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Around the Web: What is the significance of Griner's dunking ability to women's basketball?

I happened to meet a New York Knicks fan this weekend and of course when we got to the subject of the mid-90’s Knicks, we had the seemingly mandatory discussion of John Starks’ vicious dunk over Horace Grant and Michael Jordan…and the associated call by Marv Albert ("What a move by Starks who was able to sky to the basket.").

While it really was a spectacular play, it’s interesting that for "all" Starks accomplished what many of us remember is that dunk. Similarly, when I heard about former Phoenix Suns’ guard Kevin Johnson’s engagement to Washington, DC superintendent Michelle Rhee, the first thing I thought about was trying to relate Rhee’s aggressive approach to school reform to KJ’s dunk over Hakeem Olajuwon.

Granted, I was an impressionable 14 years old when both of those dunks happened, so being stylish and cool made more of an impression on me than anything of substance. But type "John Starks" or "Kevin Johnson" into YouTube and the first suggestion is related to these dunks. One way or another – either in the adolescent memories of adult NBA fans or in the "historical" archives of YouTube that adolescents of today may rely upon – these dunks have come to define the careers of these players to casual basketball fans, whom I would consider the majority. And who am I kidding – as a devout Warriors fan, Baron Davis will always mean more than his 2007 playoff dunk over Andrei Kirilenko, but it’s stands out in my memory, if only for the classic Adonal Foyle facial expression that it produced.

The problem for basketball emerges when we start to confuse dunking with a player’s productive skill rather than what it is – an entertaining event. For every spectacular move by Starks, KJ, or Davis – all of which came from players central to their team’s success in the playoffs – there are a whole lot of other spectacular dunks from unspectacular players that are spectacularly insignificant.

As such, the “purist” within me cringes at how the tendency to define players by their ability to dunk combined with the ESPNization of the game led to players like Stromile Swift, Chris Wilcox, and Harold Miner being considered NBA prospects for demonstrating the ability to do nothing more than dunk. Miner is perhaps the poster-child of how the NBA world came to overvalue the dunk – somehow people managed to reduce Jordan’s entire game to his ability to dunk the ball, thus making it reasonable to label (I accidentally typed “libel”) Miner “Baby Jordan” despite the fact that he had not demonstrated any viable NBA skill.

The problem is not our fascination with dunking but our (or perhaps rather GMs') obsession with dunking. And perhaps we just witnessed the backlash to the Swift-Miner phenomenon as dunker DeAndre Jordan fell to the second round after scouts figured dunking was his only real “skill”.

So it is through the lens of these memories of KJ and Starks floating around my head this weekend that I contemplated the significance of Brittney Griner’s dunk on Saturday.

Griner puts on show, and dunks, in Baylor Lady Bears' 81-52 exhibition victory
Then, nearly six minutes into the second half, Griner got deep position in the paint, pivoted around a Cardinal defender and hammered home a one-handed slam that prompted a rousing standing ovation from the crowd.

“She took her time, went up and rattled the rim a little bit,” Mulkey said. “Would you call that a clean dunk? I guess it was clean, huh? It ignited our team and the crowd. And actually, we ran a set play for her to get it.” “It excited me a lot,” said Griner about getting her collegiate dunk-o-meter rolling. “It motivates the team, gets the crowd sparked and we feed off of them. It gets us going.”

It certainly got Griner going, as on the ensuing trip downcourt, she swatted away an Incarnate Word shot in powerful fashion. She added a sweet dipsy-do reverse layup and a short jumper off an inbounds pass on BU’s next two offensive trips before retiring to the bench for the night with 12:22 to play. With their overwhelming combination of length and speed, the Lady Bears will likely prove to be matchup problems for plenty of teams — and they certainly were for the Cardinals.

It should be quite clear that Griner potentially offers more overall to women’s basketball than Swift, Wilcox, Miner, Darvin Ham, and Kenny Walker combined. However, she is already being defined by her ability to dunk…and there are already people suggesting that her ability to dunk will transform the game. But at least she is wise enough to push back.

A slam dunk for stardom - The Denver Post
Only six women have dunked in a college game, for a total of 15 dunks. "There's a lot more to me than just dunking. I'm not just the YouTube girl, like everybody called me," Griner said. "Defense is my favorite part of the game. I'm just doing what God blessed me to do."

Whereas Candace Parker also rose to prominence in the consciousness of male basketball fans with her ability to dunk, neither Parker nor Sylvia Fowles were defined by their ability to dunk because they were not really "dunkers" but basketball players with the ability to dunk either in the open court or if an opposing team gives her a lane in an All-Star game. Griner may be the first true "dunker" in women's basketball, a player who can literally throw down a two handed power dunk off a drop step over defenders and yell in their faces to remind them of the forthcoming poster opportunity. It is for her status as a true "dunker" that Griner is being labeled transformative to most lay observers. But what is the actual significance of her ability to dunk to women's basketball?

Unfortunately, the focus on Griner's dunking as transformative has the potential to obscure the rest of her game -- things that might just make her a winning basketball player.

Baylor’s Griner will make an impact |
Yet, there is so much more to the Baylor freshman. A nearly 7 1 / 2-foot wingspan makes Griner an imposing presence in the post, able to block shots and alter others.

"Brittney is about to be the most dominant college player that’s been in the college game in a long time. … She’s just going to change the game,” said LSU coach Van Chancellor, who first saw Griner as a ninth-grader in Houston when he was coaching the WNBA’s Comets.

"It’s not just the dunks. Those are two points. She’ll lead the nation in blocked shots for four years,” Texas coach Gail Goestenkors said. "That changes what you want to do. I’ve seen her in the post and block a 3-pointer.”

What's more, lest we commit the Swift-Miner fallacy in women's basketball -- which would be a horrible tragedy indeed -- we have to remember that Griner still has a lot to learn about the game of basketball, aside from her ability to dunk.

Five burning questions for the 2009-10 women's basketball season - ESPN
"I think the only dunk I've not seen her do is the windmill," Mulkey said. "But there's more to Brittney Griner than just dunking the basketball. What she is learning is the intensity that she has to play with and practice with every day. She's learning she's got to move her feet and guard people." In those ways, she sounds like every other college freshman. Can rookies make a huge impact? Of course they can … but even the very best of them has some kind of learning curve.

There is no denying the excitement dunking could bring to women's basketball. But comparing her to players like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar solely on the basis of being tall and dunking is a little out of hand.

Can anyone beat UConn women's basketball team? - ncaa -
Although those three coaches made their impact from the sideline, Baylor freshman Brittney Griner will definitely make hers on the court for Baylor. The 6-foot-8 phenom who became a YouTube sensation with her dunks already has people saying she'll change the game the same way Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did on the men's side years ago. Baylor drew more than 6,000 fans for their first exhibition game.

"If she works hard, keeps the same attitude she's got, she's going to have an impact on the NCAA level, she's going to have an impact on the WNBA, she's going to have an impact on the Olympics,'' LSU coach Van Chancellor said. "In my opinion, she's going to win a lot of gold medals.''

Griner will be a force on the defensive end, too, with her 7 1/2-foot wingspan.

"I hope that she has the impact that we all think that she will, but we're not going to talk about that,'' Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "She does have skills and athleticism like none I've ever coached. Yet she is quick to tell you she can't do it by herself, and she has players around her that she will make better. I hope that all those predictions come true.''

However, the ability to dunk means very little in the long run in terms of actually winning games and building a career for oneself (although I can't lie -- when I was 12 I actually thought Dee Brown had ushered in a new era of basketball by pumping up his shoes before dunking). Our sports heroes are created not by their ability to be athletic freak shows but their ability to actually win games -- players we can expect to single-handedly make a team a contender every time they step on the court, regardless of whether that's fair or realistic ("there's no I in team, but there is an I in win"?).

Personally, I like the fact that WNBA players have to individually rely far more on basketball skill than athleticism. It means that the Swift-Miner phenomenon is impossible, saving us all a lot of agony and keep the quality of the floor game increasing. Bethlehem Shoals occasionally reminds me that not everyone can be Brandon Roy, among my favorite current NBA players. So perhaps it's the fact that I see more of what I like about Roy distributed across the WNBA -- heady, play predicated on ball movement in which the individual has to be more concerned with playing within the team concept than their own highlights or statistics.

It's not that I'm vehemently against dunking in the women's game, it's just that I sincerely hope that we come to recognize Griner's impact on the game beyond her dunking ability. Really, dunking is not what makes a great basketball player -- at some point, as I'm sure Swift, Wilcox, and Miner will tell you, a player has to demonstrate some sort of skill if they expect to have an impact.

At least Griner seems to have a grasp of that even if we occasionally lose sight of it.