Already a YouTube sensation in high school as a result of her unprecedented size and dazzling repertoire of dunks, 6-foot-8 Baylor phenom Brittney Griner readily embraced the label of women's basketball's next crossover star.
The national spotlight came sooner than expected on Wednesday night. Too bad it was because of her temper instead of her talent.
Incensed after Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle flung her across the paint while grappling for position in the paint midway through the second half, Griner retaliated with a fierce right fist to her opponent's nose. Officials stopped play to review the tape for about 10 minutes before assessing a flagrant and technical foul against Griner and ejecting her from the game.
"There's no place for that in sports," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey told reporters after the game. "I will deal with Brittney Griner, and it won't be discussed in the media. You saw the game, leave it at that. Not [Texas Tech coach] Kristy Curry, not me, not any coach or any player will ever be proud of what took place on that floor tonight."
Mulkey suspended Griner for two games on Thursday evening, Baylor's regular-season finale against Texas and its first Big 12 tournament game next week. That's more than the one-game suspension for "fighting action" that the NCAA requires yet far less than the eight-game penalty star Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount served last year after a similar incident in which he punched a Boise State player in the wake of the season opener.
Barncastle shot all four free throws after exchanging her bloodied jersey for a new one, but she left the game for good immediately afterward. She remained on the bench, a tissue stuffed in her swollen nose to keep it from bleeding.
What transformed Griner into a mini-celebrity in high school were YouTube videos of her numerous dunks. The clips showcased Griner's size 17 sneakers, 88-inch wingspan and surprising coordination, drawing millions of viewers including curious reporters, coaches and even Shaquille O'Neal.
"Brittney just brings something to the game that, honestly, I don't think we've seen," HoopGurlz analyst Mark Lewis told the Houston Chronicle in 2009. "You can go back and look at a Candace Parker or go even further back and look at a Cheryl Miller. They changed the game, but there's been another Cheryl Miller. I think Brittney Griner may come and go without there being another Brittney Griner for a long time."
The incident will overshadow what has been an outstanding freshman year. Griner has lived up to the hype, leading Baylor to a 22-7 record and a top-15 ranking. In a below-the-rim sport often derided as dull compared to the men's game, Griner had established herself as the rare above-the-rim player, averaging 19 points and 9 rebounds as a freshman and dunking effortlessly several times.
Griner will surely miss more than one game for her punch, perhaps even for the remainder of the season. No matter when she returns, however, the stigma of this incident will stick with her much longer.
- Brittney Griner