WACO, Texas — People sometimes call University Baptist Church “easy church” because the vibe is jeans and guitars instead of fire and brimstone, and the congregation can eat donuts during the service, which starts a few minutes past 10:45 a.m. to accommodate the stragglers. Robert Griffin III attended during his 2011 Heisman Trophy season at Baylor, sliding into a seat in the back so he wouldn’t be a distraction.
Brittney Griner, an equally iconic Baylor alumnus, did not attend the church when she was in college, but she was front of mind for Sharyl West Loeung, who walked on stage and grabbed a microphone on a Sunday morning in mid-December.
“As many as you know, Brittney Griner is on Texas soil today,” she said. “That is something we’re celebrating and spinning it as a week of joy.”
She told the churchgoers that there would be a service of celebration for Griner. Organizers began planning the event while Griner was in prison, thinking of it as a vigil, but then Russia released Griner during a prisoner swap Dec. 8. West Loeung said they would use the celebration, which was held Monday night, to also pray for Paul Whelan and other detainees.
They’d grieve “over the way the world is,” she said.
It was the first widely known public event organized in support of Griner in Waco. Griner, who led the 2012 Lady Bears to a 40-0 record and a national championship and won Olympic gold medals with Team USA in 2016 and 2020, was arrested in February while going through customs at a Moscow area airport. She was returning to play for club team UMMC Ekaterinburg. Russian authorities said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine. By May, the U.S. Department of State had declared her “wrongfully detained.” In July, she pleaded guilty in a Russian court and said she did not intend to break the law. Griner was sentenced in August to nine years in prison, and her appeal was denied Oct. 25.
In the nearly 10 months since her arrest, perhaps the most consistent public voice in Waco to express support for Griner has been Baylor women’s basketball coach Nicki Collen, who did not coach her and wasn’t part of the staff that previously decided against retiring Griner’s jersey. Collen’s players had BG patches stitched on their uniforms just before Griner was sent to a Russian penal colony in November.
“I will say this: Baylor’s women’s coach has used her own personal platform to … give support and love for Brittney,” West Loeung said in an interview after the Sunday morning church service. “But otherwise, from an administrative point of view, that hasn’t happened. For myself, coming from a graduate of the seminary and having worked there and [knowing] how much they confess being this Christian organization, I really wanted to see more. So the opportunity to do something, to say, ‘OK, Waco still loves you. Baylor affiliates still care a lot about you.’
“Something’s got to come out of this town, even if Baylor’s not going to do it.”
Following an inquiry from ESPN on Baylor’s messaging regarding Griner, a school spokesperson sent an email with a timeline of 15 social media posts and school statements between March 5 and Dec. 8 — including a joint statement that university president Linda Livingstone and athletic director Mack Rhoades made upon learning of Griner’s release. Ten of the Twitter posts were from Collen, and another was from the Baylor women’s basketball account.
“Baylor University operates under a ‘one brand’ approach,” Lori Fogleman, assistant vice president of media and public relations, said in an email. “There is no separation between the University and Athletics. We share the same logo, colors and, most importantly, the Baylor name.
“Baylor’s women’s basketball team is wearing ‘BG’ patches on their uniforms this season. This was done with the full support of the University.”
On Friday, Griner posted on Instagram for the first time in 47 weeks. She thanked President Joe Biden and his administration and all the people who advocated for her release, including a specific mention of the WNBA, which wore “We Are BG” shirts, held moments of silence and named her an All-Star in a season in which she couldn’t compete.
Griner announced that she plans to return to the Phoenix Mercury and play this upcoming WNBA season, and she’ll no doubt be celebrated by fans and supporters in WNBA cities. The league is a tight-knit bubble of activists and acceptance. How she will be received beyond that WNBA bubble remains to be seen. Will she be celebrated and welcomed home by Baylor, by Waco, by Texans, by her country? How will she be seen, beyond her basketball legacy? How will Baylor and Waco come to terms with what has happened to one of its most famous former residents and what she now means to the community?
Griner already was an international figure, but now she is a 6-foot-9 lightning rod for the cultural wars where anonymous social media accounts and cable news networks argue about marijuana, the prison swap for a notorious Russian arms dealer and her comments during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement about the national anthem.
“It’s a bit of a trifecta,” West Loeung said, noting that Griner is Black, gay and was arrested on drug charges. “And then you throw in the fact, it’s an apples-and-oranges situation, but there are people who are upset that there was a former Marine who was not brought home and she was.”
For now, Baylor and Waco appear to be a reflection of the ambivalence.
THERE WAS NO other player like Griner in women’s college basketball. She had a 7-foot-4 wingspan, she could dunk a basketball and, a month into her freshman season in 2009, she recorded Baylor’s first triple-double and broke a Big 12 record with 11 blocked shots.
Opponents couldn’t stop her; it was like cutting down a redwood with a butterknife. So they’d hack and foul and if you were a Lady Bears fan, you were certain the refs never blew their whistles for any of it. In March 2010, after getting fouled by Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle, Griner threw a roundhouse punch and broke Barncastle’s nose. Griner was ejected, and the NCAA suspended her for a game. Kim Mulkey, then Baylor’s coach, suspended her for an extra game.
Hecklers would claim she was a man when she’d dominate, and in an interview for ESPN The Magazine’s 2015 body issue, Griner said that as a kid growing up in Houston, she was teased because of her size, deep voice and flat chest. She said she was depressed and felt like a freak. But dunking, and basketball, she said, changed all of that.
“Brittney was famous,” said Dr. Greg Garrett, the Carole McDaniel Hanks professor of Literature and Culture at Baylor. “She was one of the first people who would longboard across campus, and that is a big thing now. She would go past, her dreads in the wind, a big, goofy, joyous grin on her face. I mean, the crazy thing about it is that on her board, she was a foot or more taller than every other human being.”
Junior year, Griner averaged 23.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.2 blocked shots as Baylor became the first team in NCAA women’s history to finish 40-0. (UConn would eventually match that three years later.)
Mulkey hugged her center and rattled off superlatives. That next season, Louisville knocked the No. 1 Lady Bears out in the Sweet 16. Less than two weeks later, the Mercury selected Griner No. 1 in the WNBA draft, and a few days after that, Griner said in interviews that she was gay.
In a May 2013 interview with ESPN, Griner said Mulkey told players not to be open publicly about their sexuality because it would hurt recruiting and cast the program in a bad light. Baylor, the largest Baptist Christian school in the world, has a “Statement on Human Sexuality” in its student handbook. In it, the school spells out its position that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Temptations to deviate from the biblical norm, it states, “include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior.”
In 2019, when the university allowed Baylor’s Young Americans For Freedom to hold an event featuring a speaker known to be outspoken against LGBTQ rights, a large group of alumni, faculty and students banded together to challenge school policies. They said that free speech shouldn’t be selective, giving a megaphone to some groups while denying LGBTQ students a voice. This past spring, the school recognized its first LGBTQ student group.
Skye Perryman, a Baylor alumnus and one of the founders of BU Bears for All, said that most people with ties to the school are in favor of Baylor moving forward on LGBTQ issues.
“However, the other reality of the situation at Baylor is that there is a very vocal and powerful minority of people who do not represent the broad and diverse community that is all of the alums and students and faculty at Baylor that continue to try to push a narrow and rigid and exclusive agenda that is harmful to LGBTQ people and that is contrary to recognizing the equal dignity of all people,” Perryman said. “It is that minority, loud and powerful minority voice, that we have seen be able to influence decisions at Baylor and that we have seen be able to influence the reality at Baylor.”
Griner was one of the first well-known athletes to come out. It was a year before Michael Sam. When she left Waco and went to the WNBA, her relationship with Mulkey collapsed. They’ve been estranged ever since. Mulkey objected to articles and passages in Griner’s book “In My Skin” that suggested Mulkey was anti-gay. In a November 2021 interview with ESPN, Mulkey said it was painful for her and her family that she was accused of that. While she has advised players to consider from a privacy standpoint how much they want to reveal of their lives on public platforms like social media, she said it has nothing to do with sexuality.
“I think what was painted of me, when that was scrolling at the bottom of ESPN … my son Kramer saw it first and he was devastated,” Mulkey said. “I go back to all the people who know me, that have worked for me, played for me, grew up with me. It does not fit me. But to those who still think that, nothing I say would change their minds.”
Yet in September of this year, in a preseason session with reporters — Mulkey left Baylor to take over at LSU prior to the 2021-22 season — someone asked her about Griner’s situation. At that point, the reporter hadn’t heard her thoughts publicly, and Mulkey replied, “And you won’t.” Mulkey then moved on.
Around that time, Garrett got to thinking about Baylor’s reaction to Griner’s incarceration.
“It just felt like there was a silence from all of the people who could have spoken out for her,” he said.
Garrett was on research leave in Europe this semester, but he saw the photos of Griner coming out of the Russian courtroom and stared at her face. It didn’t look like the Brittney he knew from campus. To him, she looked defeated and lost.
He thought about the things he could have done, and what the university he’s loved for more than 30 years should have done. In November, he wrote a column for Baptist News Global titled, “We don’t talk about Brittney.”
The majority of the responses to the column were positive, Garrett said, including one from a Russian immigrant who said it broke her heart that from the time Griner woke up in the morning until she went to bed, she wouldn’t see a single human being who looked like her.
The negative emails hit Garrett hard, too.
“My identity, I’m a white middle class, middle-aged guy,” Garrett said. “And nobody was saying, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be saying this and you’re a such-and-such.’ They were saying, ‘No, Brittney is this and you shouldn’t defend her.’
“Brittney touches so many of those boxes for people that there is this very real sense that we should have left her to rot, which was the sentiment I saw over and over in my inbox.”
AT THE DOWNTOWN farmers market on a recent Saturday in Waco, a guy in a cowboy hat sold CBD oil and Eric and Thomas Unplugged played in the shadow of the ALICO Building, which stands at 282 feet and is the tallest building in the city. It is featured in the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” which vaulted Chip and Joanna Gaines — and Waco — into prominence.
But there are drawbacks to fame. Lisa Huggins manages her husband’s band and has seen the refurbished houses sprouting around town become rentals for tourists. She’s fought the clogged downtown streets leading into the Shops at the Silos, a group of boutique stores created by the famous TV couple. Waco is a growing city, Huggins said, and she’s not necessarily against that. She just loved it a little more when her city of 140,000 was more like a town.
“It seems that most people have either never heard of Waco or they know of it because of a couple of things,” her husband Eric said. “It’s either Baylor [or] It’s the Branch Davidians with David Koresh. It was the shootout with the bikers at Twin Peaks.
“Used to [be], it was, ‘Hey, did you ever meet David Koresh?’ Now it’s, ‘Hey, have you ever met Chip and Jo?'”
Eric Huggins also bartends at Stay Classy Waco on Austin Ave. While he acknowledges that the Brittney Griner issue is polarizing, he doesn’t hear a lot of conversations about it at the bar. Like most issues in America, it’s deliberated over on social media.
Both Eric and Lisa said they’re happy Griner is home.
“I try not to speak on it because everybody’s got an opinion, and nobody is right and nobody is wrong,” Lisa said. “Should she have done what she did? Probably not. … Should she be put in a Russian jail forever? No, absolutely not.
“Do I think they traded the right person? It’s all politics. They’re going to do what they want to do and we have no control over it. So in my opinion, I’m not going to worry about it. Glad she’s home, glad she’s not over there rotting in a Russian prison because she didn’t deserve to rot over there. She just made a stupid decision.”
In a neighborhood less than a mile from the Baylor campus, a Trump flag was draped over the door of an apartment building. Down the road, at a house with a giant sign that said, “Moms drink free,” a few young adults pried open the door. They were asked about Griner, and their faces crinkled.
“I don’t think we should be talking about any of this,” one of them said.
At a house next door, Cade Bissell said he was studying for finals. He’s from California, and didn’t know about Griner before coming to Baylor. He hadn’t heard many people talking about her around campus, but was happy to hear the news of her release.
“She’s part of the Baylor family,” he said.
In the early days after Griner’s arrest, there was a push-pull on how much anyone should say. Speak too much, and it could work against the U.S. government’s efforts to free her because it could make Griner a more valuable asset.
But by summertime, it was clear that entities who’d been in contact with Griner’s camp were given the OK to express their support.
Phyllis Gamble, who played for the Lady Bears in the early 1980s, believed that her university was always behind Griner and may have been exercising caution.
“I think from our U.S. government, it was, ‘Keep us in your thoughts and prayers and let us work,'” Gamble said. “And I truly believe not a one of us wanted to say or do anything that would harm negotiations.
“The people in my world could not be more supportive of Brittney Griner. Now am I aware that everything in this country is divided? Yes. I’m aware of that. You would have to be living under a rock to not know that. I could throw out any issue right now and we could have an argument about it, but in my world, the folks that I listen to, the folks that I hang around with, the folks that I text back and forth, we are fans of Brittney Griner.”
THE LASAGNA AND steamed vegetables had been consumed, and Nicki Collen stepped to the front and addressed the crowd at the Tip Off Club luncheon a week before Thanksgiving. The women’s basketball booster club skews older, with mostly retired women.
The group has uncommon access in today’s world of college athletics. A donation of $300 to $599 lands you a seat at the luncheons and scouting reports for every game. Five thousand or more lands you on the “Dream Team,” and an opportunity to travel with the Bears.
At their November lunch, held in a dining room at the football stadium, someone asked Collen a question about Griner, and Collen asked the crowd to keep Griner in their thoughts and prayers.
The audience erupted in an ovation.
A member of the club, speaking anonymously, said Baylor fans loved Griner and worshipped her like a “goddess” when she played there.
“I think the vast majority of people had very positive feelings about Brittney,” the booster said. “But they were just a little hurt about the comments she made after she left.”
Collen got to know Griner when she was coaching in the WNBA. When Collen got the job at Baylor last year, Griner congratulated her. She offered Collen some Waco recommendations: the milkshakes at Health Camp, the barbecue at Vitek’s.
The last time Collen communicated with Griner was Oct. 22, 2021, through a direct message on Instagram: “I always wanted Baylor to be my second home. You have no idea how much that means to me. I can’t wait for y’all to get started …”
In December of last year, while she was overseas playing in the Russian Premier League, Griner seemed open to returning to her alma mater.
“I’ve seen that special moment with a lot of my teammates and friends at their schools where they gave their all, of their body and of their time,” Griner said in an ESPN interview. “I met my wife at Baylor. Baylor’s in my blood. I love the school, I love Waco. And it would mean a lot to me, honestly. It’s something I would definitely cherish and love. And I know my dad would, too.”
Griner has inspired a new generation of women’s basketball players. NaLyssa Smith, the No. 2 pick in this year’s WNBA draft, grew up following Griner and went to Baylor, in part, because of her. Smith would sit in the stands as a kid and hold up signs for Griner.
“When I was at Baylor, she actually reached out to me, just telling me how well I was doing and how I was carrying Baylor’s legacy,” Smith says. “She had a big impact on my career, and she still does to this day.”
She’s aware of the fact that Griner’s jersey doesn’t hang from the Ferrell Center rafters.
Griner’s jersey, according to Mulkey, was not retired because the honor was bestowed only on players who got their degrees. Griner completed her bachelor of science degree in education in 2019. The Baylor coaching staff, athletic director and university president who were there during Griner’s time are all gone now.
In an interview last week, Collen said she doesn’t know if all the wounds from Griner-Mulkey rift have healed and said it’s not her place to say.
But she is intent on retiring Griner’s jersey.
“It will happen,” she said. “If I’m the coach at Baylor, it’s gonna happen.”
BRITTNEY GRINER’S HOMECOMING was celebrated Monday night in front of 20 people at University Baptist Church in Waco. Baylor is on winter break, and a few of the people who were supposed to attend were sick. The church livestreamed the event.
Saddiq Granger, a Waco musician, stepped to the front of the room and read a poem for Griner. More than a decade ago, when Granger was in high school, he volunteered with Griner at the East Waco YMCA. They had a lot in common, being tall, Black, and gay with dreadlocks. People occasionally asked whether they were related, and Griner would look over at Granger and roll her eyes. But she was polite, and he was in awe of the way she seemingly felt comfortable in a place where she was so different. Wherever she went, he rooted for her. “Our sister’s home,” he said.
In a mostly empty church, Nicki Collen showed up. She was wearing a Griner T-shirt and Baylor jacket. She said the news that Griner was going to play basketball this coming WNBA season was probably even more emotional for her than the day Griner was freed. In Collen’s mind, it meant that she was OK.
“I didn’t coach her,” Collen said, “but I wanted people to know we care. That this community cared, that Baylor cared, Baylor women’s basketball cared. And the fact that she’s home, we did what we set out to do.”
How Brittney Griner, Baylor and the city of Waco are still coming to terms