, when she became very familiar with having a lot of Stanford jerseys in close proximity. The Cardinal worked hard at trying to bottle her up. Griner got off only nine shots, making three of them and finishing with 13 points. But she wasn't worried.

"I just know that, if I have two or three around me, somebody's open," she said after Baylor's 59-47 victory. "It's fine with me; I know my role, and if it's for me to go out and get banged up on so my teammates can score, I'm cool with it."

Baylor associate head coach Bill Brock said that's because of what Griner faces every day in practice.

"Coming out of high school, she hadn't seen many double- and triple-teams with big kids," Brock said. "She'd seen them with smaller players. The first year here was a little shock to her, that she was going to draw that much attention. But that's what she saw all the time.

"So, every day, we practice those situations. We're as physical with her as what she'll see in games, if not more. She has matured; her composure has gotten so much better. She realized that every foul is not going to be called in the paint."

It's something all big players eventually have to accept in basketball. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who won her 2001 NCAA title behind 6-5 center Ruth Riley, said that getting roughed up is just a fact of life for taller players. Riley learned to deal with it, and so has Griner.

I think she tries to represent all people who are different, or want to be, but they're afraid to. She's the perfect role model for that. She's going to be who she is. If you're not with her or you want to cause her problems, she just moves on. … I honestly think she loves being in her own skin, and we need more people like that.

-- Baylor's Destiny Williams on teammate Brittney Griner

"I admire that," McGraw said. "We go watch high school kids play, and you're wondering sometimes, 'When is the ref going to make a call?' But most of the refs are pretty short. I think there's a little bit of bias there, like, 'Well, you're 6-5, you ought to be able to make that shot with somebody hanging on your arm.' I think they do put up with a lot."

Over time, Griner said, she has adjusted to it.

"Freshman year, it kind of got to me a little bit, and you could tell then," Griner said. "But after that, I just let it go. Offense comes eventually. I try not to think about it much. As long as my team's putting up the points, I'm good."

In Griner's freshman season, she had the encounter with Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle. The Griner who threw the punch then seems very far from the person she is now. People might not believe that -- especially those in Lubbock, Texas -- but that's a willful choice to ignore the way Griner has conducted herself since.

She could have maintained an angry persona and closed up entirely. She could have chosen disdain and distrust as her attitude toward the media, given that many of us were critical of her for losing her cool.

Instead, Griner seems to have adopted the same philosophy in life that she has on the court: Almost a Zen-like belief that being patient and ignoring what is out of your control will pay off eventually.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallTo her Baylor teammates, Brittney Griner is both a large, funny goofball and a source of inspiration.

Asked how she deals with it when defenders attach themselves to her and/or hack with relative impunity, Griner shrugs.

"You just gotta go to your happy place," Griner said. "It's kind of hard to explain: When I'm on the court, my head's clear and I'm in a calm place. I've got two people on me? OK. Three people? All right."

But what if it's dozens of people making vile comments about a story on Griner? What if its hundreds booing or taunting her from the stands? How much of that is she supposed to be able to take?

"It's ridiculous some of the things that are being said or written," teammate Destiny Williams said. "I'm thinking that the kid has become used to it. I think it frustrated her during her freshman year a little bit. But I think she's realized she has to let it go in one ear and out the other.

"It shows how Brittney has grown. She doesn't worry about those things because she's on a mission. It bothers me, though. That's a teammate and a sister to me. All you can do is say, 'Brittney, don't worry about it. You know what you are, and God knows what you are. Forget what anybody else has to say or what they think.' Her teammates do a good job talking to her about that, and I think she needs us to come through for her that way."

Griner is comfortable with who she is. She says she loves being tall, other than the fact that it rules out driving any cute little sports cars.

"Actually, I'm a truck girl," she said. "I really like trucks. My dad had a Nissan Titan four-wheel drive with a lift kit on it. That's probably something I would drive."

To her teammates, Griner is both a large, funny goofball and a source of inspiration. They are protective and proud of her. They see the person they want everyone else to see.

"I think she tries to represent all people who are different, or want to be, but they're afraid to," Williams said. "She's the perfect role model for that. She's going to be who she is. If you're not with her or you want to cause her problems, she just moves on.

"She loves being who she is. She's just a big kid. She loves candy. She loves bacon. She loves sweets and soda. This is who she is. I honestly think she loves being in her own skin, and we need more people like that."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.