The first time I spoke to Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, it was for a 2014 cover story in Curve Magazine. Her memoir, “In My Skin,” had just been released, and she was fresh off of her rookie season in the WNBA. She was laid back and relaxed – a 23-year-old kid with natural basketball talent, an ardent sense of humor, and a hell of a lot of potential.
Griner joked through most of the interview, but we also touched on some off-of-the-court topics that demanded a bit of gravity and introspection. I’ve had a soft spot for her ever since, not just because of how she was so open and honest in our discussion, but also by her humble-hearted spirit. At the time, I don’t think she realized the true talent she had or how valuable her basketball skills were.
Since then, Griner has evolved and matured, both on and off the basketball court. At 27, and now in her fifth year in the WNBA, she’s become the type of big-time basketball player every analyst, scout and fan anticipated she would be back when she was throwing the ball down the net’s throat in high school. Griner could dunk – that much was evident. She could block the heck out of the ball, too. But could she develop a mid-range jumper? Could she learn to read the defense, be patient on the block, make timely decisions on the court? How about a turn-around jumper on the baseline or hook shot in the key?
The answer is yes. She could do all of it and more. And part of what lead to this evolution was her decision to focus all of her energy into her game.
After the 2015 season, Griner made a conscious choice. She stopped messing around with social media and stopped paying attention to the outside noise, which included WNBA haters jawing about her looks, size, and questioning her gender. She decided to let her basketball do the talking instead. The decision was influenced by her tight relationship with veteran Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, since the two started playing in Russia together in 2014. Taurasi embraced Griner, giving the youngster some valuable life lessons, such as: don’t listen to the haters, be smarter about social media, and throw every last fiber of your being into basketball if you want to be the best. Taurasi should know, as she’s one of the best to ever play the game.
Griner, eager to learn and grow from her friend and mentor, took the advice and swallowed it whole. She invested in Taurasi’s words, in herself. And what we’re seeing in this postseason is the payoff in full.
Last night, Phoenix forced a pivotal game five against the Seattle Storm in the semifinal round of the WNBA playoffs. For most of the game, the Mercury looked like Rocky Balboa in the first few rounds against Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV.” They were seemingly outmatched. And every time they swung a punch, Seattle hit back even harder, draining threes and getting buckets from everyone on the floor. Mercury staples DeWanna Bonner and Taurasi were off for the first three quarters. The only constant was Griner, who kept her team in the game.
The Storm were up 53-42 at the half.
By the start of the third quarter, both teams were trading buckets. But without Seattle veteran point guard Sue Bird, who accidentally got clocked in the nose by teammate Breanna Stewart’s elbow before halftime, the Storm were a different team. They were scattered on offense, and Griner started taking advantage on the other end of the court.
Late in the quarter, Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello kept calling plays to get the ball into Griner, who wasted no time in taking it hard to rim. The momentum shifted and there was nothing the Storm could do but try and weather the onslaught, squandering a 16-point lead in the process.
In the last few minutes of the fourth quarter, the Mercury took the lead and the game remained close down the stretch. The Storm tied it at 86 with less than 30 seconds to go. Bonner got the ball on the wing and wanted to get it to Griner, but couldn’t find the angle. As the seconds ticked away, Bonner drove to the net instead and threw up a shot after cutting across the lane. The ball slid off the rim and into the hands of teammate Camille Little. She looked up, saw Griner and shoveled her the ball. Griner leapt and hooked it into the air, and it sank into the net, putting Phoenix up 88-86.
The Storm had one shot to tie it, and Bird drew up a play from the bench. They were able to get the ball into Stewart’s hands, but Griner played defense so perfectly that Stewart found herself too far under the rim and couldn’t get a shot off.
Griner played all 40 minutes of the game going 12-18 for 29 points, to go along with 12 rebounds. She not only let her basketball do the talking, she let it scream from the rooftops.
And everyone from Phoenix to Seattle and beyond heard it, loud and clear.