Living above the rim: Griner reflects on her 13 slams

Baylor's Brittney Griner (42) dunks in front of Texas' Nneka Enemkpali (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Austin, Texas. Baylor won 75-48. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Baylor's Brittney Griner (42) dunks in front of Texas' Nneka Enemkpali (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Austin, Texas. Baylor won 75-48. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Baylor’s Brittney Griner (42) dunks in front of Texas’ Nneka Enemkpali (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Austin, Texas. Baylor won 75-48. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Waco Tribune-Herald via Associated Press

The first time Brittney Griner wrapped her hands around a rim, she was a precocious ninth grader at Houston Nimitz. It was during a volleyball practice that one of the team’s assistants glanced upward to the rim, back at a then-6-foot-1 Griner and then to a loose basketball.

“We were practicing and one of our dudes that helped us out with volleyball stuff, he said, ‘Brittney, come here, go dunk this,'” Griner said. “I said all right, and I just kind of went and did it. And I was like, I didn’t know I could do it either.”

That’s when Griner started practicing dunks at home. She soon broke her home goal dunking, and her father didn’t believe her at first. The dunks fell like rain from then on. She dunked for the first time in a game her sophomore year at Nimitz, causing hysterics in the stands. Fans rushed the court with several minutes left in the game.

Later in her high school career, she didn’t happen again for another decade. And then another six years after that.

Griner surpassed Tennessee’s Candace Parker for the all time lead earlier this season when she dunked for an eighth time against Tennessee-Martin in Hawaii. She’s already dunked six times this year, nearly twice her total from any other full season at Baylor. She chalks that up to her dwindling time in college and her desire to make the most of it.

And yet she still hasn’t dunked at the Ferrell Center since throwing down twice in the span of two minutes against Texas State on Jan. 2, 2010. Now, nearly to the confluence of her college and pro careers, she only has potentially four more home games to get it done.

“I want to try to get something at home,” Griner said. “I’ve been dunking on the road, been having this road warrior mentality I guess. I don’t know what it is. I guess when I’m on the road I’m just a little more aggressive. When you’re on the road you’ve got to fight the other team’s crowd, so I’m thinking about it more. And then when I get home I’m a little more relaxed, not thinking that much of it.”

In her memory, Griner’s dunks occupy different strata of value based on a loose rubric she uses on herself. She prefers dunks out of half court sets instead of on fast breaks because it ratchets up the degree of difficulty. If possible, she’d like to throw down with both hands because the impact is greater. And forget clean paths to the rim. The more traffic swirling around Griner’s takeoff, the more impressive the dunk.

But the great irony here is that Griner is hesitant to overvalue perhaps the most outwardly acknowledged part of her game. Dunks are showstopping moments because of their sheer scarcity in the women’s game, but to Griner, they’ve always taken a back seat to blocks. And winning. And any number of minutiae that contributes to her value as a basketball player.

“Some of them happen so quickly that all you have time to do is just go nuts,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “Dunking is a very small part of her game. But because you don’t see girls do it very often, to the fans and to the public it’s a big deal. To Brittney it’s not a big deal. The big deal part of dunking is it sends a message. I’m strong, I’m powerful, and I might miss this dunk, but you’re going to have to guard me tonight.”

Here are Griner’s favorite of her 13 dunks, where the opposition couldn’t do it well enough.

Nov. 24, 2009 — Jacksonville State

In some respects, Griner’s first dunk at Baylor will always be the most special. Baylor had only played three games when the Lady Bears welcomed Jacksonville State to the Ferrell Center just months after Griner arrived at Baylor. The crowd was hardly a sell-out, but less than five minutes in, nearly all of them were standing. Griner twirled open into the lane, and Kelli Griffin lobbed in a pass that seemed to take eons to get there. But the backside help never arrived, leaving Griner without a defender. She took two steps, extended her right hand and stuffed it home. Just like that, Griner was tied for fourth all time on the women’s dunk list. The degree of difficulty wasn’t especially high, but the occasion made it memorable.

Jan. 2, 2010 — Texas State

Only two players in the history of the women’s game have dunked twice in a game. Griner is one, and she did it against Texas State at the Ferrell Center (puzzlingly, she hasn’t dunked there since). Her first was notable because it was her first two-handed slam at Baylor. She handled a short layoff pass from Melissa Jones, cleaved down the lane with two moon steps and latched onto the rim so hard with both hands that the entire apparatus shook from the impact. Less than two minutes later, she spun free on the baseline and dunked with her right hand. Says Griner of the first: “That was one of my favorite ones then, just because it was a two-handed slam.”

Feb. 19, 2011 — at Texas Tech

Griner may find it difficult to pinpoint a favorite dunk, but it’s easy to spot her least favorite. Incredibly easy. She’s only dunked once in a losing effort, and this one was it, the only slam of her sophomore year. She tomahawked in a two-handed dunk to tie the game at 19 early, but then-No. 1 Baylor was eventually on the wrong end of a 56-45 score in Lubbock. “Kelsi Baker was playing up on me, so when I caught it I had time to take a step and then I just went up and dunked it,” Griner said. “That one wasn’t too sweet though just because we lost that game. It really didn’t count for me.”

March 24, 2012 — #15 Georgia Tech

Griner only dunked twice her junior year, but both came in the NCAA tournament. And this one, against Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16, is probably Griner’s pick of the litter. After a missed shot with about 6:30 left in the game, Griner tore off ahead of the defense and Brooklyn Pope found her with a deep toss. Griner took a single dribble, planted two feet and slammed it home with two hands. There’s a four-foot-tall glossy photo of Griner rising for the dunk currently hanging in the Lady Bears’ weight room. “I think in that picture I’m standing up like, ‘Wow,'” Odyssey Sims said.

Jan. 2, 2013 — at TCU

Any time Griner can ramp up the degree of difficulty on her dunks, she’ll take it. And perhaps no dunk had as much static surrounding it as did this one. During Baylor’s Big 12 opener this year, Griner received a pass on the baseline early in the first half and immediately made a move to the rim. There were two players in her immediate vicinity, and while one gave way, the other one looked like she was stepping to challenge the dunk. Griner went up anyway. “I saw the girl coming and I was like, alright, I’m just going to go on and jump,” Griner said. “And I just jumped and she got out the way and I just slammed it. That one was crazy because it was in traffic.”

Jan. 23, 2013 — at Iowa State

Griner’s dexterity sometimes gets washed out by the sheer power of her dunks. Not this time. Incredibly, Griner, all 6-foot-8 of her, picked off a pass, ran nearly the entire floor and dunked with two hands. On the road. “Kramer, my son, said, ‘You need to tell Brittney to get in a passing lane and get some breakaways,” Mulkey said. “And the next game, she gets her first breakaway.”

Feb. 9, 2013 — at Texas

Griner’s latest dunk, so it has to be her favorite, right? It was certainly one of her most unique. With the game in the balance in the second half, Sims whipped an in-bounds pass to Griner near the top of the key. With the 6-foot-7 Imani McGee-Stafford guarding her, Griner stepped past her marker and splashed through a powerful two-handed slam. But picking a favorite? That’s tough. “All of them really this year,” Griner said. “I like all of them. The Texas one just recently. Any time I two-hand slam I always like those.”

Other dunks: Feb. 3, 2010 — at Kansas State; March 20, 2012 – Florida; Nov. 17, 2012 – Tennessee-Martin; Jan. 16, 2013 – at Kansas State; Jan. 30, 2013 – at Texas Tech.