The Talking Stick Resort Arena court seemed to light up when Brittney Griner, full of smiles and laughter, played rounds of one-on-one basketball with several high school girls attending Phoenix Mercury media day.
Earlier the 26-year-old baller playfully teased with high fives and low fives with a much shorter Mercury employee for a commercial.
She looked loose after being bombarded by the media and answering serious questions about basketball, the upcoming season and hoisting championship banners.
Griner even smiled while talking about being bullied, her sexuality and the advocacy and work she does for the community. But Griner couldn’t keep her smile when she saw the impact of her charity work.
She recalls being on the verge of tears as she handed out shoes, water and even pet food from the back of a van to the homeless in downtown Phoenix as part of her “BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive.”
“I broke down in the middle of the video when we were doing it,” Griner says. “There was a guy and a lady and they were just so happy. They didn’t even care if the shoes fit they were just so happy just to have that.”
The 6-foot 8-inch star center for the Phoenix Mercury has become a staple in the community since the Mercury drafted her in 2013. Embodying a mantra similar to the Mercury’s 2017 motto “We Will Be Heard,” Griner balances community work and basketball as she dominates on the court and revolutionizes the way basketball is played in the WNBA. But it’s what she is doing off the court that is also game changing.
Off the court
Griner has always had a penchant for using her platform for advocacy and giving back to the community. She revealed she is a lesbian almost immediately after the draft, generating headlines in the WNBA and LGBT community. Since then, she has inspired the LGBT community and was even selected as a 2014 Phoenix Pride Parade grand marshal.
On the community side, she often volunteers time and autographed merchandise to the Mercury and other Phoenix organizations. She says the spark to give to the community is about staying grounded.
“Just driving around the city and I always notice my surroundings,” Griner says. “I always give out money and stuff like that. If I see somebody out there with a sign, I understand everybody has a hard life. Everybody doesn’t have good opportunities.”
One of Griner’s biggest initiatives in 2016, “BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive,” saw her partner with Mercury and Phoenix Rescue Mission to collect and deliver about 500 shoes to the homeless. The drive came, again, from her just looking out her car window.
“I saw so many homeless people with no shoes on,” Griner says. “And I’m just like, ‘It is entirely too hot in Phoenix. That’s inhumane.’ We have so many shoes. We accumulate so many that we don’t even wear half the time that they can go to a good use instead of just sitting around or signing them and putting them on a stand. I’d rather put them on somebody’s feet who actually needs them.”
Griner plans to have more shoe drives during the 2017 season and is recruiting WNBA teams to help. It all comes back to helping people and making people happy, the star center says.
“Putting a smile on their face makes the difference for me,” Griner says.
Griner is also a strong advocate against bullying and for LGBT rights. She has made videos for the It Gets Better Project, an organization that helps LGBT youth with inspirational short films. She is raising money to release a “BG:BU” app that would help youth with bullying. Griner is motivated to help after being bullied as a kid.
“Being a black lesbian, just speaking out on all the hatred that we get just because we want to be with somebody that we love. It’s just wrong,” Griner says. “I feel like it’s something that I need to and have to do.”
Griner can also often be seen on her social media embracing young fans—from playful cheerleading routines for Mercury Camp Kids or holding young fans up for photos.
“It’s warming for me,” Griner says. “I mean, we talk about championships, we talk about putting up banners and you know legacies on the court. But just giving back and just having the younger generation, younger girls looking up to you, wanting to be like you, just so excited to even just see you or give you a high five or give you a hug. I mean that’s the most gratifying thing that you can do.”
On the Court
Griner and fellow star Diana Taurasi are the only two players playing for the Mercury from the 2016 roster. Griner, who averaged 14.5 points, 3.1 blocked shots and 6.5 rebounds last season, signed a multiyear contract with Mercury in March and is expected to be the team’s centerpiece.
“Brittney Griner is the present and the future of the WNBA and we are fortunate to guarantee she continues her growth here in Phoenix,” says Jim Pitman, Mercury’s general manager, in a statement.
The three-time All-Star center signed the contract live on the Phoenix Suns pregame show, telling the hosts that she considers Phoenix a home and that she loves the fans. Griner says she’s also ready to live up to Pitman’s statement.
“It’s big shoes to fill. It used to make me nervous before,” Griner says. “But now I take that as the highest compliment I can get and the highest motivation. Because with that comes expected things. I’m really looking forward to fulfilling those shoes.”
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year says she’s ready to be more aggressive and take on a more vocal role this year.
“This(year’s) Brittney Griner is more focused, more hungry,” Griner says. “I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder.”