LED BY BRITTNEY GRINER, A 6'8" CENTER WHO PLAYS ABOVE THE RIM WITH INCOMPARABLE SKILLS, BAYLOR IS POISED TO WIN ITS SECOND NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IN SIX YEARS
This is an article from the March 28, 2011 issue
Want a vivid illustration of the success of Title IX? Take a tour of the women's basketball facilities at Baylor University. The Lady Bears play in front of exhilarated home crowds as large as 10,569 (the record), routinely outdrawing their counterparts on the Baylor men's team. At halftime the players repair to an NBA-quality locker room, flush with a kitchen area, a whirlpool and a theater-style screening room. The players' dressing stalls are outfitted with individual flat screens and DVD players.
On off days the team runs through its sets at its own gym in the practice facility. The irrepressible coach, Kim Mulkey, has an office with a private bathroom and a balcony overlooking the practice courts. "Ask me what my budget is, I can't give you a dollar figure," says Mulkey, whose salary tops $1 million annually. "But I can tell you this: I've never been turned down for anything I've asked for. We don't want for anything."
In basketball's version of the chicken-and-egg conundrum, it's debatable whether the luxe trappings lure elite players who win games or whether the elite players who win games generate the luxe trappings. Regardless, this we do know: Waco, Texas—home to the Dr Pepper Museum, Rudy's gas-station barbecue and more trucks than cars—is a new hotbed for women's hoops.
On Sunday, No. 1 seed Baylor began its quest for a national title in the friendly confines of its home arena, the Ferrell Center, by demolishing No. 16 seed Prairie View 66--30. (The Lady Bears' second-round game against West Virginia was played after SI went to press.) Tennessee and UConn may have won 12 of the last 16 NCAA titles between them, rendering other programs the corporate Joes stuck in middle management, but this glass ceiling is starting to fissure. And Baylor is the program perhaps most likely to break through.
Baylor won the NCAA title in 2005 and reached the Final Four last season. Yet this year's vintage might be the best. Early in the season the Lady Bears came within a point of beating UConn in Hartford—a game they should have won. Baylor recovered to reel off 21 straight victories, claim the Big 12 title outright and enter the NCAA tournament as the top seed in the Dallas region. "I don't know how many ways I can spin it," says Missouri coach Robin Pingeton. "Front to back, side to side, defense to offense, they're a tremendous team."
What makes Baylor's prospects particularly intriguing—both this season and projecting forward—is its youth. There is only one senior in the regular rotation, Melissa Jones, a versatile guard who lost vision in her right eye after her head hit the floor while diving for a loose ball last month. She has regained some of her sight (doctors expect her to fully recover) and has continued to practice and play. With Jones below full strength, Mulkey leaned on a lineup of all sophomores and freshmen to win the Big 12 tournament. "It's the young leading the young," says the coach. "We're very talented and very deep, but talent and depth doesn't always win national championships. Because of our youth we have to teach [the players] to be cohesive."
Unmistakably, Baylor's star is sophomore center Brittney Griner, who is threatening to do for post play in women's basketball what Dick Fosbury did for the high jump: simply pervert the art beyond recognition. Griner is 6'8", the tallest player in the women's game, and actually plays bigger, given not only her 88-inch wingspan but also her athleticism. She runs the court, catches passes in traffic, and moves her feet as though playing Dance, Dance, Revolution.
Her height came as a surprise to her parents, Ray and Sandra, who are 6'1" and 5'8", respectively. The tallest of Griner's three older siblings is her brother, DeCarlo, who is 6'1". Griner first dunked in a game in 10th grade, when she estimates she was 6'3". In her senior year at Houston's Nimitz High she dunked 52 times in 32 games.
There have been other female players who have dunked in games. There have been no other women who have dunked in the half-court set: posting up, pivoting and throwing down. Even scarier, a latecomer to basketball—she played mostly soccer and volleyball before high school—Griner is still adding dimension to her game and exploring the borders of her limits. "Look, this is a once-in-a-lifetime player," says Mulkey. "I mean, she plays above the rim."
Griner's dunks during games and in the pregame layup line have, predictably, become popular online. She also generated her share of clicks last season when she slugged a Texas Tech player after jostling for position, breaking the opponent's nose. (Spark up YouTube if you must.) After the punch Griner's supporters were quick to note that it was wildly out of character. And this season Griner has precisely zero technical fouls, despite the inevitably physical double- and triple-team defenses she faces.
Otherwise, she doesn't demonstrate much in the way of impulse control. That is, if she sees a shot, she takes it. She sees a loose ball, she grabs it. She senses a weak offering from an opponent, she swats it. "Ooh, the blocks," she says, her smile at full strength. "I like those more than dunks. Blocks are the ultimate. Dunks are maybe more hype."
She is similarly unmoved by all the breathless sui generis talk. "Everyone tells me I'm changing the game, I'm a pioneer and all this. But, nah, I'm just adding on. Maybe I'm doing something different someone before me couldn't do. But I'm pretty sure that in the future there will be a post player who can do things I can't do."
In truth, Griner is lucky simply to be playing. After finishing her classes last spring, she woke before dawn on Mother's Day to pack up her stuff, load her puppy into the front seat of her Mazda SUV and head home to Houston. On a state road outside Marlin, Texas, she fell asleep at the wheel. The vehicle crossed the median, spun around and crashed into two road signs, eventually landing in a ditch. The truck was battered beyond recognition, with a hole in the roof. Griner, miraculously, was unharmed, save some soreness, as was her puppy. What cosmic lessons did she learn from a near-death experience? "I don't know, really," she says. "Maybe, drive safer."
That won't stop her from attacking life though. Griner is a free spirit, known to ride a Razor scooter around campus and paint her body in school colors for Bears football games. On her first day at Baylor she introduced herself to everyone in her classes. When her team clinched the Big 12 regular-season title on March 2, it was Griner who led the impromptu celebration, dancing wildly before diving headfirst into piles of confetti at courtside. On the rare occasion she needs solitude, Griner jumps into a kayak and paddles in the Brazos River, which runs behind the campus. "I swear," says redshirt sophomore forward Destiny Williams, who is third on the team in scoring with 8.9 points, "that girl is never not on."
Nor is Griner self-conscious about towering above 99.4% of all other Americans and all but a handful of women. "I love being tall," she says flatly. "People stare, but it never got to me. I'd see people looking and I'd smile back. You're thinking, Wow, I'm really tall? I'm thinking, Wow, you're really short. I don't even notice now," she says. "The only thing that sucks is I can't have that little sports car."
Griner's runningmate not only fits into a sports car but plays like one—driving expertly, handling smoothly and betraying deceptive power. Freshman Odyssey Sims is an outside presence to complement Griner's inside threat. Arguably the nation's best point guard, Sims, 18, runs the offense with poise that belies her age, and can also score prolifically, including a 37-point game in Baylor's one-point win at Oklahoma. For the season she's averaging 13.3. "Sometimes teams [collapse on] Brittney, which leaves me open to knock down the shot," says Sims. "Other times I can drive inside, create, draw the defense and then get the ball to her."
For a player named Odyssey, Sims's journey to Waco was remarkably simple and direct. She grew up barely 100 miles up Interstate 35 in Irving, Texas, and was a middle school student in 2005, when Baylor won the NCAA title. Sims attended a summer basketball camp at Baylor, and that was pretty much all the convincing she needed. Precisely the kind of player who once would have set her sights on Storrs or Knoxville, Sims committed verbally to Baylor before her sophomore year of high school and "never really looked hard anywhere else."
Sims has two older brothers, Oscar and Onaye, and she's unsure how she got her name. But her mom, Pamela Thompson, lends an assist. "I wanted an O name," says Thompson, "and I was into astrology at the time so I named her after that show Space Odyssey," meaning the 1968 Kubrick film. O-kay. For good measure, Sims wears number 0. And yet for all the ambient O, Sims plays mean D, pressuring the ball ruthlessly and gambling on steals—an activity considerably less risky when a 6'8" shot-blocking fiend is positioned behind you. (Baylor has yet to allow a team to shoot above 50% from the field this season.)
It falls on Mulkey to alchemize the young talent she's amassed. A star point guard at Louisiana Tech in the 1980s, Mulkey won two national titles as a player (her teams went a combined 130--6) and another one as Louisiana Tech assistant coach. She was in line to succeed her mentor, Leon Barmore, but when administrative politics threatened to derail that plan, she bolted for Baylor.
She arrived in 2000 and quickly won over town and gown with her straight-shooting style. "Coach Kim is adored in the community," says Kenneth Starr—he of the famed eponymous report—Baylor's current president. Splitting the difference between Tennessee's solemnly intense Pat Summitt and UConn's gregarious Geno Auriemma, Mulkey is driven and ambitious but also quick with a one-liner.
Her circle of friends in central Texas is considerable, and includes former president George W. Bush—Crawford, Texas, is about 30 minutes from Waco—whose first public appearance after leaving office was at a Lady Bears game. Barmore, her former coach, has joined her staff, a classic case of mentor serving protégé. Mulkey's daughter, Makenzie Robertson, is on the team as well, a freshman guard. Plus there are the lavish trappings. "It's a great situation here," says Mulkey in a rare understatement.
In the local vernacular she has both hat and cattle. Or calves, anyway. Her team is so young, she says repeatedly, a transparent ploy intended to manage expectation. But not everyone is buying it. "I'm tired of all that stuff; that's bullcorn," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair (who lost to Baylor three times this season and could face the Lady Bears again in the regional final) complained earlier this season when Mulkey started in on her team's inexperience. "Did Tiger [Woods] come on the [PGA] Tour as a freshman and be able to play? If you can play, you can play."
He's right. Baylor can play. And as the women's tournament gets into the "business rounds," the Lady Bears have as good a chance as anyone of winning it all. A team with a 6'8" center, flanked by Odyssey and Destiny? Pick against that at your peril.
THE ROAD TO INDY
To see which teams SI's experts picked to reach the Women's Final Four, go to SI.com/cbb