PHOENIX – Brittney Griner began sliding a bit of her difference-making 6-foot-8 frame across a railing that separates an upstairs gallery from the Phoenix Mercury practice court.
“Catch me!” she instructed an unusually thick cluster of media-day participants lined up below.
The WNBA is hoping Griner (who, much to the relief of Mercury staffers, was kidding) has the chops to return the favor.
With the league’s average attendance dipping to an all-time low last season, the long-awaited Griner-pocalypse is a cinch to make turnstiles spin like beanie propellers.
But to what degree and for how long? Although the men’s editions of so-called major team sports in the United States are contested with a level of power and velocity that generally attract greater interest from sporting enthusiasts, there is precedence for Griner’s gender-flipping impact.
During Baylor’s 2011-12 season, for example, Griner and her talented teammates had better home attendance numbers than the men’s team that lost in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Kentucky.
That shouldn’t be mistaken for proof of Brittney’s capacity to pull our attention away from LeBron James, but it’s nothing to ignore, either. Those directly involved with the WNBA, est. 1997, aren’t afraid to compare inroads made during this brief interlude with what occurred in the period of time after the NBA Finals escaped the ignominy of tape delay.
The arrival of Griner and two other gifted rookies – Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne – has been offered in carefully rendered comparison to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird lifting the NBA profile in 1980.
That’s not excessive pressure, is it?
“I just learn to go with it,” Griner said of handling expectations. “I really haven’t had a problem with that.”
So, with the potential to impact women’s basketball more than anyone who’s come before her, the rookie from Baylor has been a lightning rod for controversy, scrutiny, amazement and optimism.
And that’s before her first official WNBA game.
“We expected her to create a lot of interest,” Mercury president Amber Cox said. “But she’s been on everyone’s radar. And a lot of it was unforeseen.
“There was the thing with Mark Cuban, so it was a big spike there.”
Cuban — who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks — generated pre-WNBA Draft buzz by suggesting Griner might be worth giving a shot in the world’s greatest men’s pro league.
And Griner, demonstrating a combination of pluck and wit that’s created a noticeable stir in the desert, said bring it on.
The next attention spike – going public in regard to her sexuality – occurred via a newspaper story a day before she was selected by Phoenix.
“Overall, it’s been even more than we expected,” Cox said of the publicity. “But it’s all really positive.”
That observation from Cox was issued a couple of hours before a national magazine released a quote from Griner regarding her college coach’s alleged unofficial mandate for players to keep their sexuality private.
So Griner has done a swell job of turning the spotlight toward a Mercury team that’s not exactly overwhelmed by it. There’s precedence here, too.
“She couldn’t have come to a better place.”
That quote is attributed to Diana Taurasi, who – nine years after hitting town as much more of a franchise savior than now is required – knows something about expectation.
“She’s a young kid,” said Taurasi, who welcomes a teammate capable of balancing the Mercury’s on-court attack and off-court commotion. “But she’s very mature in a lot of ways. She’s been in the spotlight a long time.
“The sky’s the limit for her.”
The sky also defines Griner’s potential to dominate the WNBA. With Taurasi and several elite-level teammates already here, all that’s required of Brittney is to be herself.
In terms of fomenting interest, it seems to be working.
The anticipation of Brittney being Brittney has produced Mercury season-ticket sales that have already surpassed the turnout the year after the team’s 2009 championship run.
Interview requests, promotional offers and other marketing opportunities are soaring.
“It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Cox said.
While understanding the relative nature of the WNBA’s potential to follow Griner to a higher level of popularity and/or whatever qualifies as mainstream acceptance, Cox said the immediate task is fairly simple.
“Just being here, she’ll bring in fans,” Cox said. “And there’ll be casual fans who’ve never been exposed to the level of play the WNBA has to offer.
“They’ll come to see her and Diana, but they’ll also see (Mercury teammates) Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner and quickly realize how talented they are. All you have to do is get people in the door.”
And once they’ve seen a woman drop step and dunk, change ends of the floor in an efficient hurry and erase shots when she gets there, will other eager witnesses follow?
It should be noted that when players with transcendent talent reach the NBA, we’re bombarded with endorsement reminders and specialty gear.
To that possible development, Nike’s long-reaching tentacles have pulled in Griner, Diggins and Delle Donne, with the marketing behemoth signing each to deals that could lead to lines of signature shoes. For now, Griner’s appeal has inspired the apparel giant to provide her with the latest version of the Kobe Bryant sneaker (rendered in Mercury colors, of course).
Diggins and Delle Donne also will, until further notice, be turned out in customized editions of existing models.
We’ll have to wait and see how Griner’s Nike deal unfolds. Note that in the men’s game, centers don’t sell shoes. Giants of the game such as Shaquille O’Neal and, more recently, Dwight Howard have had signature models, but the highest sales always seem to correspond with the kicks endorsed by the flashiest perimeter players.
We’ll see how Griner – a power player with game enough to dunk quite often – is handled by Nike.
“It’s big time, let’s just say that,” she said of what’s coming. “There’s a lot going on.”
A signature women’s basketball shoe is not unprecedented; Nike made history by producing a shoe on behalf of WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes. And the most recent women’s-game-inspired shoe was Nike’s Shox DT back in 2006.
The DT stood for Diana Taurasi.
Taurasi’s shoe didn’t exactly transform the hoops-sneaker industry, let alone the hoops industry. But Griner, who wanted to be skateboard superstar Tony Hawk before she wanted to bend basketball rims, is the first WNBA player with big air.