Above the rim: How Brittney Griner went from being bullied to the WNBA

Brittney Griner's road from her hometown of Houston to becoming the No. 1 WNBA draft pick was a hard one

PHOENIX – Standing 6 feet 8 inches tall with an 88-inch wingspan and wearing men’s size 17 shoes, Brittney Griner is 200 pounds of talent. 

Dubbed a once-in-a-generation athlete and a franchise player, the 23-year-old is arguably one of the greatest basketball players in the game.

In a Phoenix arena, she glides across the practice court while rolling up the sleeves of her T-shirt, revealing her abundance of prized tattoos.

The No. 1 WNBA 2013 draft pick and three-time All-American is getting ready for training camp, but she almost didn't make it here.

A deep hurt

A self-described daddy’s girl, Griner (seen here with her family) hid her sexual identity from her dad until her senior year. When he found out she was gay, he kicked her out.
courtesy photo

“I did hit rock bottom at one point,” Griner confessed.

Head and shoulders above her classmates in middle and high school in Houston, she was a highly visible target. Her size and signature voice made her the subject of relentless teasing.

“Being called freak for just being different. That was the biggest thing because I wanted to fit in so, so bad,” Griner said. “I mean, what child doesn't want to fit in?”

Kimberly Barnes met Griner in seventh grade. The two became close friends after Barnes joined the varsity basketball team her junior year of high school.

“I know what she went through because I was there. I really felt for her,” Barnes said. “No matter how you look at it, she’s a woman. Nobody wants to hear that. And I know somewhere deep inside it hurt her.” 

The taunting got so bad Griner contemplated taking her own life.

“It got tough. It got down to the breaking point where I was asking, ‘Why am I here? It should all be over for me. I don't want to keep going on,'” she said. “I don't know how I did it on my own, looking back I definitely couldn't have went through it again.”

If things weren’t hard enough, she also struggled with her sexuality. Griner came out to her mom, Sandra, during freshman year of high school. But telling her dad, Ray, would be a different story.

A self-described daddy’s girl, she hid her sexual identity from her dad until her senior year. When he found out, he kicked her out.

“Definitely made me a tough person. It made me just have a hard outer shell," said Griner, who now has a good relationship with her father. "He definitely prepared me for life because people aren't always nice."

Griner’s freshman year of high school marked another major milestone. She was playing volleyball when head basketball coach Debbie Jackson and convinced her to go out for the team. That was the first time Griner played basketball.

She found solace – and confidence – on the court.

"It was a way out, it was a way for me to feel free. It doesn't matter how I dress, how I look," she said. "All that matters is that if you could put the ball in the hole and how you perform."

As many as 20 coaches at a time would visit the gym just to watch her watch her work out, Jackson remembered.

“Whenever [Griner] dunked the ball, I’d look over to the coaches and they’d all be pulling out their cell phones,” she laughed. “Every year I had to order her new shoes, and by junior year she’d outgrown her uniform.”

Jackson described her team during Griner’s high school days as having a unique blend of chemistry and talent. The close-knit squad also had a unique mix of girls.

“Her high school years did have some very trying times, but the team was the bond that really supported her and she supported them,” Jackson said. “As she matured, she didn’t change, and she really has become a protector of the weak or those who have walked in her shoes.”

When it came down to running plays, Griner didn’t want to shoot. She’d kick the ball back to her teammates so they could have a chance, according to Alicia Seay, a friend who played starting point guard alongside the standout center.

"She was so unselfish about it, we had to tell her to score,” Seay exclaimed. “But she’s always been down to earth. She’s very humble. And even though she’s in the spotlight, we’re still very close."

Hard lessons

At Baylor, Griner was often at odds with Coach Kim Mulkey (left).
Joe Robbins

After graduating high school, Griner was eager for a fresh start at Baylor University, a private Baptist college in Waco, Texas, three hours from home.

But when she got to campus, her sexuality caused more tension. Baylor’s student handbook denounces all forms of sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage.

She butted heads with the famed head women’s basketball coach, Kim Mulkey. Griner claims Mulkey told her not to talk about her sexuality in public and instructed her to hide her growing number of tattoos.

Other students continued to mock her.

“I used to hear some crazy things in college going through the gym: ‘Oh, she's tucking; be careful, it's going to whip out,’” she said. “Honestly, I would laugh at it, like, you're going to be that ignorant and say these cruel things?”

But Griner wasn’t laughing when she was ejected from an intense game freshman year for punching a Texas Tech player in the face after a foul.

The two had been going at it all game, and Griner finally exploded. Following the incident, Griner was required to see a therapist – a move that helped her confront her past, from her father’s rejection to schoolyard bullies.

“I was definitely embarrassed. I really didn't know how to talk about it at the time,” she said. “I don't know why I was so scared to talk about you know being picked on, being bullied. I just kind of said ‘OK, I'll get through it on my own, I'll just deal with it.’ That wasn't the right way to go about it because it was definitely tough.”

Getting it off her chest

In her first WNBA game, Griner dunked twice – a first for the league.
Ross D. Franklin

Today, Griner is a long way from getting pushed in the hall or being asked to hide who she is.

In her WNBA debut, she became the first player to dunk twice in one game; she’s the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike; and she played professional ball in China this winter.  

She also has a new book, "In My Skin," in which she shares how she found the strength to move on from her bullies and embrace herself.

To those who know what she went through, the book has been a blessing.

“It would be hard for her to deal with. She’d cry about it,” said Seay, who now attends Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. "It’s good she wrote the book so soon so that she can get it all off her chest. She’s happier than ever."

Griner wanted to stop writing at times because reliving the memories was too much. But she refused to quit. She said giving up on herself meant giving up on others.

She’s now a very public face for a disturbing national trend: 40 percent of LGBT students are physically tormented at school. Twice that many are verbally harassed. And suicide is the second leading cause of death of LGBT students.

“Too many kids go through what I went through and they don't make it out,” she said. “Some nights, I just wanted to end it all. No kid should want to end their life or not feel like they want to be here you know on this earth.”

As Griner gears up for the regular playing season, she’s in a league of her own. But now, standing out, or being different, is no longer a problem.

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