Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — Where were you on January 2, 2010?
For most, it was a day that came and went with the typical redundancies of yet another day of the 365 that span a year.
But for University of Baylor fans that had found themselves at Ferrell Center on this night, they paid witness to the makings of a star, a game changer.
Because on this night, the 6’8” center for the Lady Bears, Brittney Griner, stamped her name in the record books.
On a transition play, against a frail Texas State team, Griner, with ball in hand, feet well above the hardwood, she simply never let go.
Nope, Griner, rather than rely on ball trajectory and shooting accuracy, both of which she had excelled at in her college career, finishing as the Big 12 all-time career record holder in points with 3,283, grasped the ball tight.
Because on this night, she decided to cut out the middleman, and deliver the ball to the basket, never letting go.
Griner would dunk twice on this night. A two-handed jam, followed by an effortless one-handed sky hook, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar worthy, respectively, to make her only the second women’s college player to record two dunks in one game.
And it’s not until six years later, a defensive staple for Team USA and on the brink of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, would anyone know that this was simply just the beginning of Griner redefining what it means to be a woman in the sport of basketball.
Reinventing the wheel.
The Grit of Griner: Griner holds the Big 12 all-time record in points (3,283), blocks (748), free throws made (787), field goals made (1,247), games played (148), games started (148), and triple-doubles (5-tie).
The numbers alone illustrate Griner’s dominance, and more importantly, her ability to play both sides of the ball. A one-woman band, in the way she can score and protect the rim.
The question remained quite simply then: Is Griner in a league all her own?
A question, that as of late, has started a conversation of gender roles and equality in the world of sports. A conversation the Olympic newcomer had with herself long before Dallas Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban, offered her a chance to play with the boys in the NBA back in 2013.
"If [Griner] is the best on the board, I will take her," Cuban said in an ESPN article. "I've thought about it. I've thought about it already. Would I do it? Right now, I'd lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it.”
A challenge, Griner has never backed down from, which was made evident in her bashful response.
“I was like, ‘Wow, Mark Cuban, he tweeted me?’” Griner said in USA Today. “It definitely made me feel good, feel special. I tweeted him back, ‘When is tryouts? I can hold my own.’ I’ll try, too. I’m not going to back down from a challenge.”
A response that is respectful, playful, authentic, and true to the woman Griner has become. And while playful, the reality of such an opportunity carries significant weight.
No one knows this better than Team USA Head Coach, Geno Auriemma, who has spent his life’s work, 31 years spearheading women’s hoops at UCONN, and by nature of the job, an activist for women’s equality in the sport he loves.
So when Auriemma shamed Cuban for such an idea, the dialogue had started. A discussion of blurred lines, on what really is considered progress, and at what point is it more disrespect than respect?
And to Coach Auriemma, the idea that women’s athletic dominance is to be measured and determined on whether they can play amongst men, is merely mindless. A mediated ploy, to do more harm than good for all the women athletes that have come before Griner.
“[Cuban’s] genius would take a huge hit if he drafted Brittney Griner,” Auriemma said in an article by USA Today. “I think it would be a shame. The fact that a woman could actually play right now in the NBA and compete successfully against the level of play that they have is absolutely ludicrous.”
Whether ludicrous or genius, Griner’s decisions to continue to dominate the women’s game at the next level, becoming the No. 1 overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury in 2013, is a product of those blurred lines.
A journey from being disrespected as a young kid, to carrying herself with the utmost respect as a role model in the WNBA. And how through her own misery, Griner, knows exactly where she belongs, and that is in the WNBA.
Because for a young Griner, her abnormal size, large feet, and athletic talents, were nothing but a curse in the beginning.
Griner depicts her adolescence years as a time of extreme shame and persecution from her peers for not meeting their idea of the status quo. She explains that while she was taller, stronger, and bigger than those around her, she was relentlessly verbally abused for the way she looked, the way she acted, for being her.
“People called me a dude and said there was no way I could be a woman,“ expressed Griner on her personal website. “Some even wanted me to prove it to them. During high school and college, when we traveled for games, people would shout the same things while also using racial epithets and terrible homophobic slurs.”
An identity crisis, but only because of others perceptions, not to Griner herself who knew at a pretty early age who she was.
“I came out to my mom in the ninth grade,” said Griner. “Even though the story is kind of boring (comparatively), I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was leaning against a wall in our house at the time, not doing anything in particular. For whatever reason, at that moment I let my mom know I was gay.
“It wasn’t planned. It just popped out. She gave me a hug, smiled and told me she loved me, and I went back upstairs to my room. Simple as that.”
An early awareness of self, a gift.
A gift that has been Griner’s saving grace and guiding light when the conversation has turned to her on where the threshold stands for success as a woman in the sport of basketball.
And that sense of self has been the reason she chose the WNBA, rather than subject herself to the inevitable comparisons and male-imposed standards had she tried her hand in the NBA.
“The W.N.B.A. is where I’m at,” said Griner. “That is where I’m going.”
By staying, Griner is pushing the envelope on equality more than if she had left, by building off the works of the great women who have played before her, inspired her.
And by staying, Griner also is forcing the women around her to elevate their game in order to keep up, and that is what actual progress looks like, lifting those around you up.
Griner is the prime example of good works, using her story of adversity to help those off the court as well.
Griner has created a space where those who are affected by being bullied can go, with her application that she has launched to bring awareness to the issues that had plagued her earlier years.
“[The] BG:BU mobile application is meant to encourage empowerment, strength, and creativity for youth who are bullied as well as allies in the fight to end bullies. BG:BU will give youth an outlet to talk about their issues, get advice, ask questions and find resources in a safe and confidential environment.”
Once again elevating those around her, to do more.
And that is a common theme of the women in the sport of basketball, who have worked tenaciously to get the game to the level it is today.
For the Big Brother, that is the NBA, as a disproportional metric in which to determine whether the women’s game is at its highest level, is simply irrelevant to the ladies who are actually in the trenches. And its irrelevancy is evident in each passing game in Rio.
And for the fearless Griner, playing in front of the world, representing a nation, should allow room for error, time for adjustments if need be.
However, that is not the case.
Griner’s game on the international platform has only fueled her performance, a true entertainer, putting up 18 points alongside teammate Tina Charles, and 13 rebounds to record her first double-double against China in a 105-62 smackdown.
For Griner, and Team USA, whose biggest win came Tuesday night again Japan, 110-64, to advance to the semifinals, it is business as usual.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, or anything like that,” Griner said. “We’re just fine-tuning a couple of little things. But, it’s the same. We’re not going to get away from what got us here.”
As for Griner’s work both on and off the court, she’s right, she isn't reinventing the wheel, she’s revolutionizing it. A woman, not amongst men, but alongside, continuing to pave the way for young girls who may be abnormally tall, with large feet, and an athletic gift that shouldn't go wasted.