'I feel seen': Brittney Griner's long-awaited jersey retirement

Photos by Danny Torres

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WACO – There were no expectations on how Sunday would go, only a hope.

Baylor head coach Nicki Collen was instrumental in orchestrating Brittney Griner’s jersey retirement that finally came to fruition February 18 inside Foster Pavilion.

It’s been over 4,000 days since Griner, an Aldine Nimitz alumna, played her last basketball game in Waco. But when she walked through the curtains pregame smiling, high-fiving and chest-pumping to a raucous near-sellout crowd of 7,093, it was as if “BG” never left.

Collen, decked out in a bright yellow custom ‘Brittney Griner’ blazer for the occasion, was the first to greet her at midcourt. After her No. 42 jersey was unveiled, Griner leaned in to kiss the canvas. During the premade video package spanning her collegiate career, she teared up before all the emotions came out as the jersey rose to the rafters.

 “As soon as it started to go up, that’s when I started to break,” Griner said on the ESPN broadcast. “It just all came together at the right time. There’s always a plan and you just have to trust in the plan.”

Trusting in the plan is all Griner could do because it was a moment that should’ve happened long ago, but one that Collen put in the ethos very quickly after she got hired. She first spoke out about wanting to retire Griner’s number back in 2022 when she publicly voiced support for Griner while she was detained in Russia for a drug charge of less than an ounce of medically prescribed hash oil. Her extended comments on the matter came on the same day that former Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey declined to comment on the same situation.

“I sent a text to Mack (Rhodes) and Dr. (Linda) Livingstone yesterday and thanked them for supporting this week and leading with love, because that's all I wanted,” Collen said. “All I wanted was for her to feel loved by our team, by our university, by our community and, so it was emotional. It was emotional to see her tears and it was emotional to see her smiles.”

Since Griner’s last game for the program in 2013, the NCAA career blocks leader, two-time unanimous All-American that led Baylor to the first 40-0 national title season in either men’s or women’s college basketball history had to wait her turn. Oh, and she’s also still the program’s all-time leading scorer and the fifth all-time scorer in NCAA women’s basketball.

Former Baylor teammates, Melissa Jones (2019), Odyssey Sims (2016) Sophia Young (2015) all had their numbers retired in the meantime.

“I feel seen,” Griner said. “You give so much to the organization, to the school and for them to honor you and appreciate you, you just feel seen.”

Current Tarleton head coach Bill Brock, who served nearly 20 years at Baylor as the lead assistant under Kim Mulkey was in attendance, as was Sims who sat behind Griner during the game. Current Phoenix Mercury head coach Nate Tibbetts and general manager Nick U'Ren were with a contingent of Mercury brass alongside current New York Liberty head coach, and former Mercury coach, Sandy Brondello, who drafted Griner No. 1 overall in the 2013 WNBA Draft.

Collen likened Griner’s legacy to that of Caitlin Clark in terms of the uniqueness of her skillset at the time. Griner was possibly a viral star just a few years shy of when social media became synonymous with the growth of the women’s game.

“Who had ever seen a 6-foot-9 dunking, smiling fierce (player) in one moment, willing to get on the floor with little kids the next minute,” Collen said. “… She was a unique human and a unique a basketball player. It’s not that we never saw a dunk, but Brittney was first (women’s) player, I can go back to like watching her in AAU, she's the first player I've ever seen catch it in the high post, take one dribble and then dunk it with two hands. It was effortless.”

In between media timeouts, Baylor showed highlight packages of Griner’s career including her record-setting 14 blocks vs Georgetown, her 50-point farewell game inside the Ferrell Center and her countless in-game effortless dunks. At halftime, Griner even got the energy to reverse the clock and throw one down to a loud applause.

“I've known of Brittney Griner since I was a child,” Jana Van Gytenbeek said. “I think she's really hard working, and I love that about her. When you hear Baylor you think of Brittney Griner. That was just kind of always in the back of my head when I was deciding that I wanted to come here.”

Why the ceremony took so long to happen is one discussion, you can read Griner’s own words on her struggles and conflicts with Mulkey and her difficulties coming out as an openly gay athlete. But Baylor hasn’t forgotten one of its greatest athletes, arguably the best in its modern era and Collen, a fresh face in the context of the legacy program she now inherits, sought out to right the wrong and make Foster a freshly welcoming environment, and did just that.


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