Laying down her road

Baylor center Brittney Griner's game is going to get even better

Originally Published: November 29, 2012
By Elena Bergeron | ESPN The Magazine

Brittney GrinerJeff Wilson for ESPN The MagazineGriner doesn't feel pressure to change the game -- she's adding on to what's been done.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 10 Interview issue. Subscribe today!

ELENA BERGERON: What happened with the Olympics? Why did you choose not to compete?
BRITTNEY GRINER: I chose to stay in school. It would've set me back a little bit in my classes and in my graduation time. I just really wanted to knock that out of the way first.

BERGERON: For a lot of athletes, that would've been a no-brainer. The Olympics were a bigger stage; the marketing opportunities and the chance to win a gold medal seem like too much to pass up. Do you feel as if that's something that will be there in the future?
I definitely think it'll be there in my future, and I will definitely try to pursue it again. At the time, me and my family, we just felt like it was good for me to stay.

BERGERON: Team USA coach Geno Auriemma missed you. He said, "There is nobody else in the world like her. I don't care who Australia has, who Russia has or who anybody else has. Nobody has anybody else like Brittney Griner." What was it like hearing that from a coach whom you've beaten before?
GRINER: It's definitely humbling. I don't know. I don't say that I'm the best in the country, because I always criticize myself so hard. There are so many things I can say are wrong with my game, and someone can sit there and say, "Well no, this, this and this are good." I'm just hard on myself.

BERGERON: What's so wrong with your game?
GRINER: Offensive rebounding. Coach [Kim Mulkey] challenged me with that this year. I need to get better with that. Ballhandling. Being more dominant on the offensive end.

BERGERON: When your coach said that you need to be a better offensive rebounder, was there a number attached to that? Is there a specific goal?
GRINER: Just go harder, just get more. On the defensive end I'm doing all right. I'm doing good. But on the offensive end she feels like I can get more. She's the coach. If she says I can get more, I can get more.

BERGERON: Was there anything specifically that you worked on over the summer to help you be more aggressive? How do you work on that when you opted to stay on campus rather than compete against the highest level of players?
GRINER: Just pushing myself to go harder. When a shot is taken, instead of standing there and watching the other post player rebound, start moving. When you see where the ball is going, start getting in line with where I think the ball is going to come off. We definitely worked on that.

BERGERON: But with your ability to dominate defensively with blocks in the air and being able to get steals on the floor, do you ever fall into thinking that that's enough? Just the way that you get to blocks is different from what people are used to seeing in the women's game. That alone changes the game in a way that we don't usually see.
GRINER: Sometimes you can get complacent with it, and then that's when coach steps in and says, "Hey, you need to step it up." I react and I start going.

BERGERON: So what was the summer like?
GRINER: It was good. I broke my arm, but it wasn't bad. I worked out and got stronger. As always, get stronger, get faster. I broke the wrist, radius fracture. I was longboarding, coming down a ramp in a parking garage and ran into a cement wall. I was on campus all summer. I went home for a few weeks, then I came back for summer session I and summer session II.

BERGERON: So what's campus going to be like after the success the athletics department had last year? What's it going to be like not having Robert Griffin III and Perry Jones III on campus? Are you the face of Baylor sports?
GRINER: It's definitely different not having RG3 and Perry there. I'm looking forward to it. On the women's side everyone's onboard, and we have a lot of support. Us all being there, it made it great for Baylor University. I met a lot of people this year who said they enrolled because of the sports programs. They're not athletes, but they love it and they wanted to be around that. Just seeing people come in and meeting new fans, it all just brought a lot of attention. RG3 is great with all the attention, but me and Perry used to kind of joke around with it. I'd see him in an interview, and I would walk by and go, "Oh, got another one, huh?" and he'd be like, "Do you want to take this one?" I'd be like, "Nope! I've got one next week. You can have that one." It was just great having them on campus. You saw them on campus. It wasn't like they'd just run into one class and then run out. In between classes they were hanging out. We have a little area on campus called the Sub [student union building] area, and they were always there. It was never too crazy. But after we won the national championship it got crazy for us, but it was good. It was always good.

BERGERON: You've accomplished everything you can as a student-athlete -- national championship, player of the year, defensive POY -- and you're back on campus. What's different this year?
GRINER: We're a different team. We brought back everybody, but we added four freshmen this year. It's a lot of teaching. Coach has put a lot on us to teach them, because we have five seniors. There's a lot of stuff that we can help out with so that Coach doesn't have to stop to keep teaching. They're picking it up. The freshmen are doing great. I have one post player who I've been working on a lot. I'll take it easy on her, because I don't want to discourage her all the way. Coach at first let that fly. Now she's like, "It's time to dominate her so that she knows when to push."

BERGERON: How do you keep up the intensity, and how do you teach those freshmen what it's like to have to play that hard all year?
GRINER: We tell them what the turnaround is going to be. You've got games, you've got to come back, you've still got to do all your work on the road. Just playing for Coach in those games is crazy. They're quiet on the court, because they don't want to mess up and say the wrong things, so we always stress to them that it's going to be loud, it's going to be crazy, you've got to talk. Even if you say the wrong thing, you're a freshman, you're entitled to that. You're going to say the wrong thing. When I was a freshman they explained it to me, but until you get in that game and you actually experience it, you just don't know.

BERGERON: It seems weird to have won the title last year and then be focused on how to win again at the college level. If this were the men's game, having you, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins back in college would be strange. All of you are dominant in different ways and push the game forward. Have you ever thought, I could be a pro, why would I come back to college?
GRINER: It never really came into my head. People came and told me, "Hey, you know you could've left this year?" Yeah, I mean I know I could, but I don't want to. Why leave? College is the best days, and I can actually say it is. Just getting your degree and being role models, staying in school. That's what I love on the women's side: We're setting good examples for the younger generation that's coming along.

BERGERON: I think the answer to that "why leave" question is that people expect you to change the pro game too. Coaches have said that the way you play above the rim and dominate defensively "is like a guy playing with women," in that it takes the overall skill level higher. When people see you play, they compare your game to that of men in professional leagues. Do you ever feel the pressure to carry the game forward?
GRINER: I don't really feel the pressure when people say, "You're changing the game, you've gotta keep doing it." I feel like I'm adding on. Lisa Leslie dunked, that inspired me to dunk. Candace Parker dunked. It's just different styles; we're playing different ways. I'm laying down my road, and I'm sure there's going to be another girl who comes along who can do things that I can't do.

BERGERON: There's also the insinuation that with dunking, with blocks, with playing at a faster speed, that people want the women's game to look more like the men's. Is that a fair expectation? Should the WNBA want to look more like the NBA?
GRINER: I'm just glad that we still have a league we can go to. We're different. You can't say that we have to play like men because that's the "right" way to play. I don't see anything wrong with the way we're doing it. We're doing a great job.

BERGERON: So when you're not on the court, where can people usually find you?
GRINER: I'm going to be on my longboard. When I actually got to college and I saw everybody longboarding, I was like, Hey what's that? That's a little bit longer. My feet are kind of big, so that's a little more appealing to me and I took it up. I'm an outdoor person. You'll always see me outdoors -- mountain biking, going to the park, going outside throwing the football. I love being on the water. I go canoeing, kayaking, anything really. I like extreme sports too. ATVs, dirt bikes. I am a country girl. Fishing, hunting, hog hunting. I just went hog hunting for the first time this past summer. It was fun. I went with friends from campus.

There are quite a few people who you see longboarding on campus, and then Waco has a longboard club that I'm in. Coach told me when I first started and she saw that I was getting into it, she was like, "If you hurt yourself, you're going to hurt your team." I try to save the extreme stuff for out of season so I have time to recover if something happens. Which it did this time. Now I just go on my longboard to and from class -- to my class and to my car. Nothing extreme. No parking garages now.

BERGERON: Have your parents ever had to pull you back?
GRINER: Definitely, when I was a little kid. I would just try to do things, stupid stuff sometimes. Crazy stuff where they would be like, "No. Stop. No, just no."

BERGERON: What was the craziest?
GRINER: My mom caught me Rollerblading holding on to the back of a car, and she almost had a fit. It was real bad. I was a climber -- climb on the trees, jump onto the house. She'd scream, "Get off the roof! Get down." I was extreme.

BERGERON: I heard you're into cars.
GRINER: I am. My dad got me into cars when I was young. He does a lot of mechanic stuff at the house, and I definitely got into it because I'm a daddy's girl. If my daddy was outside, I was out there with him -- cutting the grass, underneath the car. My mom didn't like it. I'd come in the house with grease all over me, had on pretty socks and clothes and be like, "I'm dirty." She didn't like it, but I loved it.

BERGERON: Did your dad get you into basketball?
GRINER: I got into basketball just being at school. I was in soccer and volleyball in seventh grade, but before then I didn't do any sports. I was just outside, being active, doing anything and everything. I wanted to be in X Games; that was my goal. If ESPN asked now, I would definitely do it, but I don't think Coach would be with it.

BERGERON: What's the toughest criticism of your game that you've heard from the outside? Not from coaches, not from your teammates -- the toughest criticism you've gotten from someone else?
GRINER: Probably just like freshman year people were like, "You need to be more dominant. You're kind of weak down there in the post. I was like, okay. I can get with that. That's probably the worst, the hardest criticism I've ever heard was freshman year.

BERGERON: What about now? Do you read message boards, people's blogs and social media?
GRINER: I go and read, and my teammates and Coach tell me, "Don't go on the blogs, don't go on the message boards," but I just like to hear what people are saying. I read it. I'm like, oh, okay. Then I shake it off. As long as my coach is happy, I'm happy.

BERGERON: Yeah, but what do they say now? You weren't dominant enough your first year, but now you have a national championship and all these awards and accolades. If you're still looking at blogs and comments, what could they possibly have to say about you at this point?
GRINER: They say I'm not that good but they're just kind of bad. Or mad because I beat them. They're just mad because we won.

Elena Bergeron interviewed Griner on Oct. 17, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.