HOUSTON -- The teenage girl fixing to change her sport literally would rather fight than switch -- switch tactics, switch athletic pursuits, switch herself just to fit into people's vision of what she is supposed to look like or do. Once, she raced downcourt during a club basketball tournament in Galveston, Texas, and knocked a girl out, reprisal for being kicked in the head. In a den turned workout room at her home in the north-central part of this major Lone Star metropolis, Brittney Griner has speed and body bags, the latter which she pounded so hard the first time, she suffered cuts on her bare knuckles.
Griner now uses wraps or leather gloves and, at 6-foot-8, needs to be mindful of the ceiling fan that keeps the room in a healthy supply of cool breeze.
"You don't think about it, but that's one of the hazards of being that tall," says her father, Raymond, a Harris County deputy sheriff, nodding at the fan. He still has to nod upward, being only 6-2.
The teenage girl fixing to change women's basketball has one of those long, lean basketball bodies, impossibly long arms with well-defined deltoid and biceps muscles, hair in braids and, of course, all that height. Raymond Griner says the most frequent greeting his daughter receives is, "What's up, man?" He adds, "The braids, that height -- everyone thinks she's a boy."
Brittney Griner shrugs. Her family inherited a treasure chest of jewelry from an aunt; Griner accepted a ring, but soon after returned it to the family depository. She has no piercings ("I don't do needles," she explains) and, besides a basketball necklace, owns no other jewelry. She once wore a dress to a cousin's wedding, but otherwise favors T-shirts and basketball shorts -- thankfully, Houston's heat and gulf-induced humidity have most everyone at Nimitz High School wearing shorts year-round. Only the other students don't have their clothes and size 17 sneakers delivered through the mail the way Griner does.
She'll have a boyfriend someday, Griner says, but she doesn't have many prerequisites just yet. "He'll have to be tall, I guess," she says, pursing her lips into a tight, shy smile.
The teenage girl fixing to change the whole of basketball -- period -- often is discovered by her parents at 1 or 2 a.m., parked in front of a television switched to the Military Channel. She has become something of an expert on military tactics and knows more than you'd think any civilian should about military weaponry past, present and especially future. She can, for example, describe in vivid detail a new weapon that emits heat waves, making a space so hot that people needing to be controlled will not want to remain in it.
Her mother, Sandra, recently was in the Griners' backyard, pulled on a string she thought odd to be where it was, and was struck on the noggin by a small projectile that came screaming out of a nearby tree. The architect of that surprise used to balance cups of water on her bedroom door, call her older sister, Pier, and squeal with delight when the trap was sprung. Brittney Griner can describe how to craft a swinging trapdoor and knows all about the booby traps the Viet Cong used against American GIs such as her father, a former Marine who served in 'Nam in 1968 and 1969.
"She ain't your ordinary teenaged girl," Raymond Griner offers.
That, she definitely is not. Brittney Griner wields the biggest booby trap of all -- she is a high school girl who can dunk a basketball. And not Lisa Leslie-Candace Parker-barely-over-the-rim dunks, either, but the kind fashioned after those of her idol, LeBron James, and the imaginations of dunkers and nondunkers all over the world. She has other plans -- big, swinging-trapdoor, shocking plans. You know, like if people think she looks like a guy anyway, she'd just as soon play with them, collegiately, professionally or otherwise.
Rob Burke, the head men's basketball coach at Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College, was one of those who recently worked out Griner and some 39 other girls at a Nike Regional Skills Academy. He says, given a year or two to ingrain some footwork, balance and basketball savvy, Griner could play for his team. Ganon Baker, who heads the Nike Skills Academies for girls, works for Nike with the top-20 high school boys and trains the likes of James and other NBA players, says, "If she stays on track, I will bet that she'll be one of the best players to ever play the game -- and I don't think I've ever said that about anybody."
Griner, a soft-spoken, yes-sir, no-sir type, brightens up at talk about playing with the guys.
"Yes sir," she says, a widening grin affixed to her face. "That's a barrier I'd like to break."
The girl now ranked by ESPN HoopGurlz as the No. 1 prospect in the 2009 class hasn't had much of a buildup, so there is a dropped-off-by-aliens quality to her ascent as a player. Her sophomore season at Nimitz was just her third in organized basketball, yet she averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. Last summer was her first on anything resembling a national circuit and, in Birmingham, Ala., she collected 19 blocks against Essence, the team that went on to win Nike Nationals and earn acclaim as the best team in club basketball last year. This past season, Griner averaged 24.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and 7.0 blocks, helping Nimitz to a 27-7 record before the Cougars were dropped by red-hot Cinco Ranch in the quarterfinals of the ultracompetitive Region III playoffs.
Making such quick work of the female game makes the prospect of taking on the male side of things seem less daunting. Actually, the barriers between the sexes already were barely holding up under the weight of Griner's prodigious talent. Among the trophies prominently on display in the Griner living room are two from the NFL's Punt, Pass & Kick competitions. Griner competed as a grade-schooler and was the only girl. She robbed boys out of their hardware, or such was their perception, and they began picking on her.
This wasn't exactly the greatest path to slaking male egos. First of all, Griner was far bigger than kids her age, girls or boys. Secondly, her father had already taught her some self-defense moves. Third, and most critically, even he admits, his daughter inherited the short fuse that's bloomed on nearly every branch of the Griner family tree.
"Most girls, they try to pull hair and scratch," says Griner, who committed to Baylor over Tennessee before last summer. "I fought like a boy."
Turns out, self-defense wasn't the only thing Griner learned from her father. Raymond Griner taught his daughter how to work on cars almost from the time she could walk. Brittney Griner can change oil and repair brakes. "I don't know what some things are called," she says, "but I can fix them." She loves playing the video game "Grand Theft Auto II," but doesn't need to steal a vehicle because her father bought her a 2006 Dodge Magnum. She just hasn't had the time to get her license. About the only "girlie" thing Griner does is crochet a little. "If you ever need a pillow," she says, "I can make you a pillow."
In the 10th grade, Griner started practicing with the boys' team at Nimitz, beginning with the girls after school, then moving over when the teams switched gyms. It was about that time that she also began to seriously contemplate the prospect of dunking a basketball the way she watched the guys doing it. In preparation, she worked out with one of the Nimitz football coaches in the weight room, building up her leg strength.
Learning to dunk was an arduous process. Griner says she fell a lot. Then one day, with a couple friends in the gym, she got one down. Word spread like a virus at Nimitz. Her teammates were eager for her to prove that she'd done the deed. She made them wait until about halfway through practice. A short time later, while working security at the school, Raymond Griner was told of the feat by a couple of the kids. It was a surprise to him; Brittney wanted to hold off telling him until she perfected her form. That afternoon, Raymond Griner returned home from work and noticed the rim on the basket at the end of their long driveway was bent. "You've been dunking, haven't you?" he asked his daughter. She had to own up.
For Brittney Griner, dunking became a fever she could not shake. Once she mastered the timing of the simple flush, she quickly expanded her repertoire. Right hand, left hand, two hands. She studied the NBA players and tried to replicate their moves. Reverse, off the backboard, off the floor. Griner says she always has a dunk "in development" and recently has been working on a 360 version she vows to perform in a game.
A coach at the Nike Regional Skills Academy in Houston told Griner he once won a dunk contest by throwing the ball off the wall behind the basket, catching it from a start behind the baseline and throwing it down reverse. That's next, she says. After that, she wants to go after the guys at the dunk contest held in conjunction with the McDonald's All-American Game. No girl has been allowed to compete since Parker won the competition in 2004. It hardly seems likely that Brittney Griner can be excluded next year in Miami.
Griner has been a dunking sensation since a story by Houston's NBC affiliate, KPRC, landed on YouTube. Even Shaquille O'Neal, whom she met recently, copped to watching the video on the Internet. One of her dunks, during the Houston high school playoffs this spring, was the No. 3 highlight on that night's "SportsCenter." Her games with club team DFW Elite have drawn wall-to-wall crowds, and she gets enveloped before and after by fans seeking autographs and photos and, mostly, asking her to dunk the ball. Nimitz has had to withhold fan mail from the state penitentiary. Someone recently mailed from California an 8-by-10 photo of Griner and asked her to autograph it and answer a few questions. She obliges all, even a couple of coaches -- Adam Barrett, the head girls' basketball coach at Auburn (Wash.) Riverside High School, and Kevin Lynch, of the Philadelphia Belles club team -- who requested at the Nike Academy that she dunk on them while being photographed. There's a new one: Posterized by request.
"I watched Candace Parker since she was 13 years old," says Lynch, who's coached seven McDonald's All-Americans with the Belles. "You could see her special skills. But what makes Brittney Griner different is that she plays more like a boy than any girl I've ever seen. She's now taken the game above the rim, which no female has ever done."
If it seems the quantum leap in the game that Griner represents has come from nowhere, imagine the shock, 18 years ago this October, when Sandra and Raymond's daughter weighed in at 10 pounds, 11 ounces, the biggest baby born that day at St. Joseph Hospital in downtown Houston. Raymond may be 6-2, but Sandra is only 5-6. Their older daughter, Pier, is 5-8.
How did this happen?
"I asked the same question," Raymond Griner says. "I said, 'Where's the daddy?' I thought it would be a problem. I told my wife, 'This kid is going to have a complex.'"
Raymond Griner laughs one of his laughs, the kind that comes from the back of the throat -- ah-hee-hee-hee-hee. There's been no complex. No growing pains. No hitches, save a scuffle here and there. Being a sheriff, retired then unretired, for 35 years, he's as protective and paranoid as any father. Yet he's taught his daughter all too well. Brittney Griner can handle everything from a waveboard to a carburetor to a low-post double-team.
Just the other day, on a ride in from New Orleans, Raymond Griner had stopped to gas up his truck. Another big truck pulled up and out jumped a couple guys. They strolled over. Raymond Griner had his guard up, but his 6-8 passenger did not flinch.
"You," one of the guys said, pointing at Raymond Griner's daughter. "You're the one on TV, the one who dunks."
"Yup," she replied.
Brittney Griner long ago embraced the role of being the one who took on an expectation and flipped it. She's the teenage girl fixing to change everything anyone has ever thought about women and the way they play the game of basketball, after all. Everything else just seems to go along with the territory.
Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the McDonald's All-American and Parade All-American Selection Committees, he formerly coached girls club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more in-depth coverage of women's college-basketball prospects and girl's basketball, visit HoopGurlz.com