Baylor freshman center Brittney Griner possesses an unprecedented combination of size, skill, speed and shooting touch—and a dazzling repertoire of dunks
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 2009 issue
Brittney Griner, Baylor's 6'8" freshman center, had just folded herself into a chair in her coach's office and settled in for an interview one day in mid-October when the coach, Kim Mulkey, started to review the previous night's SportsCenter Top 10 plays on her computer. Highlights from boxing, soccer, hockey, golf, football and the NBA flashed across the screen. Finally, the No. 1 clip appeared: Connecticut's Maya Moore, a 6-foot forward, leaping to dunk a ball thrown up by teammate Kaili McLaren during the Huskies' First Night practice. After the cheering from the UConn crowd cut off, silence filled the room in Waco. Eyebrows arched. Mulkey finally turned to sports information director Julie Bennett, who was sitting nearby, and said, "You need to take video at practice and send it in. Let's show them a real dunk."
But how to choose? In her first official practice the day before, Griner, a pool-cue-slim 220-pounder with an 88-inch wingspan and size-18½ shoes, had thrown down so many dunks—casual one-handed flushes along with goal-shaking two-handed jams—with such ease that the crowd of 500 in attendance had stopped clapping, had stopped reacting at all, in fact, after the first hour. That's how quickly they adjusted to hearing the thwacka-thrum of a rim being pulled at a women's practice.
What remains to be seen is how the rest of the women's basketball universe adjusts to the presence of a player with an unprecedented combination of size, skill, speed, athleticism, instincts and shooting touch. "I don't think there has ever been a female player who has been this big, this gifted," says Baylor assistant Leon Barmore, who won two NCAA titles coaching Louisiana Tech in the 1980s. "This kid is not great yet, but she will be before it's over. She's going to dominate on both ends of the floor."
For all the buzz about Griner's dunking—a video of her jamming in practice at Houston's Nimitz High has drawn 4.1 million hits since it was posted on YouTube during her sophomore year—her biggest impact so far has been on the defensive end. In one game last season Griner set a national high school record with 25 blocks; through nine games at Baylor she was averaging 5.6 blocks (the NCAA Division I record is 5.7) and uncounted altered shots to go along with a team-best 17.0 points and 8.2 rebounds.
"[Griner's] going to allow Baylor to do a lot of interesting things on the defensive end," says Texas A&M coach Gary Blair. "How would you like to have [someone who's] 6'8" at the top of a 1-2-1-1 press?"
Griner has already made things interesting for opposing defenses. In Baylor's opening game, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, a staunch man-to-man advocate, did something she never had in 36 years of coaching: She started her players in a zone and kept them in it for most of the game, which the Lady Vols won 74--65. "We thought that might keep [Griner] from going rim to rim on us," she says.
A month into the season (the sixth-ranked Bears were 8--1 through Sunday), Griner has already seen just about every scheme imaginable. "And it's not just the zones," says Mulkey. "Brittney's being guarded and crowded like no other player I've ever seen. It's not how many points she is scoring, how many dunks she has [through Sunday she had just one, a single-handed jam against Jacksonville State on Nov. 24] or how many shots she blocks. Just her presence on the floor is making people change their game plans."
Griner's singular defensive presence has drawn comparisons to Celtics legend Bill Russell's, though as Barmore points out, "Bill couldn't shoot like this kid." Barmore thinks a more apt comparison might be to Bill Walton, a complete post player who could shoot and defend. And like Walton, Griner is a good passer on the break. "When she gets the rebound and takes off in transition or makes the outlet pass, Katie bar the door," says Blair.
Yet unlike the once-shy Walton, Griner is comfortable with both her celebrity and her size. Doctors have told her parents that she might still grow another inch or two, which would be fine with her. "I've always liked being the biggest kid around," she says in her deep, jazz-diva voice. She has embraced her role as the most recognizable female on campus, painting her face at football games and cheering on other Baylor teams. Before each theater-appreciation class she walks to the front of the room and says, "Good morning, everybody! How are you today?" to about 300 fellow students. "Brittney's like a big teddy bear," says junior guard Melissa Jones. "If someone outrebounds her or blocks her shot, she'll say, 'Good job.' She's very humble."
Since she surprised her 5'9" mom, Sandra, and her 6'2" father, Ray, a retired Marine and Harris County sheriff's deputy, by entering the world at 10 pounds, 11 ounces, Griner has always been the tallest kid around. Growing up, she loved dirt bikes, skateboards, fishing and four-wheeling. From the time she was a toddler she helped Ray work on his cars, first by handing him tools and eventually by fixing flats, changing oil and even replacing the distributor. Griner played soccer and volleyball, but she didn't take up organized basketball until her freshman year at Nimitz. "She didn't know basketball terminology," says Nimitz coach Debbie Jackson.
But Griner was a quick study. That summer she got a healthy dose of fundamentals from the coaching staff at the Houston Hotshots AAU team and began her quest to learn how to dunk. She practiced on the goal in her driveway, and she worked with Nimitz's boys' team after her own practices. She bruised her wrists regularly and fell often. "It took me a long while," she says, "but then I got it."
Her first official dunk came in a game right before Christmas of her junior year. "Her teammates were so excited I had to call a timeout," says Jackson, who estimates that Griner had about 35 dunks in her senior year, to go along with averages of 27.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 8.2 blocks a game.
Griner has half a dozen dunk moves in her repertoire now, including a two-handed 360, and she says a windmill is "in development." But she doesn't believe her unique dimensions or skill set make her a revolutionary figure. "I don't think I'm changing the game; I'm adding on," she says. "I expect somebody else to come through and do something I couldn't do."
Remarkably, there was no recruiting war over the player Summit says will end up "one of the best inside players ever." After her sophomore year at Nimitz, Griner attended a camp at Baylor and made an oral commitment on the spot. "I loved the family feeling," she says. Ray liked Mulkey because "she is like me, very strict and intense." It didn't hurt that Mulkey—who won the '82 NCAA title as a Louisiana Tech player, the '88 title as a Lady Techsters assistant and the 2005 title as Baylor's coach—is an established winner.
Her Lady Bears lost four starters from last year's Sweet 16 team but reeled in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class and welcomed back veteran guards Kelli Griffin and Jones, as well as senior forward Morghan Medlock. "Baylor is a lot more than Brittney Griner," says Blair.
But he is not ready to hand the Lady Bears the next four Big 12 titles. "When Courtney Paris [arrived], everybody said, 'She's going to dominate everything,'" Blair says. "Well, we won five of [our next] nine matchups with Oklahoma. We're going to [have to] figure out how to attack or how to be attacked."
As other coaches brood over ways to stop her, Griner dreams of making her team unstoppable. She has already made Mulkey a promise should the Lady Bears cut down the nets while she's there. "She told me we won't need a ladder," says Mulkey, "because she'll lift me up herself."