Brittney Griner: A mercurial presence both on and off the court

Brittney Griner with her gold medal in Women's Basketball at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics in Saitama, on Aug 8, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOENIX, Arizona – Bullied for her height as a child, Brittney Griner often wanted to be more “normal”.

But she kept growing, and she was eventually drawn to a sport that best suited what she had thought was a physical defect: basketball.

With her height – she now stands 2.06m – tenacity and strength, Griner eventually became a marquee player in the US Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal was an early admirer.

She would go on to win two Olympic gold medals and be a seven-time All-Star centre with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

She was such a talented player that she managed to land a side-gig that kept the money flowing. Since 2014, she had been flying to Russia to play off-season for the EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg.

She was headed to Moscow in February when her life was upended.

As she was making her way out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, she was detained for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

That set off a flurry of diplomatic brinkmanship between Washington and Moscow at a time when relations between the two sides were at an all-time low following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

From being a basketball star, she became a political symbol.

Basketball phenom

Griner was born on Oct 18, 1990. Her father was a Vietnam War veteran who kept a tight household.

In her autobiography, she complained about him having “so many damn rules”. But it was his rules that kept her “on the right path”, she said.

She enrolled at the Nimitz High School in Houston, and – having been more than a head taller than her peers and with her ability to dunk a basketball – was quickly drafted for the school’s basketball team.

A video compilation of her dunks when she was in her junior year racked up 6.6 million views on YouTube.

She played for Baylor University in college, which she led to an NCAA championship in 2012.

Brittney Griner of the United States during the gold medal match against Japan on Aug 8, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

In 2013, she was drafted to the WNBA by the Phoenix Mercury. A year later, the team won the WNBA championship behind her dunking and blocking prowess.

Over a career spanning 10 years, Griner would win eight WNBA All-Star awards and four EuroLeague titles, apart from her two Olympic gold medals.

She was so dominant that billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, had once mused about drafting her to the NBA.

Coming out as gay

Griner came out as gay when she turned 22 and became one of the most prominent LGBT athletes in the world.

The decision “wasn’t hard at all”, she said in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

“I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality,” she said. “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine, then hopefully the younger generation will feel the same way.”

Nike came calling in 2013, making her the first openly gay player to land a multi-million dollar deal.

Sports journalist Tamryn Spruill told the BBC earlier in 2022 that Griner’s decision was groundbreaking for the sport.

“Before Griner, there was this shadow over the league, where it was like ‘don’t say gay,’” Ms Spruill said. “She was just like, ‘Screw that. This is who I am.’”

Appraising her contribution to basketball, sportswriter Melissa Isaacson said: “She’s every bit the Tom Brady of her sport. You could argue very accurately that she is one of the best athletes in the world.”

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.