For a long time, you would rarely find women's NCAA basketball highlights on ESPN. When you did, you rarely knew who any of the players were. And to be honest, you rarely cared.
Brittney Griner changed that this year.
You would be hard-pressed to find a sports fan who doesn't know who she is. She is the one from Baylor who is unstoppable, who towers above all of her competition, who can almost always be counted on to submit a double-double night in and night out.
She dominated the competition in 2011-12, and it didn't so much matter that it was women's basketball, which is usually discussed with a chuckle or a sneer if even discussed at all.
Simply put, Griner made women's NCAA basketball fun to watch again. She made it relevant again and she made people want to talk about it again.
This season, the 6'8" junior led Baylor to a 40-win season—a first for college basketball, men's or women's—and a championship, a personal first. She averaged 23.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, and her performances seemed to escalate in tandem with the game's importance. In Tuesday night's 80-61 win over Notre Dame in the NCAA Championship, Griner had 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.
It's been a while since there has been a women's college basketball player who has become a household name among sports fans—maybe not since Diana Taurasi and her unbeatable UConn teams.
But even she may not have been as recognizable as Griner. You see her face on SportsCenter and you know who she is, first name and last. She's not "that really good women's player;" she has an identity.
In some ways, it's sad that that is an accomplishment, but it's a reality.
In some ways, Griner is better for college basketball than some of her male counterparts. Rarely do you find a dominant player—someone who is leagues and leagues above the competition—who commits to staying in college once he or she is eligible for the pros.
Not so for Griner. She will be 22 this year and therefore eligible for the WNBA, but she's not interested. She's not even tempted. She told ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel:
Money isn't everything; money doesn't really buy happiness. I made a commitment and I gave my word. These are your best years, in college, and I'm trying to have my full experience. It was never tempting. I never really had to think or debate about it.
Despite the fact that she was simply so much better than anyone else in the league this year, it was not an easy one for Griner. Being a dominant player in women's basketball often comes hand-in-hand with cruelty—facetious questions about her gender, comparisons to male players, discussions of dominance like it's a bad thing, like being better than every other female player and half the males is something to be embarrassed about.
Even Notre Dame Head Coach Muffet McGraw, after her team's loss on Tuesday, made the mistake of saying, "I think she's one of a kind. I think she's like a guy playing with women."
There was backlash for the comment, and deservedly so. Surely, McGraw meant it as a compliment, but it only fueled the commentary that, for lack of a better description, has done nothing but make fun of Griner throughout her rise to dominance.
It's a shame that being spectacular in women's basketball also comes with the burden of being mocked, but it's something at which Griner herself shrugs.
She has established herself as the best of the best. She has an NCAA record and a championship to her name. And she's done more for women's college basketball than anyone has in a long time.
Griner made people care again, and that—40-win season and NCAA title aside—is no small feat.
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