In my decade of covering professional sports Ive had the privilege of meeting and interviewing two of the biggest basketball stars both literally and figuratively. Surprisingly, both had a lot more in common than I expected. And Im not even talking about their on the court skills.
The first was Shaquille ONeal upon his arrival in Phoenix. The conversation was typical possibly even mundane. What wasnt was the fact that this human who was built more like the Hulk than anyone other homosapien I had ever met was also one of the funnier and more gentle people I had dealt with in an interview.
Its not earth shattering news. Shaqs personable nature is more well documented than Kim Kardashians every move. But to experience it first hand was still a surreal feeling. It was the first time I truly understood, and saw the phrase gentle giant personified. Regardless of the situation he had a quick and witty quip. As he was swarmed like food near an ant hill by fans he laughed, hugged babies, signed autographs and posed for every photo. Plus his smile was the kind that is usually reserved for a child, big and from ear-to-ear.
Saturday I got the chance to meet the second athlete to have that impact on me, Brittney Griner.
Despite being the largest female athlete Ive ever met, she was also one of the funniest. Despite having a room full of reporters firing questions at her, she had the ability to crack jokes and show off a softer and more personal side. She was genuine with her actions and words despite having every reason not to be.
While sitting at a podium surrounded by two WNBA championship trophies won years before her arrival, being praised as a game changer for the team and the league, Griner didnt feel the pressure. As a matter of fact, she let it slide off her back much like she does on the court as she elevates over smaller defenders.
When asked what she thought about having championship trophies on the table surrounding her and if it was added pressure she, without hesitation said with a giant smile We need to win some more so I can take some pictures kissing [the trophies] on the court. Thats how the tone of the entire press conference was, easy going and entertaining, just like Brittney herself.
It didnt stop there though. At her fan rally she made it a point to try and high five everyone within reach. And when you have a 7-foot-4 wingspan like Brittney, almost everyone is within reach. While fans cheered her she seemed genuinely touched as she smiled with that same Shaq style grin even bashfully covering her face with her freshly manicured orange nails. Her humor was on display as well. When a fan asked about her love for skateboarding she joked and that her longboards will becoming wall hangings because she doesnt want to risk injuries.
She also has a quirky side to her as well. She once told the national media that bacon is her lucky charm and that she has it every day, even for pregame meals. As a hefty reporter, its something I can appreciate. The Mercury front office even showed that they have a sense of humor by serving the media BLTs as the media meal.
Dont mistake her sweet nature for weakness though. Like ONeal, she can flip the switch when the lights are on and she steps on the court. Just ask Texas Techs Jordan Barncastle who once had her nose broken by Griner in an on court skirmish or ask any of the 18 people she dunked in college or the 52 she dunked on in her senior year of high school.
A fierce competitor on the court and a gentle giant off it. Its an equation that will likely make Griner a fan favorite. Its also a combination that will make anyone lucky enough to meet her in person truly impressed. Just ask Shaq, it worked out pretty well for him too.