Brittney Griner returns as Olympic finalist, this time without fear

Brittney Griner
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Brittney Griner unfurled from her vacation hammock in Cabo San Lucas last week to fly into snowy Storrs, Conn., and a three-day training camp for U.S. Olympic team finalists.

The towering center was not warmly received by all.

“Got my shot blocked a couple of times out here with the guys,” Griner said Tuesday, laughing, of male practice players, typical partners for elite-level women’s workouts. “It only counts when it happens in a game. This doesn’t count, so it’s cool.”

Griner was then asked the last time she was blocked in a game that does count.

She paused a few seconds, determined her answer, stared down at the reporter and delivered a deep pitch.

“B.G. doesn’t get blocked,” Griner boomed, paused again and then briefly chuckled and grinned.

Griner, at 6 feet, 8 inches, was three inches taller than the next-biggest player among 16 in red Team USA jerseys at the University of Connecticut practice facility.

She is the can’t-miss of the 25 finalists overall to make the U.S. Olympic team, not only for her unmistakable presence but also for her story. The narrative is highlighted by but not limited to her decision four years ago to pull her name out of Olympic team consideration while a Baylor University junior.

Sixteen Rio Olympic hopefuls took part in two-hour practices on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, led by UConn and Olympic coach Geno Auriemma and overseen by USA Basketball officials who will choose the 12-woman team later this year to go to Brazil.

Nine of the 25 finalists missed the camp for various reasons, including injuries and professional seasons overseas. It’s expected to be the final camp before the team is named for the Olympics, where the U.S. will seek its sixth straight gold medal.

Griner wore No. 23 and defended her paint in a one-year-old practice gym, surrounded by a combined 36 UConn banners adorning three of the four walls — 10 NCAA titles, eight Olympic gold medalists, eight NCAA Players of the Year and 10 first-team All-Americans (not counting the NCAA Players of the Year).

She wasn’t intimidated.

“I definitely feel a lot more confident this go-around, at a different place [than 2012],” Griner said at the end of the camp. “I hate sounding cocky, but I just feel like I should be here. It feels right.”

Griner had the chance four years ago to become the first college basketball player to make a U.S. Olympic team since 1988.

On March 30, 2012, USA Basketball announced 11 of the 12 players for the London Olympic team. Griner, leading undefeated Baylor into the Final Four at the time, wasn’t one of the 11. But she was seen as a candidate to be named to the team after Baylor won the NCAA title four days later.

Before the 12th player was named, Griner announced on April 19 her withdrawal from Olympic team consideration due to a family illness (she later said her mother had been diagnosed with lupus two years earlier) and her summer school schedule.

Griner said Tuesday that a “fear of being away from what was going on at home” was on her mind before she withdrew.

“That was a hard decision,” she said. “Sitting there, just missing out, just, like, dang, I wish I was there. That feeling. Hopefully, this time I get a chance.”

Griner watched the U.S.’ 86-50 rout of France in the London Olympic gold-medal game on a computer screen in her bed.

“I’m kind of lazy,” she said. “I lay in the bed a lot.”

Griner joined the WNBA one year later and the U.S. national team for the next major tournament — the World Championship in 2014.

At Worlds in Turkey, Griner started all six games with four former UConn stars — Sue BirdDiana TaurasiMaya Moore and Tina Charles — who were four of the primary starters at the 2012 Olympics. When they huddled, the coach delivering instructions was UConn’s Auriemma.

“The UConn squad,” joked Griner, who wore glasses at Worlds after suffering an eye injury in the WNBA Finals.

Griner ranked second on the team per game in points (12.3) and rebounds (6.2) and blocked two shots per game while averaging 19 minutes per contest (sixth on the team).

She also bumped chests and shared technical fouls in a tense moment with Spain forward Laura Nicholls in the third quarter of the final.

“Somebody stares at me, I’m not going to back down,” said Griner, listed five inches taller than Nicholls.

That’s the type of presence Auriemma stressed on Griner as she’s dug into international basketball — both professionally and for her country — the last two years.

“I’m always after Brittney to, you know, you’ve got be tougher, you’ve got be stronger, you’ve got to be more aggressive, you’ve got to be more assertive, because there’s no give when you’re playing in the Olympics,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes when I think you’re a big kid in women’s basketball, you’re kind of a little bit reluctant to be. Little by little, she’s starting to understand that we need her physical presence to be dominant — to be dominant.”

U.S. national team director Carol Callan said she’s known Griner since she was a dunking Houston high school phenom.

Since London, Callan said she’s had more conversations with Griner than the older national team veterans.

“I’m just thrilled that we got her into the World Championship, and she got some experience there,” Callan said. “Now this [the Olympics] is another step on that stage, but it’s not as big a step because she had that transition World Championship year.”

In September, Griner was suspended for a portion of a USA Basketball European training camp due to a domestic violence arrest.

“Brittney, with her struggles a year ago, she’s, as they all are, valuable to us, and we just like to check in and make sure things are OK all along the way,” Callan said.

At the end of the Connecticut camp, Griner was largely jocular during a five-minute interview. Even when looking ahead to a possible appearance at the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“I heard it’s a really long walk,” Griner said of marching in the Parade of Nations. “I’ve got to get ready for that one. Get some stretch on, some Icy Hot.”

MORE: Auriemma: UConn ‘wouldn’t make it at the Olympics’