Saturday, April 20, 2024
HomeSportsBaylor fans celebrate Brittney Griner's highly anticipated comeback to the team

Baylor fans celebrate Brittney Griner’s highly anticipated comeback to the team

WACO, Texas — At halftime of Baylor’s game against Texas Tech on Sunday, fans took part in a dunk contest. In the final round, one contestant asked Brittney Griner to pass him the ball off the backboard, which she immediately agreed to without any practice reps. Her first attempt missed the contestant altogether. Her second pass was a little too soft, and the fan was already on his way down when he caught the ball, so he was forced to lay it in instead of being able to dunk.

As the crowd cheered the effort despite the result, Griner decided that the fans were owed a slam anyway. In her bulky Baylor letterman jacket and Chucks on her feet, Griner took the ball and jammed it in with one hand, making up for her miss in the assist department.

They were doing a halftime dunk contest… AND THEN BRITTNEY GRINER CAME ON THE COURT AND THREW ONE DOWN #NCAAW | @NoCapSpaceWBB pic.twitter.com/K5gIrRdUwP — Tyler DeLuca (@TylerDeLuca) February 18, 2024 In a sense, it was a familiar sight for the Bears fans in attendance. No player in women’s basketball history has dunked as often as Griner, who had 18 in her Baylor career. The visual of Griner slamming the ball through the hoop, and celebrating uproariously afterward, is one that they’ve grown accustomed to.

But Griner hadn’t dunked at Baylor in more than a decade. Until Sunday, she hadn’t been at a Bears game since her collegiate career ended in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The dominance, the joy, the silliness — they had all been absent.

Sunday was a turning point. Twelve years after she played her last game in a Bears uniform, Baylor finally retired Griner’s No. 42 jersey. The three-time All-American, two-time national player of the year, one-time national champion and Final Four most outstanding player, and all-time career blocks leader is now memorialized in the rafters of Foster Pavilion, the seventh player in program history to earn the honor. Baylor and Brittney Griner are choosing to once again link themselves together, this time for good.

This moment. @brittneygriner #SicEm | #GreaterThan pic.twitter.com/cTfnyOiVLi — Baylor Women’s Basketball (@BaylorWBB) February 18, 2024 At an alumni event on Saturday, Griner said that she knows she hasn’t been around in a while, but that is going to change. Baylor University is her home, and now that she has returned once, she will keep coming back.

“All I wanted was Brittney to feel loved, by our team, by our university, by our community,” Baylor coach Nicki Collen said afterward. “It was emotional to see her tears. It was emotional to see her smiles yesterday. Whether this is healing or whatever, she’s a part of our family and I’m so grateful that we were able to get this done.”

The statistical argument for retiring Griner’s jersey is a no-brainer. Her list of accolades dwarfs any other player in school history, chief among them leading Baylor to a 40-0 title-winning season in 2012, the first time a team had won 40 games without losing in NCAA history. Once Collen took over as Baylor’s head coach in 2021, she says she “put it in the air that day.” Recognizing Griner was a priority from the moment she was hired, one that was put on hold by Griner’s arrest and subsequent detention in Russia.

Once Griner returned to the U.S., it was a matter of finding a date that worked with her WNBA, USA Basketball, and other commitments. Collen and Baylor were also adamant that the game be nationally televised, as a player of Griner’s caliber deserved the biggest stage, even in retirement.

Despite the long absence, Griner fit right in on campus, where she played from 2009 to 2013 under former Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, with whom she has long had a thorny relationship. Though Griner declined through her representation to speak to reporters, at the alumni event she fondly recalled longboarding down the quad as a student and suggested that she would get back on her board before heading home. She shared her go-to college meal — a meat and cheese burger with a caramel shake at Health Camp — and admitted that her taste buds haven’t changed much even as she has moved into adulthood. She talked about her favorite course in college on British literature, and her former professor happened to be in attendance, happy to reconnect with Griner.

She giddily watched highlights of her college days, laughing at the brashness of her younger self. She relayed a story of the 2010 Final Four in San Antonio when the Bears saw the UConn Huskies on the other side of the River Walk and proceeded to bark at them in anticipation of their national semifinal game, which they ended up losing. As a video of her dunks came up on the screen, she rubbed her knees and sighed, no longer as bouncy as she was before.

Griner is at ease anywhere and with anyone, but Baylor is her home. At the game Sunday, she sought out fans who were season-ticket holders when she was in school. One man who had been in attendance for Griner’s playing career was excited to bring his daughter, who wasn’t born then, to meet her for the first time. Griner ran through the tunnel like a player when she made her entrance, getting moved to tears pregame when her jersey was revealed. The moment 🤩#SicEm pic.twitter.com/KmhpIZQkGu — Baylor Athletics (@BaylorAthletics) February 18, 2024

She and former teammate Odyssey Sims clapped and nodded in encouragement when Aijha Blackwell found Darianna Littlepage-Buggs underneath the basket for an easy layup. Griner got up and cheered on a subsequent possession when Littlepage-Buggs had a block on the perimeter. She had a discussion with referee Maj Forsberg — a veteran of NCAA and WNBA games — about a play on the Bears’ end of the court. After the game, she stood in line with the players and coaches during the singing of Baylor’s alma mater.

She was so invested in the atmosphere at Baylor that she didn’t notice until midway through the second quarter that a full contingent of Phoenix Mercury staff was on hand, and sitting courtside, to witness the moment. Among those who made the trip to celebrate Griner were Mercury president Vince Kozar, former head coach Sandy Brondello, current coaches Nate Tibbetts, Michael Joiner and Kristi Toliver, and general manager Nick U’Ren. Representatives from the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury celebrate Brittney Griner at Baylor. (Sabreena Merchant / The Athletic)Griner was out of her seat during every stoppage as she seemingly attempted to connect with each of the 7,093 fans in the building. After the Bears had earned a comfortable victory — Collen said her players were inspired to give their best defensive performance of the season in front of Griner — the superstar spent nearly an hour taking pictures with hordes of alumni, staff, former players and donors.

When she was interviewed by Sheryl Swoopes and Brenda VanLengen on the ESPN broadcast, Griner said that watching her jersey be unveiled made her feel “seen.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Griner existing any other way.

She is the biggest presence in any room, literally and figuratively. At 6-foot-9, with her million-watt smile, she immediately captures your attention. Then, there’s her infectious personality. She’s goofy and game for anything, always just trying to have a good time, just as she did against the Red Raiders. People are drawn to her.

Griner had a long talk with Lety Vasconcelos after the buzzer. The 6-7 freshman has played in only 15 games and has reached double-digit minutes twice. But Griner was in her ear, explaining to a fellow center what she saw down the stretch in the fourth quarter and how to maneuver her body to use her size to her advantage.

Griner’s presence is still meaningful to the Bears, all these years later. Whether she’s revving up a crowd or passing on the lessons of her dominance, she has a role to play with Baylor. The…

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