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Towering Power
L. JON WERTHEIM
March 28, 2011
LED BY BRITTNEY GRINER, A 6'8" CENTER WHO PLAYS ABOVE THE RIM WITH INCOMPARABLE SKILLS, BAYLOR IS POISED TO WIN ITS SECOND NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IN SIX YEARS
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March 28, 2011

Towering Power

LED BY BRITTNEY GRINER, A 6'8" CENTER WHO PLAYS ABOVE THE RIM WITH INCOMPARABLE SKILLS, BAYLOR IS POISED TO WIN ITS SECOND NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IN SIX YEARS

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Want a vivid illustration of the success of Title IX? Take a tour of the women's basketball facilities at Baylor University. The Lady Bears play in front of exhilarated home crowds as large as 10,569 (the record), routinely outdrawing their counterparts on the Baylor men's team. At halftime the players repair to an NBA-quality locker room, flush with a kitchen area, a whirlpool and a theater-style screening room. The players' dressing stalls are outfitted with individual flat screens and DVD players.

On off days the team runs through its sets at its own gym in the practice facility. The irrepressible coach, Kim Mulkey, has an office with a private bathroom and a balcony overlooking the practice courts. "Ask me what my budget is, I can't give you a dollar figure," says Mulkey, whose salary tops $1 million annually. "But I can tell you this: I've never been turned down for anything I've asked for. We don't want for anything."

In basketball's version of the chicken-and-egg conundrum, it's debatable whether the luxe trappings lure elite players who win games or whether the elite players who win games generate the luxe trappings. Regardless, this we do know: Waco, Texas—home to the Dr Pepper Museum, Rudy's gas-station barbecue and more trucks than cars—is a new hotbed for women's hoops.

On Sunday, No. 1 seed Baylor began its quest for a national title in the friendly confines of its home arena, the Ferrell Center, by demolishing No. 16 seed Prairie View 66--30. (The Lady Bears' second-round game against West Virginia was played after SI went to press.) Tennessee and UConn may have won 12 of the last 16 NCAA titles between them, rendering other programs the corporate Joes stuck in middle management, but this glass ceiling is starting to fissure. And Baylor is the program perhaps most likely to break through.

Baylor won the NCAA title in 2005 and reached the Final Four last season. Yet this year's vintage might be the best. Early in the season the Lady Bears came within a point of beating UConn in Hartford—a game they should have won. Baylor recovered to reel off 21 straight victories, claim the Big 12 title outright and enter the NCAA tournament as the top seed in the Dallas region. "I don't know how many ways I can spin it," says Missouri coach Robin Pingeton. "Front to back, side to side, defense to offense, they're a tremendous team."

What makes Baylor's prospects particularly intriguing—both this season and projecting forward—is its youth. There is only one senior in the regular rotation, Melissa Jones, a versatile guard who lost vision in her right eye after her head hit the floor while diving for a loose ball last month. She has regained some of her sight (doctors expect her to fully recover) and has continued to practice and play. With Jones below full strength, Mulkey leaned on a lineup of all sophomores and freshmen to win the Big 12 tournament. "It's the young leading the young," says the coach. "We're very talented and very deep, but talent and depth doesn't always win national championships. Because of our youth we have to teach [the players] to be cohesive."

Unmistakably, Baylor's star is sophomore center Brittney Griner, who is threatening to do for post play in women's basketball what Dick Fosbury did for the high jump: simply pervert the art beyond recognition. Griner is 6'8", the tallest player in the women's game, and actually plays bigger, given not only her 88-inch wingspan but also her athleticism. She runs the court, catches passes in traffic, and moves her feet as though playing Dance, Dance, Revolution.

Her height came as a surprise to her parents, Ray and Sandra, who are 6'1" and 5'8", respectively. The tallest of Griner's three older siblings is her brother, DeCarlo, who is 6'1". Griner first dunked in a game in 10th grade, when she estimates she was 6'3". In her senior year at Houston's Nimitz High she dunked 52 times in 32 games.

There have been other female players who have dunked in games. There have been no other women who have dunked in the half-court set: posting up, pivoting and throwing down. Even scarier, a latecomer to basketball—she played mostly soccer and volleyball before high school—Griner is still adding dimension to her game and exploring the borders of her limits. "Look, this is a once-in-a-lifetime player," says Mulkey. "I mean, she plays above the rim."

Griner's dunks during games and in the pregame layup line have, predictably, become popular online. She also generated her share of clicks last season when she slugged a Texas Tech player after jostling for position, breaking the opponent's nose. (Spark up YouTube if you must.) After the punch Griner's supporters were quick to note that it was wildly out of character. And this season Griner has precisely zero technical fouls, despite the inevitably physical double- and triple-team defenses she faces.

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