Brittney Griner—the six-foot-eight former Baylor Bears star center who was such a phenomenon as a college basketball student that Mark Cuban even toyed with the idea of taking her as a second-round pick for the Dallas Mavericks—can add another item to her list of accomplishments (a list that includes WNBA all-star; two-time First Team All-American; three-time Big 12 Player of the Year; NCAA Champion, AP Division 1 Player Of The Year; and more): that of “author.” Her memoir, In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court, was released today by It Books.
The book deals with Griner’s life as both an out star athlete—something that’s still a rarity even in the post-Michael Sam, post-Jason Collins era that we entered shortly after she nonchalantly exited whatever closet she may have existed in—who played college ball at a Baptist school in Waco, and the earlier life that led her to that point. An excerpt from the book appeared on ESPN.com last week, and it captures a difficult time in the life of a pre-teen girl who was defined by the size of her dominant, basketball-star body:
The teasing and mocking, the verbal bullying, began some time in sixth grade. I was at Humble Middle School now, with lots of new faces, and I was at least a few inches taller than most girls in my class, but not developing in the same ways they were. I felt like a physical misfit, my body flat and thin, my voice low-a combination that gave my classmates all the ammunition they needed. Most of us were always testing each other in some way, teasing, making cracks, the typical kid stuff at that age. But as we settled into our surroundings, the interactions grew more cruel.
Soon enough, I became a regular target.
The first time it happened, I was walking with a friend between classes. The hallways were flooded with kids, all of us buzzing as we scurried around like animals freed from a cage. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the Cool Girls was standing in front of me. I could see her friends gathered off to the side, watching, as if they had all been talking about something. Then this girl started patting my chest. I always wore really plain clothing, like a white T-shirt without any graphics on it, and my hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Instinctively, I stepped back, startled and confused. She immediately turned to her friends and said, “See? I told you. She doesn’t have a chest!” Then they all walked off, laughing, and I heard one of them say, “She must be a boy. She’s not really a girl.”
Comments like that are a big part of Griner’s story, and her choice to proudly be someone who challenges gender conformity is a big part of why people identify so strongly with her. When she appeared last month at SXSW as part of the SXSports conference, she took audience questions at the end of her panel; the first person to speak was a transgender woman who cried as she thanked Griner for being an inspiration.
She talked more about that part of the book, and of growing up, in an interview with Sports Illustrated last week. (Proving that these things aren’t limited to middle school, the first comment under the post is someone who says, “This dude can ball.”) But she also talks at length about the on-court side of her life:
SI.com: How would you analyze your first year in the WNBA?
Griner: I’m hard on myself so it was just OK. It was not what I wanted it to be. I hurt my knee, and that was a struggle. I had never been inured before, and I had to deal with that. I’m looking forward to this year, being healthy and showing people how much I have grown.
SI.com: What was the most surprising thing about WNBA play?
Griner: Speed and size, definitely. And breaking down players. We played everyone multiple times and they know you. They know if you like to go left, or if you don’t use your right hand. They know your favorite moves and what you are not good at. You have to listen to the scouting reports and that was something I have to pick up on more and really study who were are going against.
In some ways, the book tells Griner’s story in a way that makes questions about growing up an alienated gay woman who played college basketball at a Baptist university outdated—that story’s already been told, y’all—and makes more room for Griner-the-basketball-player to take center stage over Griner-the-social-justice-icon.
That’s a reasonable thing for a 23-year-old to want (though, to be certain, Griner seems committed to standing for others, as well). It also brings on some challenges, too: During the SXSW panel, panel host and ESPN reporter LZ Granderson asked her why she didn’t win Rookie of the Year in the WNBA. (Her answer was similar to what she told Sports Illustrated.)
There’s always a challenge that comes with being an icon and a symbol before you’ve just had the chance to achieve, and while Griner’s lengthy list of accomplishments in the game are impressive, they’re still the accomplishments of a 23-year-old star college athlete who has much more to achieve in her career.
In that way, Griner is a bit like her fellow former Baylor star Robert Griffin III, or Johnny Manziel, or any number of young athletes who are raised to a status that they’ve yet to fully earn by a culture who wants them to be something great. We yearn for that greatness in athletes, and Griner has all of the tools necessary to achieve it. Perhaps publishing the book now is the next step toward getting there.