The star of Baylor's elite college basketball team, the dominant player on perhaps the most dominant team in the world today, caught the ball in the low post in a conference tournament game against Kansas State three weeks ago Monday. The star center adroitly drop-stepped around the defender, leaped and dunked the ball in one smooth motion. The crowd cheered wildly as the superstar senior strutted back down the court in celebration.
A typical dunk, you might think. Except the star in question was Brittney Griner, center for the No. 1-ranked Baylor Lady Bears.
The slam was the 14th of Griner's collegiate career. The senior also scored 48 non-dunk points in Baylor's lopsided win over Kansas State, giving her a 50-point performance that cemented her status as the most dominant female basketball player in the world, professional or college.
Because of that dominance, Griner has gained a crossover appeal unmatched by any of her peers. If Baylor lives up to its No. 1 ranking and wins the NCAA tournament, which starts Saturday, Griner will conclude the best—and most famous—college career in recent memory for a women's basketball player. For a sport that suffers from stagnant national interest and is forced to fight off a culture of WNBA mockery, Griner plays the kind of game that could draw in fans, and the revenue that comes with them, for the long term.
Though the 50-point game was remarkable, it is the dunk—or rather the ability to dunk—that makes Griner different from all of the women's hoops greats that came before her. Because she is an athletic, lanky, 6'9" talent with Michael Phelps-like arms and an impressive vertical leap, Griner plays basketball at and above the rim. For female basketball players, that is truly rarefied air.
When Griner first dunked, a one-handed slam in an otherwise nondescript blowout of Jacksonville State in 2010, she was just the seventh player to dunk in a college game. The WNBA is just as devoid of dunkers—only six women have ever slammed one home in a pro game. Only Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker have dunked twice in WNBA history.
Griner has dunked it 13 times since. Her total is twice that of Candace Parker, women college hoops' second most prolific dunker. But that pales in comparison to her monstrous high school career. In 32 games at Houston's Nimitz High her senior year, Griner dunked 52 times. Five-two. That's almost two per contest. In one epic game, she dunked it seven times. On the defensive end, she averaged 12 blocks a game.
The senior center is unlikely to throw it down as many times in the pros, where her size advantage is less pronounced. But the mere ability to dunk with ease, to play above the rim in game action, is a transcendent possibility for women's basketball. The WNBA has had taller stars—the first pick in the 1998 draft was a 7-foot-2 Polish center named Margo Dydek, who led the league in blocks nine times. But Dydek didn't dunk, at least not during games.
Griner's dunk against Kansas State wasn't on a fast break with no defenders around. She spun off Wildcats' guard Bri Craig, planted her left foot, and powered up to the rim from just inside the lane, all without dribbling the ball. When Griner finds herself with low-post mismatches against guards in the WNBA, she will not hesitate to join Blake Griffin, LeBron James & Co. in posterizing the opposition. That's something the league has never seen.
To understand how much Griner breaks the mold of female hoops stars, look at the greats that paved the way for her dominance. Most of the truly famous women's basketball players—Sheryl Swoops, Cheryl Miller, Tina Thompson, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Nancy Lieberman—are all 6'3" or shorter. The so-called giants of the women's game were Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie, who dominated the WNBA in its early years as centers for the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks. Leslie is 6'5", and Lobo is 6'4". Griner, meanwhile, is either 6'8" or 6'9", depending on which official record you believe. In other words, even the tallest women's basketball legends would need a lofty pair of Louboutins to stand eye-to-eye with Griner.
Because of her height advantage over every one of her peers, Griner can occupy the vertical space between the bottom of the backboard and the rim with impunity. Though Griner excels at all facets of the game, her most notable skill is blocking shots. She defends the rim with ease and challenges most shots in the paint and rebounds, leading to some eye-popping blocks numbers during her career at Baylor. The senior has averaged more than five blocks per game over the past 3+ seasons, topped by a staggering 6.4 rejections per game in her freshman year. Since then, Baylor's opponents have tailored their offensive game plans to avoid Griner's long arms, and she has still averaged 4.7 blocks a game.
No player in the NBA today—not LeBron James, not Dwight Howard, not anybody—approaches the effect Griner has on opposing offenses with her overwhelming height. In the history of basketball, the closest parallel to her athletic superiority over her peers is the early NBA years of Wilt Chamberlain, when he literally towered over the competition, blocked everything in sight and scored 100 points in a game that one time.
Before you reject that comparison as being unfit of Wilt The Stilt, check out the single-game performances Griner has strung together over the last two seasons. As a junior, she led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the school's first national title. She was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, and despite being regularly triple-teamed in the championship game against Notre Dame, she put up a 26-13-5 (points-rebounds-blocks) to lead the Lady Bears to an 80-61 win.
Griner has been just as unstoppable this season, leading Baylor to a 32-1 record and the overall No. 1 seed in the women's tournament, which starts Saturday. After her 50-point bonanza, which came in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, Griner recorded a 30-10-7 the next day in a romp over Oklahoma State. The following day, she threw up a 31-8-5 against Iowa State to lead Baylor to its third straight Big 12 title.
Baylor is 72-1 since the beginning of last season, a record that even the streaking Miami Heat can't come close to matching. Of the 72 wins, 66 were by double figures. The Phoenix Mercury are salivating at the chance to draft Griner with the first pick in the WNBA draft, where she will get a chance to prove herself against the best competition in the world.
Even if Phoenix lives up to its recent last-place reputation in 2013, Griner will be must-see TV for all basketball fans. The WNBA has been stuck in neutral for a long time, lacking a superstar. The NBA had Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson to take the game to a new vertical plane. Griner has the potential to be that transformative force for the women's game.