The Mercury are WNBA champions. They finished the 2014 season with a combined 36-6 record, claiming the third title in franchise history with one of the more impressive runs ever seen by the league.
They managed to complete that run without one of their key pieces, as center Brittney Griner sat out Game 3 of the WNBA Finals after having eye surgery the previous day.
But make no mistake — the Mercury wouldn’t be here without Griner. And where they go from here largely depends on where she wants to take them.
Diana Taurasi still appears to be in the prime of her career, finishing second in this season’s MVP voting. But she is 32 years old, with countless miles on her body from playing both in the United States and abroad, nearly year-round.
Eventually she will begin an inevitable decline, and when she decides to retire she will hand the keys to the franchise over to Griner, a player the likes of which the WNBA never has seen before.
At 6-foot-8, Griner towers over most of her competitors, but she also possesses the athleticism and agility of someone a foot shorter.
Her rapid improvement in her second season has the Mercury believing she can be a dominant force in the league for years to come, helping to add to the team’s three championship trophies.
The WNBA, still fighting for credibility but on much firmer footing than years ago, has been thrilled by its good fortune in having someone like Griner to build around and advance the sport.
And off the court, Griner has the intelligence and the wherewithal to capitalize on her potential, bringing visibility to women’s sports and becoming a role model for young girls around the world.
After a frustrating rookie season, Griner was ready to go back to work.
She played in the Chinese league in the offseason, refining her game and coming back to the U.S. with a better understanding of what it takes to succeed as a professional.
This year, she improved her numbers in every major category, seemingly getter stronger as the season went on — until suffering the eye injury that forced her to sit out the Mercury’s title clincher.
But Griner evolved in other ways, too. As the only American on her Chinese team — and by far its best player — she experienced the polarizing effects of being treated like a star.
She was lauded when her team won, but received sharp criticism when it lost — as if its fortunes rested squarely on her broad shoulders.
But this toughened her up, and when she returned to the Mercury she was ready for the intense scrutiny that would undoubtedly come her way — and ready to assume a more active role with the team.
“Her growth from Year 1 to Year 2 has been off-the-charts good,” Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman said. “She’s really taken on more of a leadership role with the team this year. She’s so much more focused and mature. And she’s 23 years old — it’s a growing process.”
Now, already having reached the pinnacle of her sport’s most competitive league, Griner wants more. She’s open with her goal of dominating the WNBA, both as an individual and as a member of a team.
“I see the Mercury being on top,” Griner said. “I want to be part of a dynasty. I think it would be pretty cool to be known as the team to reckon with.”
She’s asked where she sees herself in five years, 10 years.
“Still right here on this Mercury team,” she said. “With a lot more rings on my fingers.”
Since its inception in 1996, the WNBA generally has been regarded as a second-class citizen to its counterpart, the NBA.
All one has to do is visit the comments section on a national WNBA article to see the widespread lack of respect — and often, ignorance — directed toward the league.
But people forget that the early days of the NBA weren’t all smooth sailing, either. There was the same talk of contraction, folding and inferiority that has dogged the WNBA to this point.
But the NBA persevered, and soon the game caught on, thanks largely to early stars like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who attracted audiences with their glitzy play and outsized personalities. Now, the league is wildly popular and hugely profitable.
The WNBA may be nearing that same turning point.
Last season’s draft was a watershed moment for the league, with its “Three to See” campaign featuring college stars Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins, who were selected with the first three picks by the Mercury, Chicago Sky and Tulsa Shock, respectively.
Each has now gone on to win one of the league’s premier awards, with Delle Donne being named the 2013 Rookie of the Year, Griner the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year (as well as taking a fifth-place finish in this season’s MVP voting) and Diggins the 2014 Most Improved Player.
Attendance figures and television ratings skyrocketed this season, particularly in the playoffs and the WNBA Finals, which featured Griner’s Mercury and Delle Donne’s Sky.
The early years of the league had bona fide stars in players like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, but they could only do so much as the WNBA battled for relevancy.
Now, with it more established and well-known, Griner and her contemporaries can use their power to take the league to new heights.
Griner already has garnered comparisons to Leslie — a trailblazer with a unique skill set and a marketable personality who will do her part to advance the cause.
Val Ackerman sees it. Now the commissioner of the Big East Conference, Ackerman was the first president of the WNBA, serving until 2005, just as Leslie was nearing the end of her career.
“The analogy is certainly going to be there,” Ackerman said. “Brittney, like Lisa had a great college career. She’s got great physical ability, she’s clearly a competitor, she seems like she can learn quickly and make the adjustments needed. What I see (in Brittney) is the beginning of the potential that Lisa fulfilled when she got into the WNBA.”
Griner realizes she could be in the middle of a revolution. She’s prepared for what will come. And she’s enjoying it just the same.
“It’s pretty sweet to know that you’re helping the league change,” she said. “People say the league is changing and they say your name – it lets you know you’re doing something right. And to be so young and be a part of that, that’s an honor. That’s something I’ll talk about for years.”
It’s hers for the taking.
Griner already has made her mark on modern athletic culture, publicly coming out as a lesbian last year and documenting her experiences with bullying and other issues in her book, “In My Skin.”
She has taken a strong stance against bullying, filming inspirational messages for victims and speaking to affected children.
She has an endorsement deal with Nike and is one of the more open, genuine athletes in professional sports today.
“She’s a game changer in so many different ways,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “She’s already had a book out, and she is open to being gay, which I think is great. She’s comfortable in her own skin. So she’s a role model for a lot of people.”
Particularly with the growth of the WNBA, Griner has the potential to use that platform to change the landscape of women’s sports.
Deborah Slaner Larkin is the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a national organization founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King in 1974 that is “dedicated to advancing the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity.”
Women’s sports have made key strides in recent years, Larkin said, but there still is a long way to go, and the efforts of Griner and other prominent figures will be critical to achieving those objectives.
“The research shows that 80 percent of women who are in Fortune 500 companies have played sports and attribute sports to their success in business,” Slaner Larkin said. “So athletes like Brittney are the kind of people we need in leadership positions. She is a terrific role model, not only for the WNBA but for the young girls that look up to her.”
Griner has taken naturally to the increased notoriety, especially from her younger fans. A self-described “big kid” herself, she welcomes autograph seekers and photo opportunities, and often goes out of her way at the airport or on the street to pose with a fan or just chat about life and basketball.
Her impact already is being felt.
“I’ve had girls say that because of watching me, they’re playing sports,” Griner said. “And it wasn’t just basketball all the time. I definitely feel like I’m helping the girls get out there and want to play. Especially with my style — it’s not always ‘girly.’ I’m showing they can go out there and hang with the boys.”
With her talent, her personality and her intuition, Griner is on the cusp of greatness — and not just on the basketball court.
Provided she stays healthy, she will have the Mercury playing at a high level for many years to come, and will be a cornerstone of the WNBA for as long as she chooses to play.
But in the bigger picture, she has the potential to put herself on the scale of Leslie, Mia Hamm and Serena and Venus Williams — an iconic figure in the history of women’s sports.
“I think she’s on her way,” Slaner Larkin said. “And not just because of her basketball skills. She’s maturing as a young woman into the skin of an older, more mature player and person. She has all the attributes of someone who will succeed, and succeed for all the right reasons. She’s going to be a real asset to her team, the WNBA and all women in general.”