Like Kim Mulkey or not, there's something powerful in her refusal to change her narrative
DALLAS -- Kim Mulkey has been portrayed as cold-hearted. Egotistical. Petty. Shallow. Self-absorbed. Thin-skinned. Attention-seeking.
She knows all that, and she doesn’t much care.
People made up their minds about Mulkey long ago, so trying to set the record straight would just be a waste of time. Besides, if people are criticizing her, talking about what she’s wearing or rooting against her, it means they’re paying attention.
To her but, more importantly, the sport she’s devoted her life to.
“There are LSU women who are graduates, who are famous designers, and they send me jackets and say … 'Coach, quite honestly, I don't know anything about basketball, but I will come just to see what you wear,’ " Mulkey said. “Well, you know what, I want those that come to the games for that reason to keep coming, and I want them to learn the game of basketball.
“Those that come because of basketball, forget what I wear on the sideline, look at the product on the floor. Don't make what I wear bigger than what's on that floor and what I have done X's and O's-wise as a coach," she said. "But if me wearing their jackets and things like that helps them but it also sells one more ticket or puts one more set of eyeballs on our game, so be it.”
Mulkey was answering a question about her over-the-top gameday outfits, but she might as well have been talking about her whole persona. She’s a Hall of Famer who was the first to win national championships as both a player and a coach. She’s won three titles as a coach, and this week joined C. Vivian Stringer and Gary Blair as the only coaches to take multiple programs to the Final Four.
LSU plays Virginia Tech on Friday night in the Final Four.
"I love Kim, I love the way she goes about her business," Hokies coach Kenny Brooks said. "She's a little bit more fiery than I am and her clothes are a little bit louder than mine, but we still are old-school basketball coaches."
Yet Mulkey has become an almost willing caricature of the narcissistic coach. She commands as much – if not more – attention for stomping her high heels and throwing those sequined jackets as she does her .860 winning percentage, and she refuses to push back on perceptions that either are not true or have been exaggerated.
“It is a perception out there about me that everybody has that's so not real. But I'm OK with that because these kids that play for me, the coaches that coach for me, my family that knows me (knows),” Mulkey said earlier this week.
“You can't control what people want to perceive about you.”
Much, though not all, of the disdain for Mulkey stems from her relationship with Brittney Griner and other LGBTQ athletes.
Griner was a two-time national player of the year at Baylor, and she led the Bears to their second national title under Mulkey, in 2012. Baylor was, at the time, only the seventh team to finish the season undefeated.
The two appeared to be close then. When Griner was suspended for two games in 2010 for throwing a punch that broke a Texas Tech player’s nose, Mulkey passionately defended her.
"I don't believe this incident should define Brittney Griner -- either as a person or as a player. Anyone who has been around her knows that she's a great kid,” Mulkey said then.
But a divide seemed to open between the two after Griner told ESPN in 2013 that Mulkey had told her and other LGBTQ+ players not to be open about their sexuality for fear it would hurt recruiting.
Baylor is a conservative Baptist school that bans both premarital and gay sex.
"It was more of an unwritten law [to not discuss your sexuality] ... it was just kind of, like, one of those things, you know, just don't do it," Griner said then. "They kind of tried to make it, like, 'Why put your business out on the street like that?' "
Griner has never elaborated on where things stand with Mulkey, and neither has Mulkey. When Griner was detained in Russia and seemingly everyone in women’s basketball was rallying behind her, Mulkey was conspicuous in how little she said publicly.
Only after Griner was released in December did Mulkey say, in a statement, “God is good. Prayers are powerful. Brittney is on her way home where she belongs. Our prayers remain with her and her family as they recover and heal together.”
Mulkey said Thursday she has not spoken to Griner since her release.
"No," Mulkey said. "But I'm glad she's back. I'm glad she's safe, she's sound. I think everybody is. But no, I have not."
Agree or disagree with Mulkey, love her or loathe her, there is something admirable about a woman being unbothered by the criticism and narratives others have written for her. That she is doing it in an age when her players are besieged by online trolls and haters gives them a powerful example that a woman’s worth is not measured in what others think of them.
“I feel like I've grown women's basketball within the last six months, and being able to do that, and I've grown my platform on and off the court,” Angel Reese, who’s emerged as a breakout star this season after transferring to LSU, said last week.
“I'm more than an athlete, and just being able to embrace that and having people respect women's basketball, I love it.”
Mulkey is and always has been herself. Unapologetically so. You might not like her, you might think she’s crazy. But you have to at least respect her for the success she’s had and the fact she’s never pretended to be another version of herself to achieve it.
In a world of phonies, Kim Mulkey is anything but fake.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kim Mulkey shrugs off critics, an important lesson for her LSU players