NEW YORK (AP) —Brittney Griner had a busy WNBA offseason. She played in China, vacationed in Miami and watched from courtside while favorite player LeBron James beat her hometown Houston Rockets.
Now the slam-dunking Griner is signing copies of her book at the Women’s Final Four in Nashville, Tenn. “In My Skin,” released Tuesday by HarperCollins, chronicles her struggles with bullying, sexuality and family acceptance.
Her motivation was to “help other people in need, especially youth, who didn’t have anybody to look up to,” she recently told The Associated Press by phone. “I get a lot of kids writing to me — some adults, too — telling me what they’re going through, asking me for advice.”
Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title, came out last April after her final season at the Baptist school that prohibits premarital sex and homosexuality. She writes that she had a positive relationship with Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, but it became strained during her senior season.
Turning pro as the No. 1 pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA draft allowed the 6-foot-8, bow-tie wearing Griner more freedom of expression. That includes showing off the cascading floral tattoos on her shoulder and working on anti-bullying campaigns.
The 23-year-old Griner has evolved from the middle school girl taunted for her size and androgynous look. She would write about her feelings and dark thoughts, then toss or hide the notes. This week, she’ll be talking about her life at bookstores in Phoenix and Houston.
FILE – In this April 17, 2013, file photo, top WNBA draft picks, from left, Norte Dame’s Skylar Diggins, Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne and Baylor’s Brittney Griner pose following an interview at The Associated Press in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Five things to know about Griner, who says her next goal is earning a spot on the U.S. team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
CHINA SYNDROME: Griner experienced “culture shock” moving from Waco, Texas, to play in the China Women’s League from November through February. She competed overseas against WNBA stars, including Maya Moore and Nneka Ogwumike.
“She’s a player who makes you better,” said Ogwumike, a Los Angeles Sparks forward. “She helps you be a little more creative.”
ABUSE: The bullying started in sixth grade — name-calling, mocking, fights. A “nervous and scared” Griner began writing as a way to cope.
She writes of her father, who works in law enforcement. When he found out she was a lesbian during her senior year in high school, Griner moved out because of the verbal hostility. She lived with an assistant basketball coach until her father agreed to try to accept her sexuality.
Her mom had a different response to the “I’m gay” news three years earlier: “She smiled, hugged me and told me she loved me,” Griner writes.
Her relationship with her father has improved.
“He’s come a long way. He just wants the best for me,” said Griner, who rides four-wheelers with him while staying in Houston until training camp begins April 27.
THERAPY: After Griner punched a taunting Texas Tech player during a game her freshman season, her coach made her see a therapist. Griner, who endured racial and homophobic slurs from fans at opposing arenas, stuck with the therapy after the mandatory sessions were up.
“It’s just a safe zone,” she told the AP. “It’s nonjudgmental. It felt good, somewhere I could go and talk and get good advice.”
EXPRESS YOURSELF: At Baylor, Griner had to remove Twitter messages and photos of her girlfriend. She also had to cover her tattoos during games because she was told such images might damage the program.
After college, she became the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike and model apparel. Griner moved from the baggy-boy look to preppy to her current athletic style.
OPENING DOORS: Griner says she’s received support from Sheryl Swoopes, who is 2005 became the first active WNBA player to come out, her Mercury teammates and the league. She has a love-hate relationship with social media. She reads and deletes vulgar comments.
Griner feels that along with Jason Collins, the NBA’s first openly gay player, and Michael Sam, who may become the first openly gay NFL player, they’re helping make sexuality in sports less of an issue.
“With more and bigger athletes coming out — especially when athletes on the men’s side come out — that’s a big push,” she told the AP. “When we’re on the field or court or ice or whatever surface we play on, our sexuality really doesn’t make or break us.”
She says parents tell her that their daughters look up to her, and adult fans express similar sentiments.
“They’ll come up and shake my hand and whisper, ‘Thank you, you’re helping out a lot,'” she said.