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GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL

USA Basketball’s Brittney Griner is finally at peace with herself

Brittney Griner, in action against Spain Monday, has always been a defensive force, and now has improved her offensive game.
Brittney Griner, in action against Spain Monday, has always been a defensive force, and now has improved her offensive game.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — Her smile is gleaming. Her swagger is peaking. And her post game is sharpening. The process of Brittney Griner becoming comfortable in her own skin is ongoing, yet her bubbly personality here at the Olympics indicates that it’s near fruition.

It’s been a difficult journey for the Team USA standout, who was considered perhaps the most dominant center in women’s basketball history when she entered Baylor seven years ago. She has developed into a defensive force and played solidly for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, but that has been overshadowed by off-court issues, including a domestic incident and an annulled marriage.

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In addition, Griner has yet to become the MVP-caliber player she was expected to be, and that has increased the scrutiny even more for the shy, gangly kid from Houston who said she has taken years to love and appreciate herself.

Griner is 6 feet 8 inches, has a deep voice, and is a lesbian. She painstakingly learned to accept those facts about herself, while digesting every bit of outside criticism that she wasn’t Lady Shaq or didn’t look like most women.

“It took a while,” said Griner, who scored 10 points in Monday’s 103-63 win over Spain at Youth Arena. “Well, I always loved being tall, I always did. But everything else — my voice, my shoe size, being a lesbian — it took a while. I would say college, but I still had to put a shell over me.

“I made a choice when I went pro to come out and be who I am, and I wasn’t going to let anybody change that, whether that cost me endorsements, cost me whatever. I was going to be happy with myself.”

Brittney Griner posed for a selfie with fans Monday after the US defeated Spain.
Brittney Griner posed for a selfie with fans Monday after the US defeated Spain.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

At Baylor, Griner dominated the post and scored at will because her opponents were smaller and less talented. In the WNBA, defenses are designed to stop her, and her post game has been slower to develop than her defensive prowess. On Monday against Spain, she showed an array of spins and twists in the paint, a byproduct of her arduous work on her offensive game.

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“She gets better as the tournament goes on,” said US coach Geno Auriemma. “She was great at the World Championships, and a lot of times she gets us going because right from the beginning of the game, it’s a tough matchup for anybody that we play against.

“She’s certainly better [offensively] than she was in college. I could see the growth in her game, how many different ways she has to score that she didn’t have when she was in college. That’s the sign of a pro; you have to keep adding something.”

The improvement in Griner’s game coincides with her personal growth. She took being a target internally. She felt awkward because of her height. At Baylor, she was reluctant to come out about her sexuality, and while all of this inner reflection was occurring, the demands on her game were increasing.

“I look at Brittney kind of like I do Maya [Moore],” said US forward Seimone Augustus. “It took years for Maya to grow into what she is right now. It’s the same with Brittney.

“She came in with so much hype, she was one of the biggest players that we’ve ever seen, and you’ve just got to give her time. Relax, she is still early in her career.”

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Professional athletes are supposed to be supremely confident. That’s how they reached this level. They are supposed to scoff at criticism, not internalize it. But that’s hardly the case, especially when you fight the self-esteem battle alone as Griner did.

“I didn’t talk to anybody, I kind of dealt with it on my own, and I guess it just made me tough,” she said. “I got to a point where I was tired of trying to live a life that somebody else wanted me to live, try to fit in and be like everybody else, so I made that decision to be who I am.

“And that’s how I am now. If you don’t like something I do, that’s tough for you. But I’m happy with myself. Because every day when I looked in the mirror, I wasn’t happy with myself. I wasn’t looking at who I was, and now I am, so that’s how I’m able to deal with it.”

Said Augustus of the coming-out process: “There’s been so many people in the league and people that I know personally that hid who they were and somebody close to them passed away and they just felt regret, that I never got a chance to tell this person who I am.

“For people like Brittney who had enough courage to do so, instead of spreading hate, we need to coddle those people, show them that it’s OK.”

Griner said the process of telling her father about her sexuality was difficult. It was tough for him to accept at first. She idolized her father, even wanting to join the military as he did.

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Instead, Griner is representing her country in a different way. She is enjoying this odyssey thoroughly now that her mind and soul are free.

“I always get messages on my social media,” she said. “I even have older couples whisper in my ear and tell me, ‘Thank you for what you do.’

“That’s everything. That’s more than winning a game or having all these accolades. You’re helping somebody’s life. That’s a feeling that nothing else can really give you.”


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.