WACO, Texas — America’s most dominant athlete isn’t LeBron James or Floyd Mayweather. It’s not Serena Williams and her 30 Grand Slam titles, not Tom Brady and his three Super Bowl wins, not Kobe Bryant and his five NBA rings.
No, right now, America’s single most dominant athlete is standing in the bowels of the basketball arena at Baylor University, her size-17 men’s basketball shoes tucked under her arm.
There are two things you’ll notice about Brittney Griner when you meet her: She’s tall, very tall, 6-foot-8 with impossibly long arms that give her a wingspan of 7-feet-4. And she’s a kind-hearted, fun-loving kid who likes to listen to electronic music like Skrillex and has a soft spot for extreme sports. Her face contorts into an expression of empathy for the plight of misunderstood reptiles. (She has a year-old albino corn snake named Sage as a pet, and she thinks the slithery things get an unfair rep.) And when she thinks about the past year, she giggles at the craziness of it all, as she’s grown from a really tall girl who likes to hoop into the most transcendent athlete to ever play her sport.
Brittney Griner is much more than just a young lady who occasionally dunks a basketball. After last season’s Baylor women’s team went 40-0 on its way to a national championship, and as this year’s one-loss Baylor team is ranked No. 1 and seems primed to repeat as the nation’s best, Griner has become nothing short of a phenomenon.
At road games, she wades through flocks of hundreds of fans who chant her name; many of them are basketball-playing girls looking for a role model and hoping to catch a glimpse of Griner, maybe even touch her. She has met LeBron, one of her idols. She can’t even make a late-night trip to Walmart without having to pause for a few photos with fans.
She’s a 22-year-old college student who is grappling with the realities of fame even as she just tries to blend right in as a regular girl.
Fat chance that will ever happen.
“In the road for the first conference game this year, during shootarounds they’d scream my name, yell my name, and I’m used to that,” Griner said. “But after the game, it was like a whole new world. I really felt like a rock star, walking to the bus. A wave of people just came running. A second wave of people just kept coming. They were chanting my name.
“On the men’s side, you see it all the time. For it to be on the women’s side of the game, it just shows how much the game’s grown, how much people really love to watch a girl play ball.”
It’s a nice and humble thought, that what Griner is experiencing is a reflection of a bigger movement of interest toward women’s basketball. At some schools, it’s true. Tennessee and Louisville’s women’s team each averaged more than 10,000 fans per home game last year, with Iowa State nearly breaking the 10,000-per-game mark. (As a comparison, 40 men’s teams averaged more than 10,000 fans at home games last season, and four teams topped 20,000.)
But the truth is, Griner is more a singular force than a reflection of a greater movement, the first time a women’s basketball player has ever combined extraordinary height with extraordinary coordination and athletic ability.
“What it reminds me of is back in the day when you saw Elvis Presley coming on stage, and all those little groupie women screaming and hollering and wanting to touch him and falling down,” Baylor basketball coach Kim Mulkey said.
“Think about the women’s game. Brittney’s the first player I’ve ever witnessed that is like Brittney. We’ve seen tall women. We’ve seen women that dunk it. And we’ve seen great players, dominant players. But Brittney is just unique. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another one who can impact the game on both ends of the floor like she has.”
All that was on full display at a recent Big 12 home game against West Virginia, played before a near-sellout crowd. West Virginia didn’t avoid bringing the ball into the paint like most other teams do when they play against Baylor, and Griner took full advantage.
A minute into the game, Griner had her first block, of a jumper near the free-throw line. She grabbed the ball and dribbled the rest of the court for a layup. Throughout the game, West Virginia kept two players on Griner whether she had the ball or not. But over and over, Griner would get a lob near the paint, then do her Tim Duncan-esque 5-foot turnaround jumper off the glass. It would go in every time.
By the end of the game, which Baylor won 76-58, Griner thought she had a so-so performance. The stats would tell a different story: 26 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks, which was one block short of a triple-double and brought her to 12 blocked shots short of the NCAA career record.
Even when she doesn’t feel like she’s dominating a game, she does, her mere presence changing the complexion of how an opponent plays.
“Some shots you normally take, you just don’t do it with her there,” said West Virginia guard Christal Caldwell. “Shots you normally take in the paint, you can’t. You gotta move backwards. And she’s still there.”
What’s next for Griner? A second NCAA title, hopefully. A career in the WNBA, obviously. (Likely destination: The Phoenix Mercury, who have the first pick in this year’s draft.) A growing penchant for sports like mountain biking that will continue to drive her coaches nuts. (A month after last year’s Final Four, Griner broke her wrist when she was long-boarding down a Baylor parking garage.) And, if she has it her way, a legacy that looks past the novelty of Brittney Griner, The Tall Girl Who Dunked, and looks at how remarkable she has become on the basketball court: someone who can rebound, can push the pace up the floor, can even knock down 3-pointers when her coach lets her.
“‘She was so much more than dunking,’” Griner said. “Oh, God. I want you to write that: ‘I’m so much more than dunking.’ I actually work on other parts of my game. I just want down the road for younger players to look at me and say, ‘I can take that path.’ I don’t want to be a flop or a mess-up.”
It was time for practice before the next night’s game. Griner took her hulking shoes out from under her arms and skipped out toward the court. She paused a moment and turned back.