Brittney Griner has been a very tall and very good college player for four years now, but what makes any casual viewer of the sport better understand the difference between a woman in basketball being "very tall" and a woman in basketball being "very good" can be distilled to a single play a month ago. Early in the second half of the Lady Bears' regular-season finale, against Kansas State on March 4, Griner established position in the left block against an undersized K-State player. Having sealed the defender to create an opening on the baseline, Griner received a pass, drop-stepped to her right, took one step in traffic and dunked with her right hand. It was the 14th dunk of her career—Griner later called it her "favorite"—and it looked about as casual as flipping on a turn signal. She scored 50 points in that game, which the Lady Bears won 90--68, and shot 21 of 28 from the field.
This is an article from the April 8, 2013 issue
Her career over, ending stunningly and abruptly when Baylor was shocked by Louisville 82--81, on Sunday, now is an opportune time to take stock of the sport's most transformative figure. Griner, a 22-year-old senior, stands 6'8", has a standing reach of 9'2", a wingspan of 7'4" and a larger grip than LeBron James's. In her four-year career she altered the women's game so suddenly that the automated play-by-play, sounding as confused as your grandma, spit out "Brittney Griner made Two Point Dunk Shot" whenever she threw down. She scored 3,283 career points, second only to Jackie Stiles in women's history, and she holds the NCAA record (men's and women's) for blocks, with 748. This year she shot a national-best 60.8% from the field. And then there are her 18 dunks. Calling those 18 dunks an NCAA women's record is like saying Bo Jackson was the leading home run hitter among NFL running backs: No one did this, like this, before Griner. She is the beginning and the end of the curve.
Many women who endure severe growth spurts in adolescence begin playing basketball simply because they are tall; few develop with such smooth athleticism as Griner, who was a 6-footer in the ninth grade. She is unguardable not merely because she is tall, but because she is doing things on the basketball court that women have never even had to consider defending before. Double-team her, triple-team her, try to smother her with a zone. Griner will still score. She will still own the game.
Take all this together and you begin to understand why, when they sat down to chat about Griner for an ESPN interview in March, Geno Auriemma and Bob Knight invoked the name Lew Alcindor. Knight, not exactly known for his fawning, told the UConn coach that he'd just recently seen Griner play for the first time. "I saw her score five different baskets on five different moves," he said. The moves included a face-up jumper from 15 feet and a head-fake drop-step in the post. He still sounded astonished.
"You coached against Alcindor?" Auriemma asked. Knight shook his head before Auriemma added, "She's probably, in the women's game, what he was in the men's game, where there's just no other person like that. So you can't go into a game and feel like there's anything you can do to neutralize her, as I'm sure Coach Wooden had with Lew Alcindor at the time: Every game we go into, we have an advantage that no one else can match."
In an attempt to neutralize Alcindor, the NCAA passed a rule that took away his ability to dunk; to attempt to neutralize Griner, teams doubled her on 20% of her post-ups—twice as often as any other player—and it still didn't work: Griner converts 49.1% of her shots against two defenders. At the other end of the court, the players to whom she's assigned shot just barely 22.9% from the field. Coaches tried to slow down Alcindor with zones, but that won't work either against Griner: She was even better against the zone, shooting 60.7% from the field (compared with 56.4% against man, per Synergy Sports).
But even Alcindor was derivative of somebody: Wilt Chamberlain was his antecedent; Elvin Hayes was the player who could challenge him in college. The modern folk heroes of men's college hoops--like Jimmer Fredette or Victor Oladipo--captivate us in part because they remind us of other greats. With Griner, there is no such framework. She's had to establish it for herself throughout the past four years.
And at least Alcindor's opponents, without a shot clock, could stall. There is no proven tactic for containing Griner. She can and will score five different baskets on five different moves because she is a very tall and very good player who has unlocked every advantage that her gifts afford. No woman can defend a drop-step dunk in traffic because no woman has ever had to until Griner came along. A lot of fans, patronizingly, credit women's basketball for its embrace of fundamentals. Griner, however, exists outside of that discussion. She's changed what's fundamental about the sport.
Emma Carmichael is the managing editor of Deadspin.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, Pa., home of the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, is unveiling a Urinal Gaming System in its restrooms that will allow men to "engage with the screen by aiming in different directions to test their ability and knowledge."