Owning the Middle


By Kate Fagan

Brittney Griner wants to know if anyone will recognize her.

The world's most famous female basketball player tucks her dreadlocks into a gray hoodie, slides on bright yellow sunglasses and hunches her shoulders, trying to knock an inch or two off her 6-foot-8 frame. "If you didn't already know it was me, would you know it was me?" she asks, laughing. She ducks out of the Yankee Stadium press box, hoping to make it to a concession stand for chicken fingers and crinkle fries without stopping to sign autographs or take photos.

The disguise does the trick. Dozens of people crane their necks, but nobody shouts her name or approaches. Food in hand, Griner walks to Section 226, slips into her aisle seat overlooking the third-base line and dunks a chicken strip into barbecue sauce. "I think this hoodie thing worked," she says, nodding happily. "Maybe I'll try it again."

One night earlier, on April 15, the Phoenix Mercury made the 22-year-old center from Baylor the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, generating a new wave of attention for a player who already was turning heads. On the court, Griner brings a blend of size and skill not seen before in the women's game. Off it, she has taken the unprecedented step of coming out publicly at the start of her pro career, allowing her to build her own brand -- she is the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike -- while influencing the marketing of an entire league.

Hiding in the open is a fun game for Griner now, akin to concealing a giraffe in a meadow. But she gets a far greater thrill from being exactly the person she wants to be for the first time in her life. She has long exuded a gender-bending vibe, yet the player who led her team to a national championship and dunked her way into the highlights was merely a muted version of her true self. Now, the real Griner is appearing as if in Technicolor 3-D, shouting her truth to the rafters.

"I am 100-percent happy," she says. "When I was at Baylor, I wasn't fully happy because I couldn't be all the way out. It feels so good saying it: I am a strong, black lesbian woman. Every single time I say it, I feel so much better."

--To keep reading this article from espnW.com and ESPN The Magazine, click here: Owning the Middle.