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12:20 pm
Tue April 8, 2014

Coming Out In Basketball: How Brittney Griner Found 'A Place Of Peace'

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 2:24 am

Brittney Griner is 23 years old, 6 feet 8 inches tall and one of the best female basketball players in the world. She was the WNBA top draft pick last year, and in college she set records for the most blocked shots in a season and the most career blocks in history — for male and female players. She's so good that the owner of a men's team — the Dallas Mavericks — has said he'd recruit her.

Now, Griner is also an author. She's co-written a new memoir, In My Skin, in which she describes being bullied and taunted as a kid for her height and athleticism.

She says, "Growing up, I always got 'She's a man,' or 'She plays too hard,' or 'There's just no way that she can be that good because, you know, a girl can't do that.' And I struggle with it a little bit. I'm like: Well, am I going too hard? And then I just realized, like, I'm a competitor. I want to go as hard as I can, and if I look like a guy out there playing ball, well, hey, I feel sorry for the opponent."

Sports writer Dave Zirin likens Griner's talent to that of Wilt Chamberlain or LeBron James. "She plays with a kind of emancipated abandon," he says, and he admires her openness about the sexism and homophobia she's encountered in the not-particularly-progressive world of college athletics. "She represents a break from the sexual McCarthyism in women's sports."

Griner came out as a lesbian while playing at Baylor University in Texas. There, she was a much beloved star, but Griner had no idea her school had a policy against homosexuality until her coach urged her to keep quiet about it. Griner disclosed her sexual orientation in interviews with SI.com and ESPN shortly before leaving college. Now she's made it something of a mission to address closet culture in women's sports.

"I had a girl come up and tell me how her coach basically told them that they could not be gay on their team," she says. "And I've heard stories of some coaches will not recruit you if you are."

Griner brings a defiant gender nonconformity to the court — and to the culture that surrounds it. Her distinctive fashion sense impresses even hard-core sports writers who don't generally care about such things.

"She dresses like a 1920s male dandy," Zirin marvels. "And it's pretty amazing to see. I don't know anybody who pulls off argyle socks quite like Brittney Griner."

She has shoulder-length braids and a ton of tattoos, but she looks to Ellen DeGeneres — known for her sleek, red carpet suits — as a fashion role model, because, she says, "It shows that we're not just big-baggy-clothes butch."

Griner proudly identifies as butch, and that makes her rare among women in the public eye. When Nike endorsed her as its first openly gay athlete, the company asked her to model its menswear line.

"It looks a little bit better on me, honestly, than some of the tighter female clothes," she says grinning.

So when the WNBA recently showed players possible new "sleek and sexy" uniforms — part of a plan to attract more men to the games — Griner was startled.

"The shorts came in short or extra short," she says. "As soon as I heard that — 'sleek and sexy' — I was like, 'Um, excuse me, I play basketball.' "

And it's basketball that brings in Griner's fans. Attendance at Phoenix Mercury home games shot up more than 30 percent since she joined the team, and ESPN2 decided to keep broadcasting WNBA games partly because of her popularity. Griner says all this would have been unimaginable to the middle school kid who once considered suicide because of the constant teasing about her looks and carriage.

"Now I want to stand out," she says. "I want to show off how big I am; I want to show off my long arms, my big hands — just loving myself."

She pauses, then adds: "It's just a place of peace."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, a few stats on Brittney Griner - 23 years old, 6 feet 8 inches tall. She's one of the best female basketball players in the world. She's so good the owner of a men's team, the Dallas Mavericks, said he'd love to recruit her. Griner has also co-authored a memoir that comes out today. NPR's Neda Ulaby talked with her about being tall, playing ball, and coming out at a college where homosexuality is banned.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Brittney Griner was understandably the top draft pick last year for the Women's National Basketball Association.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Griner goes flying.

ULABY: In college, she set records for the most blocked shots in a season and the most career blocks ever for male or female players. You can see highlights on YouTube from Griner's first season with her team, the Phoenix Mercury, like a decisive slam dunk followed by a triumphant swing off the rim.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No other woman who plays basketball can do that. Two handed, two feet, just goes up.

ULABY: Griner is taller than a lot of the guys who play in the NBA.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No other woman who plays basketball can do that. Two handed, two feet just goes up.

ULABY: Griner is taller than a lot of the guys who play in the NBA. She's taller than 99 percent of the American population. In her book, she writes about being bullied and taunted since middle school for her height, athleticism and deep voice.

BRITTNEY GRINER: I mean, growing up, I always got - she's a man, or she plays too hard, or there's just no way that she can be that good because, you know, a girl can't do that. And I struggle with it a little bit. I'm like, well, am I going too hard? And then I just realized, like, I'm a competitor. I want to go as hard as I can. And if I look like a guy out there playing ball, well, hey, I feel sorry for the opponent.

DAVE ZIRIN: She plays with a king of emancipated abandon.

ULABY: Sports writer Dave Zirin likens Griner's talent to that of Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James. But he says her openness about sport's sexism and homophobia makes her equally as formidable off the courts.

ZIRIN: She represents a break from the sexual McCarthyism in women's sports.

ULABY: Griner came out as a lesbian while playing at Baylor University in Texas. There, she was a much beloved star, but she had no idea her school had a policy against homosexuality until her coach urged her to keep quiet about it. Shortly before leaving college, Griner disclosed her sexuality to Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Now, she's made it something of a mission to address closet culture in women's sports.

GRINER: I had a girl come up and tell me how her coach basically told them that they could not be gay on their team. And I've heard stories of some coaches will not recruit you if you are.

ULABY: Griner resists expectations of how well women can play ball and traditional standards of beauty. Her distinctive sense of style impresses even sports writers who don't really care about such things, including Dave Zirin.

ZIRIN: She dresses like a 1920s male dandy. And it's pretty amazing to see. I don't know anybody who pulls off argyle socks quite like Brittney Griner.

ULABY: Griner's got shoulder-length braids, tons of tattoos, but when it comes to fashion, Ellen DeGeneres is her role model.

GRINER: Because it shows that we're not just big-baggy-clothes butch.

ULABY: Now, Griner identifies as butch. I asked her. Not many well-known women do. Griner's redefining butch fashion so well. When Nike endorsed her as its first openly gay athlete, the company asked her to model its menswear line.

GRINER: It looks a little bit better on me, honestly, than some of the tighter female clothes.

ULABY: Even so, Griner was surprised in a recent WNBA meeting where players were shown possible new uniforms.

GRINER: The shorts came in short or extra short.

ULABY: A part of a plan to attract more men to the games by making players' outfits sleek and sexy.

GRINER: As soon as I heard that - sleek and sexy - I was like, um, excuse me, I play basketball.

ULABY: It's basketball that brings in Griner's fans. Last year, attendance at Phoenix Mercury home games shot up more than 30 percent and ESPN2 decided to keep broadcasting women's professional basketball partly because of her popularity. Griner says her celebrity today would have been unimaginable to the middle school kid who once thought suicide might be better than being teased constantly about her gender nonconformity and her size.

GRINER: Now, I want to stand out. I want to show off how big I am. I want to show off, you know, my long arms, my big hands - just loving myself. It's just a place of peace.

ULABY: Brittney Griner's memoir is called "In My Skin." It was co-written by Sue Hovey. It's a glimpse of what it's like to live in the athlete's size 17 men's shoes.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.