Brittney Griner could become the WNBA's biggest star and she's generating a ton of publicity. Sunday at KeyArena, Seattle (0-1) hosts Phoenix (0-1) in the Storm's home opener.
Brittney Griner is shedding like her beloved pet snakes, Audii and Sage.
A Phoenix Mercury rookie, Griner has discarded the long sleeves she was required to wear at Baylor University to cover her tattoos. She has removed the censor from her speech. She’s a lesbian and she’s philosophical about everything from religion to her hippie tendencies.
Maybe she’s always been transparent, but a veil hid the facts.
Today, she’s exposed — as more than a 6-foot-8 female basketball player who can drop-step dunk with ease and as the WNBA’s 2013 top draft pick, but as someone expected to lift the budding league to new heights.
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She’s already changed the game. The WNBA has implemented a defensive three-second rule. Like an offensive player, Griner can’t lurk in the paint defensively to use her stature and 88-inch wingspan to bring league scoring to a halt.
Even more intriguing is what else she can do for the WNBA, in its 17th season. Our first peek begins Sunday at KeyArena when Seattle (0-1) hosts Phoenix (0-1) in the Storm’s home opener.
Storm All-Star Sue Bird, rehabilitating in Connecticut after recent knee surgery, says she’s never seen anything like the Griner effect in her 11-year career.
“Not since I hit the league,” she said of her 2002 debut after leading UConn to an undefeated season and NCAA championship. “Maybe it’s the combination of there are three (high-profile rookies). It’s not just one player. But it’s in a completely different way.”
Griner is unfazed by the debate she has stirred. She’ll slip on headphones Sunday and play her favorite Jimi Hendrix track, “Purple Haze,” to prepare to play the game she’s loved since high school.
In the words of another Hendrix song, she’s “Stone free do what I please.”
“‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”
Numbers from the WNBA’s opening weekend already point to a revival. Last year, attendance dipped to its lowest for a regular season since its inception in 1997, at 7,457 fans per game. The WNBA hasn’t averaged more than 10,000 fans since 1999.
But the league organized its tipoff opening weekend to feature the heralded top-three draft picks in Griner, Elena Della Donne (Chicago) and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa). That bucked a tradition of the WNBA first handing out its championship rings before playing a nationally televised game to start the season.
Despite only Delle Donne having a winning debut, attendance for the six games Memorial Day weekend saw a 2.7 percent year-over-year attendance increase and arenas filled to 85 percent capacity. Many teams only sell lower-bowl seats in their NBA arenas, however.
Griner and Delle Donne, a versatile 6-5 forward who dragged Delaware to the NCAA Sweet 16, played each other in the second game of a doubleheader on Monday. Griner collected four quick fouls and Delle Donne scored 22 points in the Sky’s 102-80 rout of Phoenix. But the matchup was the most-viewed WNBA game on ESPN2 (455,000 viewers) in nine years, since Mercury All-Star Diana Taurasi played a midsummer game at New York her 2004 rookie season.
Online, the WNBA’s site had 2.2 million page views and the league’s YouTube channel had 635,000 views. Griner’s two second-half dunks in the loss had the most clicks, at 177,541 by Friday afternoon.
The league has a television contract with ESPN2 that extends through 2022 and is worth $12 million annually, according to Sports Business Daily.
“And the games were pretty darn good,” third-year president Laurel Richie said.
Richie used her background in reshaping the Girl Scouts to alter the WNBA’s marketing. She attended Griner’s debut at US Airways Arena, noticing an increased buzz compared to last year’s visit and a different gleam from Griner compared to college.
“My sense is that she’s is at a very joyful place in her life,” Richie said. “Her dream of playing on a professional level has come true. … She’s comfortable in her own skin.”
“Am I happy or in misery?”
Across the country playing for the New York Liberty, Toni Young notices a difference in her close friend. Nothing major. The former Oklahoma State star regularly hung out with Griner.
Their style changed from baggy jeans and draped T-shirts to preppy bow ties and slim-fit pants. Still, nothing was a secret unless they were representing their respective schools.
“When we were together, she was herself,” Young said. “But when you get around coaches and everything, you can’t always be who you want to be. You have to put on that image of what they want. (As a pro), it’s so much easier to be yourself, you don’t have to worry about impressing anybody. You still have to respect everybody else around you, but you can be you.”
In a liberal city like Seattle, where June’s annual Pride Parade will stream downtown, the story of Griner’s sexuality can be peculiar.
Open lesbians are part of the Storm’s upper brass and have been on the roster, most recently Ann Wauters last season. But swept up in the wave of gay professional athletes in major sports owning their sexuality, Griner’s “coming out” was possibly a result of reporters not asking her about it while she was at Baylor University, a private, Baptist institution.
This week, Griner is on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s “Taboo Issue” and describing her personal life.
“Media really puts more of an interest on the homosexuality or heterosexuality, the sexuality of the player than the players do,” said ESPN broadcaster Carolyn Peck, who has coached pro and college basketball. “The player steps out on the court in a uniform, they pick up the basketball and they play the game. What people do in their personal lives I actually have no interest in. When I was in the WNBA, we worked. They have a job to do. They come and do the job.”
The LGBT community, including its high-profile athletes, continues to come out to take a stand against bullying and teen suicide because youth too often feel they’re alone and believe there’s no support or anyone like them in sports.
That’s Griner’s story. A bullied teen who still deals with slurs that she’s a man, Griner is able to shed the stigma.
“People get lost in the sense of, Why is this news?” said USA Today reporter Scott Gleason, who was first to publicly report Griner’s sexuality as a passing part of his behind-the-scenes draft-day article. “A lot of times we lose track of the fact that we’re writing about sports but we’re writing about people, too. We have so many cultural issues that have really transcended and when it’s more presented as less of how this person came out and more of why this is important in the big scheme of things, that hits more with at least what our audience is looking for.”
“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”
Sunday, none of it will matter. It’ll be blocked out, only the iconic sound of Hendrix’s guitar cutting through.
It’ll be Griner’s second WNBA game. If she matches her college pace (netting an NCAA record — man or woman — of 748 career blocks, with 18 dunks), she can reset WNBA records. Legendary center Lisa Leslie took 12 years to total 822 blocks. Margo Dydek, who was 7-2, owns the record at 877.
“I already had that strength,” Griner said of blocking out opinions. “I guess it’s a blessing. I didn’t know I was going to be in the situation that I’m in now, being older, but I’ve always been able to just block other things out. It’s definitely gotten better over the years with more and more stuff coming up and more expectations coming at me. …
“I’m just happy that I’m on the court playing ball.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com