Authors: Brittney Griner
“BIG GIRL IS COMING TO BAYLOR!”
don't like saying no.
I have a driving desire to make people happy, to the point that I often tire myself out trying to be everything to everyone, saying yes even when I want to say no. Maybe it's because I've spent much of my life dealing with rejectionâthe vicious taunts I heard as a kid, the disapproval of my sexuality as I got olderâso now I find it hard to turn down others, even in the smallest ways. It actually gets me in trouble sometimes, spreading myself thin with friends or making too many public commitments when what I should be doing is catching my breath and carving out some much-needed alone time.
This part of my personality tends to surprise people. They know me only as the six-foot-eight basketball player, the one who doesn't back down, who plays hard, dunks with authority, and lives openlyâthe one who likes to challenge how society wants to define her. When I tell someone I'm a people pleaser, I'm often met with a raised eyebrow and a look that says,
Really? I never would have guessed it.
But it's true. I want everyone to feel happy and accepted. And I never want to be the cause of someone else's disappointment, because I know all too well how that particular brand of pain feels.
Of course I mess up plenty, too. What I feel and what I do are sometimes out of sync. I've always held things inside, kept most of my true feelings and emotions packed away. From the time I was a kid, I've dealt with so much hurt this way: swallowing it whole, stacking it inside me, thinking I was strong enough to ignore it and keep a smile on my face. Meanwhile, when I was busy telling myself it didn't matter, the hurt would become sadness, then anger, and eventually it would spill over. This seemed natural to me, coping with the ups and downs of life by stuffing everything away until nothing more could fit, then dealing with all of it coming back up at once, a tidal wave of emotion.
If I've done one thing especially well in the past few years, it's break down the walls I had built. And I've learned something important about myself in the process, especially during my college years at Baylor University. I've learned that my top priority is being true to myself, and making choices that reflect who I am as a person, even if those choicesâhow I dress, what I talk about, who I surround myself withâmake some people uncomfortable.
My desire to live authentically has often been at odds with my need to please. I want to be me, but I also want to make the people around me happy. It's a tug-of-war that has consumed me over the years, but one I'm finally learning to manage.
This constant quest to find the right balance is also a big reason I'm sharing my story, because I think anyone who has ever struggled to walk a different path, while also trying to fit in, can appreciate the difficulty of that journey and the lessons learned along the way. In telling my story, I've come to understand myself on a deeper level, to think about how I can be the best version of myself, not just the version that others want to see.
I still have a lot to learn (big understatement). But learning to be the real me has made everything else seem possible.
he morning of my first WNBA game, I did what I always do when my alarm goes off: I hit the snooze button two or three times. I'm not one of those bounce-out-of-bed types. I'm also not someone who gets nervous before big games. As I was lying in bed, though, slowly waking up, my mind jumped ahead to the afternoon. It was 8
(give or take a snooze), and in six hours, I would walk to center court and officially tip off my pro career.
Let's get this thing started, people!
The past several months had been a whirlwind of media, travel, and dramaâlots of dramaâand I just wanted to get out on the floor with the Phoenix Mercury, in front of our fans, and hoop.
But first I had to figure out what to wear. That was the one thing I was nervous about, because you're supposed to look nice when you go to the games, and I didn't want to start my career with a fine. So I woke up my girlfriend, Cherelle, and said, “Hey, I need you to dress me.” We decided on a navy blue shirt with white polka dots and a pair of dark Levi's jeans (the skinny kind). But the key, the thing we obsessed about, was the bow tie. I had a new one I wanted to wear, a pinkish-purple color (or purply pink), so we watched some videos to see how to tie it, because my agent had been doing that for me before events. We fussed with it for a while until we got the hang of it, like ten or fifteen minutes, long enough to make me impatient. Then we realized the tie didn't really work with my shirtâit was too big for the collarâand I ended up wearing a pink-and-blue one that was already tied.
In other words, I cheated.
You grow up watching players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant walk into arenas wearing expensive suits, carrying nice bags, and you can see they're making a statement. It's like they're saying,
This is the person I am outside the jersey. This is who I am without a basketball in my hand
. And this was my chance to make that same kind of statement. I had walked into dozens of arenas wearing generic warm-up suits that said nothing about me, the woman underneath. So I couldn't wait to walk into US Airways Center showing off my own style.
This is me, Brittney Griner
Becoming a professional basketball player wasn't just about making money or proving myself. It was about freedom, too. In September of my senior year at Baylor University, I watched the WNBA Draft lottery with friends. We had a little party, just chilling and grilling. And when the Mercury won the top pick, I googled the area code for Phoenix, then called Verizon and said I wanted a new phone numberâa 602 number. Everyone kept telling me I was going to be the No. 1 draft pick in 2013, the following spring, and I liked having that extra motivation to make it happen. (I also liked how my new phone number had my jersey number in it. That felt like a sign, when I saw a 42 in there, like everything was falling into place.) Thinking about my future in Phoenix gave me a light at the end of the tunnel, because I knew when I turned pro, I would have more control over the things I said and did. No one could choose those things for me anymore.
It really hit home for me in the locker room before my first game with the Mercury, on Memorial Day against the Chicago Sky. The pieces of my life were steadily clicking into place, and my world felt so much biggerâeverything from my new California king-size bed, to our arena, to the contract I had recently signed to play for a club in China after the WNBA season. Even my tattoos seemed bigger. I have a flower on my left shoulder, and a week or so before moving to Phoenix, I got it extended down my arm and added a hummingbird to it. I'd been wearing a sleeve in practice to protect the ink, but when I pulled on my jersey before our game against the Sky, and I looked at that new tat, along with the red stars on my left and right shouldersâthe ones I had to cover up when I played at BaylorâI suddenly had this
Hell yeah, I can show off my tats now! I feel free!
I wasn't constricted anymore or burning up in that long-sleeve T-shirt I wore during my last season in college. I felt as comfortable in my new surroundings as I felt in my skin.
It was hard to believe how much had changed in the two months since I had played a basketball game that really mattered, since I'd stepped onto the court with a lot of people watching and wondering how I would perform. A seventy-seven-foot banner of me was hanging on the side of the Hotel Palomar in downtown Phoenix, just across the street from our arena, and every time I saw it, I was reminded of those giant expectations.
I had spent most of my college career in the spotlight. From the moment I set foot on campus as a Baylor freshman, people said I had the potential to do things no female player had done before, that I had a combination of size (did I mention I'm six foot eight?) and skill never seen in the women's game. But it wasn't until my junior season, when we went 40-0 and won the national championship, that I really started to understand what people meant when they said things like “Brittney Griner can be as good as she wants to be.” I didn't even start playing basketball until the ninth grade; by the time I left Baylor, I was a two-time national Player of the Year, a three-time All-American, I held the NCAA career record for blocked shots, and I was the second-leading scorer in women's Division I history. Now here I was in Phoenix, as one of the most highly touted WNBA rookies ever, and a lot of people around the league were predicting we would win the championship in my first season.
As I sat at my locker, my mind drifted back to my last college game, in Oklahoma City, against Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2013 NCAA tournament. I hadn't allowed myself to think about that game much at all, and still don't, because it makes me feel a little sick to my stomach. For me, our loss to Louisvilleâone of the biggest upsets in women's tourney historyâwas about more than just basketball. And I think I lost more than just a game. In a lot of ways, that night represents my entire senior year, which was one big struggle. I was finally coming into my own as an adult, but before I could step forward and be exactly the person I wanted to be in public, before I could say and do the things I wanted to do, on my own terms, I had to go through some serious growing pains with the two main authority figures in my life: my dad, Raymond Griner, and my coach, Kim Mulkey. I love and respect them both, more than they probably know. But if I had to pick just one word to describe my relationship with each of them? Complicated. All caps COMPLICATED.
The court has almost always been a safe place for me, a space where I can rejuvenate myself. It's where I gained confidence in high school, where I started to overcome the emotional pain and loneliness I felt in middle school, when I dealt with relentless verbal bullying (sometimes by fighting back with my fists). So I was excited to step onto the court in Phoenix, because I knew once my pro career officially startedâonce I was back into the regular routine of hoopsâI could truly begin to rid myself of the bad feelings that still lingered from the final moments of my college career. I was also well aware I had raised the stakes for myself, and now I needed to deliver, both on and off the court. In the two months since the Louisville loss, I had been making all kinds of news. Some of the headlines happened without me doing anything, like when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he would consider drafting me into the NBA. But most of the stories centered around my sexuality, after I casually acknowledged I'm gay.
I've always put myself out there, in more ways than one. I knew when I was done playing for Baylor, I was going to be completely open about my sexuality. It's not like I was hiding it in Waco. I had been out to family and friends for years. But nobody in the media asked me about it at Baylor, probably because that topic was blocked before I even knew about it. When you're a college athlete, all media requests go through the sports information director's office, and I think they were especially cautious about me because the school has a policy against homosexuality. So even though I was open about being gay, I couldn't be open on Baylor's time, which is why I have a lot of mixed emotions about my four years there. I loved being a member of the Lady Bears, and the fans were great. But playing for a program and on a campus that denies a large part of my identity was a tough situation to navigate. I spent a lot of time wondering if they supported Brittney Griner the person or just Brittney Griner the basketball player.