Brittney Griner (B.10/18/1990) was born in Houston, TX and is the youngest of Sandra Griner’s four children. During her childhood, she always felt she was different and was often bullied because of it. She started playing sports in the 7th grade, taking up volleyball and soccer initially, she also had aspirations about racing dirt bikes and competing in the X Games.
In her freshman year of high school, she was six feet tall and quickly distinguished herself as an athlete playing varsity volleyball at Nimitz High School in Houston. She was recruited by the high school basketball coaches to join the basketball team, despite never having played basketball. In an interview with Sports Illustrated Kids during her senior year, she described…
At Nimitz High School there were some coaches who saw me playing volleyball when I was in the ninth grade and told me I should consider basketball. I could jump pretty high. I loved spiking the volleyball. One of the air conditioner workers at my school also helped us in volleyball practice. One day he told me, “Go dunk the volleyball.” I went up and dunked. I barely pulled it off, but everyone went crazy.
I quit volleyball after that season and gave basketball a chance. I was so lost. Coach would say, “Set a screen.” But I didn’t know what a screen was! I played a few junior varsity games before coaches put me on the varsity team. Everybody saw my potential except me. It wasn’t until the end of my junior year when I started to think, “Hey, I guess I am pretty good.” Early on nothing came naturally. But the more I played, the more I became comfortable. Sometimes it takes a while to believe in yourself. It’s funny to look back and see how far I’ve come with my game.”
In her junior year, she caught the attention of the world when a video of her dunking during a regular season game with her high school team was shared on YouTube. The video went viral with more than 2.7 million views and quickly garnered the attention of many who praised her athletic abilities. But it also led to harassment as those who questioned her capabilities with racist and sexist comments that derided Griner’s accomplishment because she is tall, black, athletic, female, and so on.
By her senior year, she led the team to the Texas 5A girls’ basketball state championships where they lost in the final 52-43. Griner finished the season having dunked 52 times in 32 games and set a single game record of seven dunks. In addition, she set a high school national record for most blocks (25) ever by a female athlete in a single game and the most blocks ever in a single season (318).
Coming off of her final high school season, Griner was named the 2009 Parade Magazine, USA Today and WBCA National High School Player of the Year. She was also named the 2009 Gatorade Texas Girls High School Player of the Year and Texas Miss Basketball by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches (TABC). In addition, she was the 2009 WBCA High School All-America Game MVP and also competed in the 2009 McDonald’s High School All-America Game. Houston Mayor Bill White proclaimed May 7, 2009, as Brittney Griner Day.
During her senior year in high school, Griner came out to her parents as a lesbian. Her father did not accept her being lesbian and Griner was forced to move out of her parent’s house. She lived with her high school assistant coach for six weeks before she moved on to college.
Griner was recruited into collegiate basketball, where she chose to attend Baylor University in Waco, TX. She quickly made her mark as a freshman when she became only the seventh player in the history of women’s collegiate basketball to dunk during a game and the second to dunk twice in a single game. She finished the season setting the all-time single season record with 223 blocked shots
During the recruitment process, Griner was transparent about her sexual orientation. But even after signing with Baylor she found it to be a struggle with her head coach, Kim Mulkey. In her autobiography “In My Skin” Griner describes the relationship…
“I remember she said, ‘Big Girl, I don’t care what you are. You can be black, white, blue, purple, whatever. As long as you come here and do what you need to do and hoop, I don’t care,’” Griner writes. “She basically did that whole thing people do when they’re trying to seem cool with [being gay] but don’t really know how to talk about it.
“I told her I didn’t want to be one of those athletes who worry so much about managing their public images that you never really know who they are in the inside. I know who I am, and if you get to know me, you know what’s in my heart.”
Baylor University is a Christian based university. Throughout Griner’s career there, they had a “sexual conduct policy” in place that specifically forbade “homosexual acts” and banned any kind of same-sex relationships. Under Coach Mulkey, Griner and other athletes were told not to be open about their sexual orientation. In an interview with ESPN, Griner explained…
“The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned [being gay], people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”
Despite this, Griner never went out of her way to hide her sexual orientation and she considered it as more of an “open secret.”
“I told Coach [Mulkey] when she was recruiting me. I was like, ‘I’m gay. I hope that’s not a problem,’ and she told me that it wasn’t,” Griner said. “I mean, my teammates knew, obviously they all knew. Everybody knew about it.”
During a match against Texas Tech, an opposing team’s player had fouled against Griner. As the foul was called, Griner stepped forward and threw a punch against the athlete and broke her nose. Griner was ejected from the game and suspended for the next two games. Griner took responsibility that her reaction to the foul was out of line, she attended anger management counseling, served her suspension and apologized to the other athlete. Despite this, many people continued to mock Griner through misogynist jokes along the lines of “Men shouldn’t hit women” and eventually led to more racist and sexist jokes given that the athlete Griner had hit was a white woman.
Griner returned to the game and helped lead Baylor to the Elite Eight as the 4th seed. Griner set an NCAA record with 14 blocked shots in a single game and a total 35 blocked shots in the Women’s Tournament which helped Baylor reach the Final Four. In her sophomore year, she earned her first Team All-American honors. During her junior season, she blocked more shots as an individual athlete than any other Division I women’s team. She also helped to lead Baylor back to the Final Four where they took home the championship and finished the season undefeated with an NCAA record of 40 wins. During the Final Four tournament, a radio commentator playfully challenged Griner to get three dunks in the game, something no female basketball player had ever done. Given her experience in being bullied and harassed as a black female athlete, she initially expressed hesitancy…
”I sometimes worried about looking so powerful,” Griner wrote in her book. “I’m afraid to dunk because people might think I’m too strong.”
Despite her hesitancy, Griner threw down three dunks in her match against Florida State to the wild applause of her teammates, coaches and fans. She was named AP Player of the Year.
Following the end of her collegiate basketball career, during an interview with Sports Illustrated Griner publicly came out as a lesbian. The exchange was part of a larger discussion that included Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins. The host, Maggie Gray asked a question regarding the difference of coming out as gay in mens’ versus women’s sports. Griner answered…
“I really couldn’t give an answer on why that’s so different. Being one that’s out, it’s just being who you are. Again, like I said, just be who you are. Don’t worry about what other people are going to say, because they’re always going to say something, but, if you’re just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don’t hide who you really are.”
And in a follow up question as a famous athlete, she reflected on the difficulty of making the decision to come out…
“It really wasn’t too difficult, I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all. If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way.”
Shortly after coming out, Griner signed an endorsement deal with Nike and became the first openly gay athlete that the company sponsored. For Griner, it was important to her to sign on with a company that supported LGBT athletes and wanted to use her platform to help inspire young athletes to live open and authentic lives.
Griner was the first overall pick in the WNBA 2013 draft. She was selected and signed with the Phoenix Mercury where she quickly stood out. In her debut game, she equaled the WNBA dunk record after landing two dunks in a single game; equaling Candace Parker’s career total dunks. She became the third WNBA player to dunk, and the first ever to dunk twice in a single game. Griner was named an WBNA All-Star and became known throughout the league as a dominant defensive force. She was voted to the 2013 WNBA All Star team but had to miss the game due to a knee injury.
Just prior to the 2014 season, Griner announced her engagement to fellow WNBA payer, Glory Johnson. During the 2014 season she set a WNBA record with 11 blocks in a regular season game. She became the first WNBA player to dunk in a playoff game and was part of the “Big 3” which included teammates Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree who helped carry the Mercury to capture their third ever WNBA championship and finished the season with the WNBA record for most wins in a single season.
After the 2014 season had ended, and eight months after their engagement, both Griner and Johnson were arrested on charges of assault and domestic violence. Despite both parties having only minor injuries; narratives emerged that surrounded Johnson who was smaller and perceived as more “feminine” as the victim with Griner as the aggressor. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Johnson stated…
“I’m not going to throw Brittney under the bus … and she’s not going to throw me under the bus … [but] what the [WNBA] did not say in the statements they released was that I pled not guilty,” Johnson told SI. “… So for them to release a statement saying that we were both guilty in the situation, it’s not right. It’s not correct. … Brittney pled guilty … Brittney understands why I pled not guilty, and I understand why she pled guilty. … She was even willing to speak to whoever she needed to, to get the point across.”
However, both athletes were charged as equals and the WNBA required both to serve a seven-game suspension the following season. Griner was also required to undergo 26 weeks of domestic violence counseling. Despite this incident, Griner and Johnson were married in May 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.
In June of 2015, Johnson announced that she was pregnant with twins, through a sperm donor and Invitro Fertilization. However, the next day Griner filed an annulment of their marriage on the grounds of fraud and distress. In the announcement, Griner stated…
“Last Wednesday, Glory and I agreed to either legally separate, get divorced, or annul our marriage,” Griner said. “I can confirm that today I filed for an annulment. In the week prior to the wedding, I attempted to postpone the wedding several times until I completed counseling, but I still went through with it. I now realize that was a mistake.”
The divorce was finalized in 2016.
In the 2015 season, after serving her seven-game suspension. Griner had achieved the most prolific defensive season in WNBA history with a career high and WNBA record of an average of four blocks per game. She also set a WNBA record of 11 blocks in the playoffs. In 2016, she was selected for the US Olympic Team and played for Team USA in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, she helped lead the team against Spain in the final game to win the gold medal.
By 2017, Griner re-signed with the Mercury to a multi-year deal following the expiration of her rookie contract. She also had the best season of her career when she ended it with a career high of 38 points in a single game and a league leading average of 21.9 points per game, despite missing seven games due to injury. In 2018, she appeared in her fifth WNBA all Star Game and finished the season leading the league for most blocks of the season. Griner is currently living in Phoenix and preparing for her 6th season with the Mercury which tops off May 24th.
By Dirk Smith