Ever since Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested that he’d consider drafting Griner, there has been this undercurrent that he unleashed a dangerous idea. WNBA great Swin Cash declared that women shouldn’t have to “validate” themselves by playing against NBA guys. Basketball great Nancy Lieberman got a call from a reporter asking if Griner trying out against men wouldn’t “tarnish” the women’s game. “You would think she was going to put the atomic bomb together and decide where to drop it,” Lieberman said. “Seriously, it’s not that bad. I laugh. People get so agitated.”
The idea of pitting female athletes against males always seems to strike a nerve. For men, the stakes are a primal embarrassment, and for women, that we might look inferior. Guess what: Griner might very well look weak compared to NBA centers. At 6 feet 8, she weighs around 200 pounds, and would give up at least 60 pounds to a Dwight Howard. The trouble is, Griner plays the wrong position — she’s a center in the women’s game but she’d be a tweener in the NBA. As Dirk Nowitzki told the Dallas Morning News, “You’re kind of caught between a 3 and a 4,” Griner is probably not strong or heavy enough to play power forward, and not fast enough to play small forward.
The facets that made Griner the player of the year in the women’s game for a second straight season were her combination of height and soft shooting touch, not strength. She has terrific footwork for 6-8, and an exquisite face-up game and shooting range to go with her amazingly long arms, with her standing reach of 9-2, and a 7-4 wingspan. She holds the NCAA record for most blocks by a woman or man, with 748. She has never played with a great deal of muscle, and Louisville’s upset of Baylor in the Elite Eight proved that even a smaller opponent could move her out of the paint and crowd her.
Fact: guys are, on average, bigger. The latest national statistics show that American men are an average of five inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than American women. And those are just regular citizens. Lieberman’s son is a 6-8, 220-pound freshman center at Niagara University. When he drapes an arm around her mother, she practically sags under the sheer weight. “I’m like, ‘Dude, get your arm off me, it’s so heavy.’ It’s like a Labrador.”
The fear we have about female athletes juxtaposing their skills next to those of men is that they will look smaller, or weaker, and therefore unworthy. It was a legitimate concern in the 1970s, before Title IX was so widely accepted. Any sign of inferiority on the part of female athletes was interpreted as undeserving of funding.
But now the fear is that head-to-head competition will “invalidate” women athletes’ achievements. Which is really a form of defensiveness. It would be nice to think we’ve moved past that, into a place where we can be more playful and exploratory about women’s athletic abilities, and less politically conscious.
Some of the biggest leaps in the history of sports have come precisely because certain women weren’t afraid to put themselves on the line against men. On those rare few occasions, a curious thing has happened. We’ve been surprised. We all think we know where the gender barriers are. But guess what? They turn out to be mostly false. And they fall.
Bobby Riggs said female tennis players couldn’t beat even an aging male pro, and at first, he seemed right. Margaret Court looked terrible in losing to him, 6-2, 6-1. Billie Jean King has told me that as soon as she saw the score in that match, she thought: “Oh, God. Now I’m going to have to play him.” When she wiped Riggs off the court in straight sets at the Houston Astrodome, it wasn’t a matter of proving that a woman was as good as a man — just that women weren’t “chokers and spastics,” she said. Establishing mere competence was the goal in that match. Down in Tennessee just a couple of years later, Pat Summitt was still having to campaign and lobby to overturn state regulations restricting girls to half-court basketball because they were too “weak and awkward” to play full court.
I was at Colonial in 2003 when Annika Sorenstam broke the PGA gender barrier there. Everyone thought she would embarrass herself and be demeaned by the crushing drives of the guys she played with. Instead she shot 71. If Sorenstam suffered by comparison it wasn’t with her driver — she played an impeccable round, hitting 14 of 18 greens and parring 12 of her first 13 holes. It wasn’t that she couldn’t keep up with the driver, but, surprise, on the putting green. She three-putted a half dozen times.
Lieberman, 54, has long tested herself in a man’s world. She is currently general manager for the Mavericks D-League team, the Texas Legends, and hopes someday to coach in the NBA. As a renowned New York point guard, she grew up playing against guys in Harlem, and took a shot at summer league play in the 1980s with the Los Angeles Lakers under Pat Riley and Utah Jazz under Frank Layden. She has stood on a court with Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Moses Malone.
“Until you’ve been on the court with these guys and they have their hand on your hip redirecting you with sheer power and force, you can’t understand it,” she said. “They put their arm on you, and you feel like you’re stuck in cement.”
But she’s never regretted the experiment, or felt inferior as a result of it. In fact, she says, it made her a better player, taught her to see and move on the floor in new ways. “Was I as good as them? No. Were they superior to me? Yes. But I tried. Didn’t it ruin women’s basketball?”
Some day a woman may come along with the physical assets and fortitude to play in the NBA — but she probably won’t be a center. A point guard, more likely. But we won’t grow that young woman by telling her “there are some things you shouldn’t try because they are too insurmountable.” Or by telling her that women should play a separate game and never think about how they stack up against their male counterparts.
“This is America and in America we ask people to go out and try to be better than they ever think they could be,” Lieberman said. “I’m a fan of anyone who isn’t afraid. Can you imagine if we listened to everyone who told us what we could and shouldn’t do?”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit www.washingtonpost.com/jenkins.