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.