Brittney Griner: My life on and off the basketball court

Brittney Griner: My life on and off the basketball court

Excerpt

Brittney Griner: My life on and off the basketball court

Excerpted from In my skin: My life on and off the basketball court by Brittney Griner and Sue Hovey. Published by Dey Street Books. Book can be purchased online at Amazon.

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Despite the bumpy way our season started, with that loss to Stanford in Hawaii, we eventually cruised through the schedule, rolling up wins the way we had done during our run to the national championship. We were routinely beating teams, even really good teams, by double digits. But there was something different about the way we were winning. We had become a second- half team, occasionally finding ourselves in tight contests before pulling away down the stretch. Everybody was gunning for us because we were the defending champs, and the media loved asking, “Can anybody beat Baylor? Who can stop Brittney Griner?”

Senior Night at the Ferrell Center was one of the best nights of my life. I almost never get nervous before games. Even before the 2012 NCAA title game, I was really loose on our bus ride to the arena; I might as well have been on my way to a movie. But I’ve never been more nervous about a basketball game than I was on Senior Night. I couldn’t quite comprehend that it was my last official home game, on the court where I had collected so many great memories. My emotions were all over the place. I was sad, uneasy, but also happy because I knew I had good things ahead of me. As I walked into the arena, I started thinking about all the little things I did before every home game, and then the scene played out just like it always did. I chatted with our support staff, listened to music in the locker room, laughed with my teammates. (Somebody was usually doing a crazy dance or acting silly.)

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Then I walked onto the court and said hello to our radio crew. I nodded and waved to the alumni who never miss a game. I spotted my bros, all the guys from House 41, screaming and yelling with excitement. Cherelle was there, too. Everything was the same, except now it all felt different, because I was looking at these familiar faces and thinking something I almost never think: I don’t want to mess up! I’m usually pretty good about pushing negative thoughts out of my head when it comes to hoops. But that night, as we went through warm- ups and the clock ticked down to tipoff, I kept picturing myself having a terrible game, followed by this headline: “Brittney Griner doesn’t score, fouls out on Senior Night.” Every time that thought popped into my head, I told myself to go harder than I had ever gone before on the court.

And that’s exactly what I did once the game started. We were playing Kansas State, a scrappy but undersized team, so I was trying to take advantage of my height in the paint. Once I got into the flow of the game, I just kept scoring and scoring. The more shots I hit, the more I wanted the ball. In the second half, I came out for a breather, and Shanay Washington leaned over to me and said, “You’re over 35. Go get 40.” I knew I had a lot of points, but I was still just focused on going hard, because K- State was knocking down threes and hanging around, keeping the score close. Then, during a break, Shanay said, “You’re over 40. Go for 50.” And that’s when it really hit me, that I had a serious chance to score 50 points on Senior Night. We started to pull away with about nine minutes left in the game, but I was stuck on 46 for a while, because the Kansas State players were digging in, doing whatever they could to stop me. I heard one of them say, “Don’t let her have it!”

I scored with about three minutes left, and then thirty seconds later I hit my final bucket, on a fadeaway jumper after curling off two screens— the kind of shot I would almost never take. When it went in, I felt a huge sense of relief. I was running back on defense, and I gave Kim a look: Okay, I’m all set! Get me out now, Coach! She subbed for me, and the fans gave me an awesome standing ovation. As I walked to the sidelines, I saw Kim was crying, so then I started crying. She reached for my neck and pulled me down. (I was always hunched over talking to her, because she’s only five foot four, so even when she’s in four- inch heels, I still tower over her.) She patted me on the back and said, “What a game!” She paused for a second, then told me, “Soak all this in. You did it for your team and for the crowd. I love you.” I nodded at her— that was all I could manage— and walked to the end of the bench.

A couple of weeks later, we hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, so we actually played two more games at the Ferrell Center. That was great for us, no doubt, but those games are run by the NCAA and they have a different feel than a regular Baylor home game. Our mind- set had shifted, too. Senior Night was a chance for everyone to show their appreciation— for the fans to thank us, for us to thank the fans— but now it was time for us to lock in and defend our crown. We were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, and we easily won our first- round game, 82–40. Two nights later, we played Florida State in the second round, and in some ways it felt like we were saying good- bye all over again, because this really was my last college game in Waco. While I was getting my ankles taped before the game, our radio guy, Rick, stopped by the training room and said, “Three dunks! That’s how many you’re going to get tonight. No woman has ever done that in a game before. You’ll get it tonight.”

I smiled and answered, “Okay, Rick!” Then, after he walked away, I shook my head and laughed, because people always say stuff like that to me. If some fans catch my eye as I’m walking onto the court, they’ll shout, “Throw one down tonight, BG!” So I didn’t think much about what Rick had said until I was jogging to the locker room at half time. We were winning big, 51–20, and I already had one dunk. I also felt like I had so much space in the paint that I’d get more opportunities to dunk in the second half. Florida State was a good team, but they didn’t have a strong, physical inside presence, so I was able to get the ball deep in the paint and snag rebounds close to the rim. As I headed for the locker room, I started replaying what Rick had said: “You’re going to get three dunks tonight!” And all of a sudden, I thought to myself, You know what? He’s right! That’s exactly what I’m going to do!

The idea of it made me excited, knowing I could do something no other woman had done. But I let myself get caught up in the moment, and when I walked into the locker room at the break, I took my phone out of my locker and went to my Twitter page.

I wanted to get the fans pumped for the second half, so I sent this tweet: “Need two more dunks on home court for the best crowd ever! #BaylorNation.”

After I put my phone back in my locker, I started thinking maybe that wasn’t the smartest move on my part, tweeting at half time. I had never done anything like that before, but it seemed so harmless, and I didn’t think anyone would actually question my focus. I wanted to give myself a challenge. And later in the second half, I got my chance, dunking twice in the span of about a minute, right before Kim took me out of the game for good because we were already winning by so much. On the third and final dunk, I grabbed a rebound in the lane with three defenders around me and just went up and threw down a one- handed reverse.

I think at other times in my career, I wouldn’t have been as forceful in my decision. I might have pump- faked, or turned and tried a little hook shot, because I sometimes worried about looking so powerful— which sounds ridiculous when I hear myself say it out loud. You think guys ever worry about that stuff? I’m afraid to dunk this ball because people might think I’m too strong. I can’t imagine LeBron James ever has those thoughts in his head, but I did on occasion.

When Kim took me out, the crowd gave me an even bigger ovation than they did on Senior Night, and I gave her a big bear hug. I had chills. It was like another giant going- away party, except now we were heading to the Sweet Sixteen. Of course, once Kim found out I had tweeted at half time— because it was all over the news— she called me into her office the next day for another talk, telling me she would have to make an example out of me.

She was clearly annoyed. “Big Girl, you know you’re not supposed to do that,” she said. “Now, when I start taking everyone’s phones for this road trip, your teammates aren’t going to be happy. But you have to take this one on your shoulders. You’re the captain.” Then she brought up something else: she said the media had been complaining about us, saying we disappeared after games when we were supposed to be available for reporters. And it was true. Most of us would hide in the back of the locker room as soon as our sports information director announced the door was opening for media. All of a sudden, everyone had to use the bathroom, or fix their hair, or they weren’t feeling too good. We would drift away, and the reporters would just be standing around, waiting for us. So Kim said that was the real reason she was taking our phones away, because we needed to step up and deal with the media for the rest of the tournament.

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This wasn’t the first time she had tried to regulate our phone usage. Like a lot of coaches, Kim would occasionally collect our phones on road trips, and even sometimes for home games, in an attempt to minimize distractions. When we were on the bus heading to an arena, she’d make us turn our phones in directly to her or an assistant coach. But we weren’t stupid: we gave her old flip phones, or smartphones we had replaced with newer versions.

And she wasn’t dumb either: she knew those weren’t our real phones. Also, even if I did turn in my real phone, I would still have had my iPad or laptop, so I could still get all my texts and e-mails, my Twitter and Instagram. The crazy part is that nobody said anything about this little phone game we played. Sure, we rolled our eyes because it was still a hassle, an extra step we had to take to get around the so- called ban, but we pretended like we took it seriously, and Kim pretended like we took it seriously. The whole thing was such a silly charade, all for show.

That didn’t erase my mistake, obviously; I shouldn’t have tweeted during the game. So I told my teammates what was coming, that my punishment would now be theirs, too. Most of them just said, “Really? Whatever.” But a couple of them said, “Ugh, BG, why would you do that?” I reminded everyone that we didn’t point fingers, that we were in it together, because all of us had messed up at some point. (Well, except for Makenzie. There’s not much room for error when you’re the coach’s daughter.) They knew I was right, and there really wasn’t anything else to say about it.

When Kim met with us after practice that day, she announced she would be taking our phones again, because I had tweeted at half time. The way we were playing, the way we were dominating, I don’t think any of us were going to lose sleep over our phones. But if I had known what was waiting for us in Oklahoma City, I would have given Kim every piece of technology I owned.

•••

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That winter, I met some students who were gay, and they invited me to a meeting, while making it clear that if word got out about the meeting, we would get kicked out of the space. “What do you mean, kicked out?” I asked, because I was still clueless about Baylor’s official policy regarding homosexuality.

“We’re not allowed to get together to talk about this stuff,” one of the students told me. I honestly thought he was being dramatic. I knew Baylor was a religious school, so I figured meetings among gay students were probably something people didn’t want to publicize by plastering flyers all over the place. If I had actually known about the policy at the time, the secretive nature of the meeting would have made more sense to me. Anyway, I went with two of my teammates, and when the three of us walked in, I could tell that people were surprised and excited to see us. There were about twenty students in the room, and our presence seemed to validate what they were doing, give them hope that if athletes were on board, maybe they could change some things. We sat in the back and just listened as they talked about being openly gay at Baylor. The vibe wasn’t “Fight the Power!” It was more about finding ways to be true to yourself while also being aware of your surroundings.

My teammates and I didn’t stay too long, maybe thirty minutes, because I was still in my little rebel stage at the time, and I remember wishing the conversation had more edge. My attitude was kind of like, “Screw this— I’m not going to be quiet about who I am.” It was only later that year, when I finally learned about Baylor’s written stance on gays, that I fully appreciated what those students were trying to do, and the risk they were taking just by having that meeting. I also began to realize athletes had an extra layer of protection, although one that came with its own set of handcuffs. I was on my way to class one day when I saw that someone had written “Love Being Gay” across the Baylor University sign in front of the school’s main entrance. That is awesome, I thought, and then took a picture of myself standing in front of it, smiling big. But when I showed the picture to a gay friend of mine later that day, her reaction wasn’t what I expected.

She looked concerned, and she told me a pro- gay group had tagged the campus overnight, spray-painting messages like “Love” and “Pride” on signs and posters. “BG, you have to delete that pic,” she said. “You can’t show it to anyone.” I was baffled. “Why not?” Then she mentioned the policy, and I said, “Whoa, wait . . . what?” So she spelled it out for me, and my confusion quickly turned to anger.

“Fuck that policy,” I said. “What’s the point of it anyway? Why have something on the books if you’re going to look the other way when it comes to someone like me?” Just so we’re all clear, here is the human sexuality portion of the “sexual misconduct” policy as it appears in the Baylor student handbook: “Baylor University welcomes all students into a safe and supportive environment in which to discuss and learn about a variety of issues, including those of human sexuality. The University affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God. Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm. Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.

The University encourages students struggling with these issues to avail themselves of opportunities for serious, confidential discussion, and support through the Spiritual Life Office or through the Baylor University Counseling Center.”

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Anyone paying attention knew that I’m gay, including the highrolling alumni who supported our program and mingled with us. They had chatted up my girlfriend freshman year, when she was waiting for me after games: How’s Brittney? Does she like it here? We’re so happy to have her at Baylor. I didn’t walk around campus holding hands with my girlfriend, but when we ran into each other on the way to class, I would give her a long hug or wrap my arm around her shoulder. My sexuality was an open secret— not a secret at all, really, except I was being told not to talk about it publicly, even though no one in a position of authority actually cited the policy to me. So, again, what is the point of the policy exactly? It seems like if you believe in something enough to actually write it down, then you should stand by it; otherwise, get rid of it.

The hypocrisy was hard to stomach. There is so much about Baylor that I love, especially the people I met there— gay people, straight people, all kinds of great people. It’s not like I have some kind of vendetta against the school; that’s not why I’m revealing the struggles I had there, how I felt silenced. I would love to be an ambassador for Baylor, to show my school pride, but it’s hard to do that— it’s hard to stand up and say, “Baylor is the best!”— when the administration has a written policy against homosexuality. I’ve spent too much of my life being made to feel like there was something wrong with me. And no matter how much support I got as a basketball player at Baylor, it doesn’t erase the pain I felt there. The more I think about it, the more I feel like the people who run the school want it both ways: they want to keep the policy, so they can keep selling themselves as a Chris tian university, but they are more than happy to benefit from the success of their gay athletes.

That is, as long as those gay athletes don’t talk about being gay.

I know Kim walked that line. She was always talking about the image of the program, worrying what people would think. She hates tattoos, just like my dad does. She would say she was concerned my tats might give people the “wrong impression” about me, and Baylor, so she made me wear a T- shirt under my uniform to cover them up. We argued about it a lot my senior year, when we were butting heads all the time, about everything. But when it came to my sexuality, and the sexuality of other gay players, it’s hard to know how much of Kim’s don’t- ask- don’t- tell policy was about coaching at Baylor and how much of it was about living inside the paranoid world of women’s college basketball, where too many coaches spend an unhealthy amount of time worrying about whether their programs will be seen as “too gay.”

All I know for sure is that I felt like I was carrying around a giant weight everywhere I went— a growing sense that who I am, at my very core, needed to be hidden away in order for me to survive my time at Baylor.

•••

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The morning of my first WNBA game, I did what I always do when my alarm goes off: I hit the snooze button two or three times. I’m not one of those bounce- out- of- bed types. I’m also not someone who gets nervous before big games. As I was lying in bed, though, slowly waking up, my mind jumped ahead to the afternoon. It was 8 a.m. (give or take a snooze), and in six hours, I would walk to center court and officially tip off my pro career. Let’s get this thing started, people! The past several months had been a whirlwind of media, travel, and drama— lots of drama— and I just wanted to get out on the floor with the Phoenix Mercury, in front of our fans, and hoop. But first I had to figure out what to wear. That was the one thing I was nervous about, because you’re supposed to look nice when you go to the games, and I didn’t want to start my career with a fine. So I woke up my girlfriend, Cherelle, and said, “Hey, I need you to dress me.”

We decided on a navy blue shirt with white polka dots and a pair of dark Levi’s jeans (the skinny kind). But the key, the thing we obsessed about, was the bow tie. I had a new one I wanted to wear, a pinkish- purple color (or purply pink), so we watched some videos to see how to tie it, because my agent had been doing that for me before events. We fussed with it for a while until we got the hang of it, like ten or fifteen minutes, long enough to make me impatient. Then we realized the tie didn’t really work with my shirt— it was too big for the collar— and I ended up wearing a pink- and- blue one that was already tied. In other words, I cheated.

You grow up watching players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant walk into arenas wearing expensive suits, carrying nice bags, and you can see they’re making a statement. It’s like they’re saying, This is the person I am outside the jersey. This is who I am without a basketball in my hand. And this was my chance to make that same kind of statement. I had walked into dozens of arenas wearing generic warm- up suits that said nothing about me, the woman underneath. So I couldn’t wait to walk into US Airways Center showing off my own style. This is me, Brittney Griner.

You can buy In my skin: My life on and off the basketball court on Amazon.

 

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