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Griner vs. NBA: Why Can’t She?

New Orleans — Right idea, wrong player.

Brittney Griner probably can’t “hold her own” with NBA guys, for a lot of reasons. Frankly, it’s more of a weight class issue than a gender one. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad experiment or the wrong question.

What is the awful fate that would befall Griner if she gave an NBA tryout a shot? The worst that can happen is that it would be a stretch — and what’s so bad about stretching? “Why couldn’t something like that ever be?” she asked at the women’s Final Four. “Even if you don’t make it, at least you tried, at least somebody pushed the envelope.”

Ever since Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested that he’d consider drafting Griner, there has been this undercurrent that he unleashed a dangerous idea. WNBA great Swin Cash declared that women shouldn’t have to “validate” themselves by playing against NBA guys. Basketball great Nancy Lieberman got a call from a reporter asking if Griner trying out against men wouldn’t “tarnish” the women’s game. “You would think she was going to put the atomic bomb together and decide where to drop it,” Lieberman said. “Seriously, it’s not that bad. I laugh. People get so agitated.”

The idea of pitting female athletes against males always seems to strike a nerve. For men, the stakes are a primal embarrassment, and for women, that we might look inferior. Guess what: Griner might very well look weak compared to NBA centers. At 6 feet 8, she weighs around 200 pounds, and would give up at least 60 pounds to a Dwight Howard. The trouble is, Griner plays the wrong position — she’s a center in the women’s game but she’d be a tweener in the NBA. As Dirk Nowitzki told the Dallas Morning News, “You’re kind of caught between a 3 and a 4,” Griner is probably not strong or heavy enough to play power forward, and not fast enough to play small forward.

The facets that made Griner the player of the year in the women’s game for a second straight season were her combination of height and soft shooting touch, not strength. She has terrific footwork for 6-8, and an exquisite face-up game and shooting range to go with her amazingly long arms, with her standing reach of 9-2, and a 7-4 wingspan.

Fact: Guys are, on average, bigger. The latest national statistics show that American men are an average of five inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than American women. And those are just regular citizens. Lieberman’s son is a 6-8, 220-pound freshman center at Niagara University. When he drapes an arm around her mother, she practically sags under the sheer weight. “I’m like, ‘Dude, get your arm off me, it’s so heavy.’ It’s like a Labrador.”

The fear we have about female athletes juxtaposing their skills next to those of men is that they will look smaller, or weaker, and therefore unworthy. It was a legitimate concern in the 1970s, before Title IX was so widely accepted. Any sign of inferiority on the part of female athletes was interpreted as undeserving of funding.

But now the fear is that head-to-head competition will “invalidate” women athletes’ achievements. Which is really a form of defensiveness. It would be nice to think we’ve moved past that, into a place where we can be more playful and exploratory about women’s athletic abilities, and less politically conscious.

Some of the biggest leaps in the history of sports have come precisely because certain women weren’t afraid to put themselves on the line against men. On those rare few occasions, a curious thing has happened. We’ve been surprised. We all think we know where the gender barriers are. But guess what? They turn out to be mostly false. And they fall.

Some day a woman may come along with the physical assets and fortitude to play in the NBA — but she probably won’t be a center. A point guard, more likely. But we won’t grow that young woman by telling her “there are some things you shouldn’t try because they are too insurmountable.” Or by telling her that women should play a separate game and never think about how they stack up against their male counterparts.

“This is America and in America we ask people to go out and try to be better than they ever think they could be,” Lieberman said. “I’m a fan of anyone who isn’t afraid. Can you imagine if we listened to everyone who told us what we could and shouldn’t do?”