Nicki Collen delivers on promise to retire Brittney’s Griner’s jersey

Baylor women's basketball head coach Nicki Collen (left) and Brittney Griner (right) celebrate Griner's retired jersey being unveiled before then-No. 21 Baylor women's basketball's conference game against Texas Tech on Sunday in the Foster Pavilion. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor, Braden Murray | LTVN Sports Director

Baylor women’s basketball head coach Nicki Collen planted this seed the moment she got to Waco.

When she was hired in May 2021, her first thought wasn’t “How can I fill Kim Mulkey’s shoes?” Collen’s first order of business was simple: Get Brittney Griner’s No. 42 jersey in the rafters.

LTVN’s Braden Murray gives you a front-row view of the ceremony

Griner’s Russian detainment and the WNBA season threw a wrench in that plan, but Collen finally pulled through on her promise when the program honored Griner before the Bears’ 29-point win over Texas Tech on Sunday.

Collen said she doesn’t think Baylor has ever honored a former athlete the way the Bears did Griner. She said that was her main goal though — to make sure Griner felt loved by “our team, our university [and] our community.”

“It was emotional to see her tears,” Collen said. “It was emotional to see her smile. Whether this is healing or whatever, I just think she’s a part of our family, and I’m so grateful that we were able to get this done, and I’m so thankful to all the people that helped make that happen.”

Griner told the ESPN broadcast that she was “full of emotion” watching her jersey rise to the rafters of the Foster Pavilion.

“As soon as it started to go up, that’s when I started to break,” the former three-time All-American said. “It just all came together at the right time. There’s always a plan, and you just have to trust in that plan.”

Sunday marked Griner’s first return to Waco since her playing days, as she developed an estranged relationship with the university and former head coach Kim Mulkey shortly after her senior season (2012-13).

That rift, paired with the fact that Griner didn’t graduate, put a blockade on a jersey retirement. Six other Lady Bears had their jerseys retired before Griner — including her teammate, Odyssey Sims — but Mulkey had a rule in which an athlete had to graduate to receive the honor.

Griner graduated and earned her degree in 2019, and Collen’s hiring in 2021 helped rebuild that bridge between Griner and Baylor.

The 6-foot-9-inch forward said being back on campus for her jersey retirement meant everything.

“I feel seen,” Griner said. “You give so much to the organization, to the school, and then for them to honor you and appreciate you, you just feel seen.”

Collen may have never coached Griner, but the 2018 WNBA Coach of the Year had plenty of battles against the Phoenix Mercury center. Collen said Griner is a unique talent, and her on-court ability is unmatched.

“I can go back to watching her in AAU. She’s the first player I’d ever seen catch it in the high post, take one dribble and dunk it with two hands,” Collen said. “Like, it was different. It was effortless. It was not, ‘Hey, I got a steal, and I’ve got a breakaway, and I can get my steps right, and I’m going to dunk it.’”

Griner totaled 18 career dunks during her four years at Baylor, which inspired the current roster during their childhood.

“I remember when I was really young, I told my dad, ‘Dad, I don’t know if I’m going to be that big, but I want to be as dominant as her,’” sophomore forward Bella Fontleroy said. “‘I want to be able to go out and make people alter their shots and block shots, rebound, run the floor.’

“And I was like, ‘Maybe I can even dunk one day, too!’”

Brittney Griner remains as the only player in NCAA women’s basketball history to have over 2,000 career points and 500 career blocks. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor
Brittney Griner remains as the only player in NCAA women’s basketball history to have over 2,000 career points and 500 career blocks. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

Griner holds numerous Big 12, NCAA and school records, and she helped Baylor go 40-0 en route to the 2012 National Championship her junior season. Everything she accomplished let the younger generation know that Griner is a household name in Baylor Athletics history.

“When you hear Baylor, you think of Brittney Griner,” senior guard Jana Van Gytenbeek, a former Stanford transfer, said. “That was always in the back of my head when I was deciding to come here.”

Michael Haag is a third year Journalism student from Floresville, a small town about 30 miles south of San Antonio. Haag is entering his third year at the Lariat and is hoping to continue developing his sports reporting skill set. After graduation, he plans to work on a Master’s degree in Journalism in order to one day teach at the college level. He does, however, plan on becoming a sports reporter for a publication after grad school.