It’s early fall, 2013 and Brittney Griner, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft, arguably the most heralded rookie in the league’s history is… shagging basketballs out of the stands. Shoot around has just concluded and Diana Taurasi, the team’s senior leader, is doling out swift kicks sending balls arcing high into the rafters. They disappear in the blinding spotlights for a second before plummeting back to earth, crashing down in arbitrary sections like 118, 202, 231.
Taurasi doesn’t care that Griner led the first ever college team to complete a perfect 40-0 undefeated season. She doesn’t care that Griner is the reigning two-time unanimous college player of the year. She doesn’t care about her 3,284 career points, at the time the second most by any player in NCAA history. No, Griner is a rookie, and as such, she’s headed into the stands, just as she has after shootarounds all season long, to retrieve those basketballs.
Sounds of gunfire and explosions filled Griner’s Houston, Texas home when she was growing up. Raymond Griner, a two-tour Vietnam Marine veteran, and local sheriff had gotten his daughter hooked on the military channel. You could often catch the two in front of the TV watching documentaries about Vietnamese booby-traps, and other weapons of war. Raymond was loving and stern, teaching Brittney how to stay tough even as she was relentlessly bullied by her classmates because of her height and deep voice to the point that she actually considered taking her own life.
“Marine dad, law enforcement dad, you’re gonna learn how to be tough,” Brittney told WNBA.com in an exclusive interview. “He definitely instilled those things in me at a young age.”
Brittney was so self-conscious about her height that she didn’t even want to play basketball at first. She persevered through the bullying, however, and began to accept herself for who she was and how she looked. It took until her freshman year in high school for her to finally pick up a basketball. But it wasn’t long after that that she threw down her first dunk. And just like that, a star was born.
When Griner’s size-17 shoes first stepped onto the manicured lawns at Baylor University in 2009, the college basketball landscape trembled.
At the time, the University of Connecticut was top dog, having won the NCAA Championship the year prior. In her freshman campaign, Griner lead the Bears to the Final Four and a matchup against the No. 1 seeded, defending-champion Huskies. UConn blew Baylor out by 20, however, and went on to win the championship.
Two years later, Griner led Baylor to a 40-0 undefeated season and a national championship, the first team to ever do so in NCAA Women’s history. By the time Griner declared for the WNBA Draft in 2013, she had set numerous NCAA records, including scoring the second most career points.
In the years to follow, with Griner’s 6-8 frame no longer deterring them, UConn reeled off an unprecedented 111 game win streak en route to four consecutive national championships.
“I would’ve loved to try [to break UConn’s winning streak],” Griner said. “We would’ve played them if I was still there. Always want to take down the best. Everybody has their day but I would’ve loved to try.”
During the 2016 Olympics, UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma would finally get the chance to coach his former adversary Griner. He had always admired her game from afar during her college days but he really got to see her talent during those eight games in Brazil.
“She added a lot to her game… she is more versatile and more physical.,” Auriemma told WNBA.com. “She’s incredibly easy to coach and her skill level has grown each year so that now she is a dominant player at both ends of the court.”
Entering the 2013 WNBA Draft, the media dubbed Griner along with fellow draftees Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins-Smith the “3 To See.” Griner was picked No. 1 and entered her rookie season with the Phoenix Mercury swathed in hype and expectations.
A series of injuries and the rookie learning curve led to a statically solid but sub-par season by Griner’s lofty standards. Throughout the year, Griner watched the way that Mercury star point guard Diana Taurasi worked on her craft, and tried to learn from a distance.
“I think I was too nervous to be that close around her as a rookie,” Griner said. “I didn’t want to mess up. She’s the ‘GOAT’ [Greatest of all time]. She knows everything. I didn’t want to be around and say the wrong thing or not have anything to add to the conversation.”
As time progressed, the two grew closer. Taurasi became more hands on, trying to show Griner the ropes.
“Diana showed Brittney how to practice. Showed her how to be a professional,” Mercury Head Coach Sandy Brondello told WNBA.com.
Griner’s hard work under Taurasi’s guidance helped her develop from a rookie in 2013 to an elite player in 2014. Griner started playing more, and improved in every statistical category. In the playoffs, she was exceptional and the Mercury swept the Chicago Sky to win the WNBA Championship.
During that offseason, Griner joined Taurasi’s Russian Euro League team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. Playing together in overseas helped further strengthen Griner and Taurasi’s bond.
“I’ve learned to like her even less the more time I spend with her,” Taurasi said, laughing, after the Mercury’s recent game against the Liberty. “She’s a good kid. She wants to do everything she can to win. That’s what sets her apart from a lot of other players.”
“Diana’s my sister,” Griner said. “She’s definitely a mentor and somebody I look up to. She hates being called a mentor and all that but she really is. She’s a best friend and sister to me.”
Coach Brondello has watched from the sideline as her two stars have developed together over the past four years. “Diana’s her biggest supporter so it’s great to see their relationship. She’s has a big role in helping Brittney become the player that she is today.”
The Silver Cloud, a 514-foot luxury yacht, bobbed gently in the tide at Pier Maua in Rio De Janeiro. Housed among its 196 spacious cabins, outdoor pool, spa, bar and cigar lounge were the 12 NBA and WNBA players that would represent the United States at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
After having passed up an opportunity to play on the 2012 gold medalist team, Griner was finally making her long awaited Olympics debut.
“It meant everything to my father and especially to me,” Griner said. “I didn’t grow up wanting to play basketball. I grew up wanting to enlist and then go into law enforcement. So for me to be able to play for my country… it’s just about the connection I’ve had with my dad.”
Griner made headlines off the court when she challenged New Orleans Pelicans star center DeMarcus Cousins to a game of one-on-one before the Olympic tournament had begun.
“Boogie [Cousins], I love him. He’s like the big brother you just talk smack to all the time,” Griner explained. “He did look like Pops from [the movie] Friday. He had the ashy feet with the flip-flops. He looked a little confused early in the morning. He looked mad. Yeah that was Pops [laughs].”
Although Carmelo Anthony and DeAndre Jordan said they were willing to pay to watch, the highly anticipated one-on-one game never came to fruition. Griner shined on the court nonetheless, helping lead U.S.A. to a gold medal. As ecstatic as she was to win gold, Griner’s time on the Silver Cloud proved to be an equally important memory from the trip.
“There’s just never a dull moment with those guys. Draymond [Green] and KD [Kevin Durant] stood out the most to me. Those two are funny guys, still talk to them now. There was a lot of funny stuff but we leave those stories between us. There was never a dull moment on that ship.”
Griner catches the ball on the block, her back to Liberty center Tina Charles. She dribbles once and shimmies right. Just as the double-team comes, Griner abruptly spins left, her blonde-frosted dreadlocks whipping behind her, and drains a jumper, inches over Charles outstretched fingertips.
Griner finishes the game with 26 points and 8 rebounds, while limiting Charles to 16 points on 5 for 16 shooting.
It’s just another night for the No. 1 scorer in the WNBA. Griner is averaging a career-high 24.1 points per game. She’s even increased her rebounding efforts, hauling in a career-high 8.3 per game. Defensively, she’s enveloping opponents, averaging 3 blocks and a steal. Griner’s fellow “3 To See” members, Elena Delle Donne and Skyler Diggins-Smith, have noticed the steep jump Griner’s game has taken this season.
“Offensively she’s truly come along,” Delle Donne told WNBA.com. “Just her confidence on the block and just being able to settle in and not rush things as much, she’s grown a lot.”
“She’s playing with Diana and that relationship has developed and she’s playing with a lot of confidence and the understanding that she’s a dominant force,” Diggins-Smith told WNBA.com. “No DeWanna [Bonner], no Candice Dupree; it’s definitely her time.”
At 35 years old, Taurasi, who led the team in scoring the past three years, has ceded some of her load to Griner.
“We’ve given Brittney a leadership role, so that it is accountability really,” Coach Brondello said. “She realizes that this is the stage of her career she’s at, so she can’t just impact the team with her ability as a player. She needs to also do it as a leader.”
For her part, Griner has embraced her new role. As for her uptick in scoring, she says she hasn’t been working on anything specific:
“Dee [Diana] told me once just let the game come to you; it’ll find you. So that’s what I did. I just let it find me and then I just kind of started working on my own thing. Everyone says you need to get a hook like Kareem [Abdul-Jabaar], you need to do this, you need to do that. But those guys were perfect because it was their thing and they perfected it. So, I finally found my thing and now I’m trying to perfect it.”
It’s scary to think what kind of numbers Griner has the potential to put up if she does “perfect it.” As for now, opponents are already desperate to try to contain her. And at only 26-years-old, Griner is just entering her prime.
Coach Brondello blows her whistle, ending shootaround ahead of the Mercury’s recent game against the Liberty. The rookies congregate around Griner as she collects basketballs off the shooting rack. A two-time youth NFL Punt, Pass & Kick Champion (she was the only girl among a gaggle of boys), Griner rears her leg back and launches the balls into another stratosphere. They disappear in the lights, probably registering on NASA’s radars for a second or two, before crashing down into the stands. Taurasi stands off to the side, a wry smile stretched over her lips, watching as the rookies scamper up into the stands.
“When I was a rookie, I had to shag balls out of the stands. It was my rookie duty,” Griner says proudly. “So now I’m just passing it down to this generation.”
One of the rookies calls down to Griner, asking where the last ball landed. Griner points high up into the stands, rows and rows above the rookie’s head, and laughs.
“Put me on the Cleveland Browns!”