This past spring, just a few days after she was chosen as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft, former Baylor University star Brittney Griner acknowledged she is gay, becoming the first major athlete to do so publicly upon turning pro.
The 6-foot-8 center had already made an undeniable impression on the court, where she set the NCAA career record (women or men) with 748 blocked shots, while also becoming the second-leading scorer in women's Division I history (3,283 points). During her junior season at Baylor, the Lady Bears went 40-0 -- the first college basketball team to win that many games -- in capturing the 2012 NCAA championship. And, of course, Griner has grabbed plenty of headlines for her dunking ability, throwing down 18 jams in college and two more in her first WNBA game.
She is equally passionate about her off-court work, often speaking out on the issue of bullying, including this It Gets Better video she filmed during her first few weeks with the Phoenix Mercury.
"Since I left Baylor, I haven't done anything that's not truly me, and that's risky," Griner told espnW in May. "Even being openly gay is taking a risk. People are either going to understand or they'll be like, 'Hell no, we're not accepting that.' "
Griner said she has made a deliberate decision to live authentically, which means she has also faced plenty of detractors over the years, especially via social media. But most of that negativity is drowned out by her enthusiastic fans.
The Houston native was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine's Taboo Issue in May, and people routinely refer to her as a game-changer, in more ways than one. Griner possesses a combination of size and skill never before seen in the women's game. She also has a growing social conscious, and received a special recognition award from GLAAD this year for helping raise awareness of issues around gender and sexuality.
As a member of the highly touted "3 to See" rookie WNBA class along with guard Skylar Diggins and forward Elena Delle Donne, Griner entered her first WNBA season with sky-high expectations. An early-season knee sprain knocked her out of the Mercury lineup for a few games, and an ankle injury also limited her minutes. Still, after an inconsistent rookie summer, Griner hit the series-winning shot to lift the Mercury past the favored Los Angeles Sparks in Game 3 of the WNBA's Western Conference semifinals.
"The minute she caught it and made her motion to shoot, I knew it was going in," teammate Diana Taurasi told espnW after the game. "When she turns and shoots with confidence, you pretty much can't contest it. For her to be up-and-down this whole series and to be able to take that shot when we need it the most, and have the confidence to do it, that just tells you a lot about Brittney."
Griner is spending the winter season in China, playing for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls. But being on the other side of the globe hasn't stopped her from rocking the social media world and continuing to work for LGBT rights. She designed a bowtie -- one of her signature fashion items -- for the Tie The Knot organization, which supports marriage equality.
When Griner came out to her mother in ninth grade, she was met with a warm "I love you." And while her journey since then hasn't always been so easy, she often comes back to that moment for inspiration.
"Once I came out, it felt like a light came on for me," Griner said in accepting her GLAAD award. "On the inside, around me, everything."
Now, that light shines brighter than ever.