Aside from the atrocious court that made a relatively unwatchable game even more unwatchable on Tuesday, history was also made at the Pepsi Center in the women’s NCAA championship game between Baylor and Notre Dame.
The Lady Bears breezed past the Irish with swift, though not surprising, ease. Baylor won 80-61 in a game that was probably not even that close; a contest that was more representative of an exhibition than a competitive tilt between two No. 1 seeds. That’s what happens when Baylor has 6-foot-8 junior phenom Brittney Griner on its team. I’ve heard the comparisons between Griner and men’s champ Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, but don’t be fooled. While both are dominating shotblockers who can completely control a game without taking a single shot or scoring a single point, Griner is the face of women’s hoops. There will be another Anthony Davis someday. It is highly unlikely there will be another Brittney Griner. Davis thrives in a sport that is rich in tradition, in its skill, in its magic. Griner stands tall — literally — in a sport that cries for attention, one few take seriously. It’s why the game needs Griner more than Griner needs the game. She has an opportunity to be its salvation.
Griner had 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks against the Irish and led a crusade that ended with Baylor as the lone NCAA-era team to ever go 40-o in a season. That’s pretty remarkable. Whether it’s intramurals softball, putt-putt golf or women’s college basketball, 40-0 is 40-0. It’s extraordinary. It’s this man’s opinion that there have been more talented teams than Baylor in the past, such as past champs at UConn and Tennessee, but for this particular squad to be the first to accomplish something like this speaks to its anchor in Griner, who says all the right things and plays and acts with embarrassing unselfishness, almost to a fault. Ever since she slugged an opposing Texas Tech player her freshman year in March 2010, Griner seems to have done what we all hope to achieve when we make mistakes: she learned from it. It was the wakeup call in an introductory collegiate campaign that spewed a history of boastful, stare-you-down moments from her, as this ESPN.com attests. Even if that Texas Tech player tried to throw Griner to the floor while wrestling for position, ultimately resulting in a punch that broke her nose, it was no excuse, and it forced Griner to grow up quickly. Odds are she had a lot of people in her ear in the days, weeks and months after the moment, but it’s up to the individual whether or not they want to truly change things. Give her credit, for she did. She now boasts poise and control against opponents’ strongest holds, clutches, swings or any other assortment of physical punishment. And it’s because of how she responded from that ugly punch.
It was a significantly black moment, that March 3 in Lubbock, and one that led many to shake their heads and dismiss Griner as an ungrateful “thug” who simply has been catered to all her life. What Griner did was prove us wrong. She’s learned to adapt. In spite of facing triple and quadruple teams every single night, being beaten upon, pounded and harassed within the confines of the rules of the game, she has responded admirably, letting her game do the talking and refusing to bite the bait. It can be argued that that incident in Lubbock two years ago was the best thing that could have happened to Brittney Griner. It’s hard to say these days she is not an example of professionalism, class and grace. It’s too easy to want to root for her these days, even if 24 months ago we all viewed her as nothing more than another pompous athlete that felt entitled to anything and everything. These days she speaks sincerely about how it’s about her teammates and coaches, about how she’d be nothing without them. Only her closest family, friends and her teammates rallied around her following the punch, and now she rallies around them. It’s been incredible to watch Griner’s personal transformation.
In lieu of all the jokes made about the tone of her voice or about her looks or about whether she should forego her senior year to enter the NBA Draft, Griner has taken it all in stride, and you don’t learn how to deal with such constant scrutiny if you’re not humbled at some point. Aside from her tremendous skills on the court, with her nifty spins on the baseline or soft touch around the rim, it’s her character that make her easy to cheer on. She is the ultimate embodiment of “we, not me,” and and now she has a piece of history as well as a national championship as a reward. Griner is the definition of a game-changer, and the seven dunks in what has been an illustrious college career – not to mention the 52 she had as a senior in high school at Nimitz in Houston – and all the record shot-blocking numbers play only a teeny small part. The essence of Brittney Griner paints a bigger picture.
I’ll end with a statement I never thought would be even whispered two years ago, a claim that seems outlandish then just as it is truthful now: The world needs more Brittney Griners. And it has little to do with basketball.