WNBA star Brittney Griner remembers a day in seventh grade as if it were yesterday.
Class had just let out and the hallway was flooded with students. As Griner made her way through the crowd, a boy stopped her. “You’re a dude,” he said.
“I just stood there and took it. I was humiliated. The whole school was laughing at me,” Griner recalled.
In college at Baylor, Griner was a phenomenon on the court. She finished as the NCAA’s second-leading women’s scorer of all time and created a buzz with her dunks and athleticism, twice winning player-of-the-year awards.
Once she graduated, Griner decided it was time to be completely open about her sexuality, regardless of the fallout. Before the WNBA draft in April, Griner revealed she was a lesbian.
“I didn’t have a real role model that I could look up to that was out openly,” she said. “I knew there were a lot of younger girls that needed someone.”
The Phoenix Mercury selected Griner as the top overall pick in the draft and she has made an impact on the court, averaging 14.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots a game. She has missed the last two games because of a knee injury and is day to day going into Thursday’s game against the Sparks at Staples Center (ESPN2, 7 p.m.).
In her short time in the league, Griner has become a celebrity. The first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike, she can’t go anywhere without being approached by fans seeking her autograph, she said.
But the memories of being bullied by peers while she was growing up still haunt her. Griner remembers those who refused to believe she was a girl and those who questioned her sexual orientation. Others groped her and taunted her verbally, she said.
“I was always taller, my feet were always bigger and my voice was deeper,” said Griner, who is 6 feet 8 and has a wingspan of 88 inches.
After her first day of high school, Griner sat on the stairs outside of her mother’s bedroom and said she liked girls.
“I felt a release, I felt better,” Griner said. “She was so cool about it. She was like ‘I kinda already know, and I love you.’”
Things were a bit more complicated with her father, a former Marine. The two often butted heads, leading Griner to move out during her senior year.
As a senior at Houston’s Nimitz High, Griner led her team to the Texas Division 5A girls’ basketball state championship game. That season she dunked 52 times in 32 games, quickly becoming the nation’s top recruit.
But on the court she was vulnerable to taunts from opposing crowds. After games, Griner would often cry alone in her bedroom.
“When I was younger, it really bothered me to the point where I was like ‘I don’t even want to be alive; why am I getting treated like that?’” Griner said. “But as I got older, I started caring less.”
Griner chose Baylor and started anew.
“When I got to college, honestly, I was like, I really need to get to the point where this stuff doesn’t bother me,” Griner said. “End of sophomore year, I kind of got to the point where I’d just block it out.”
That year she got a tattoo on her right rib cage of skulls with the words ‘laugh now, cry later.’ Then as a senior, she got a tattoo of a double-linked female sign on her side.
“I came up with that,” she said, “showing that I am a lesbian.”
Even though she was open about her private life with her family, friends and teammates, Griner wore a sleeve covering her tattoos while she played basketball.
Griner told ESPN the Magazine that she kept her sexuality a secret because Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey feared it could negatively affect recruiting.
“At school, I know she was a little more uptight about an issue that at this time in America is really in the open right now,” said Diana Taurasi, Griner’s teammate on the Mercury.
After going public about three months ago, Griner still deals with bullies, mainly on Twitter and message boards. But the bullies’ venom has lost much of its sting.
Griner said she gets about 10 tweets a day from young people reaching out to her for help. They ask: “How did you come out to your mom? How did you deal with people judging you?”
Griner responds, often telling her fans not to listen to others.
She recently followed her own advice.
When Griner decided not to play in the 2012 London Olympics, some speculated that she sat out because she wouldn’t have been able to pass the Olympics’ gender tests.
“I wanted to stay in school,” Griner said. “My mom, she’s sick; I just wanted to see her.”
Griner said she didn’t let the talk bother her.
“It was just stupid,” she said, adding that she intends to participate in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “People are always going to come up with dumb stuff and rumors that they don’t actually know the truth to.”
But what impresses Mercury Coach Corey Gaines most about Griner has nothing to do with her basketball skills.
“Her personality is so positive, so upbeat,” Gaines said.
It wasn’t always that way.
“I’ve learned to love myself,” Griner said.