Brittney Griner (L) and Elena Delle Donne (C) at the main ESPN Campus in preparation for tonight WNBA Draft. / David Butler II, USA TODAY Sports
BRISTOL, Conn. - Brittney Griner couldn't hold back her emotions.
More than a week after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested he would consider selecting Griner in June's NBA draft, the rim-rising women's basketball player broke down in tears several times before and after she was selected as the No. 1 pick in a league she's projected to dominate.
"It's humbling, it's a true honor to be a part of this league," said an emotional Griner, dressed in a white suit designed by the Emmy-nominated Kellen Richards, a stylist for the Ellen DeGeneres Show. She also sported orange socks and nail polish to provide a hint into her professional future. "It's a dream come true. I feel like a little kid in Disney World for the first time. ...I definitely felt like I was going to have a heart attack."
Monday night's WNBA draft was promoted as a three-star ascension with Baylor's Griner, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Delaware's Elena Delle Donne headlining a draft class that commissioner Laurel Richie believes will "change the landscape of the league."
Yet when the Phoenix Mercury chose Griner with the top pick in the WNBA draft Monday night, the 12-team league welcomed a transcending star that's created a buzz unmatched in its 17-year history.
"I think what Brittney Griner alone can bring has never been done in women's sports," former WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes said.
Delle Donne was selected by the Chicago Sky with the second pick, while Diggins went to the Tulsa Shock at No. 3 in the three-round draft.
"There are a lot of players who have the potential to come in and make an immediate impact to be franchise players for their teams," Diggins said.
The endless questions for Griner were focused on another league, though. And they all meant the same thing: A woman playing in a men's league.
"I'm not going to back down, I'm going to push the envelope," Griner told USA TODAY Sports of giving the NBA a try. "There would be a lot of scrutiny, I know that. Just after Mark Cuban saying he'd give me a shot and me saying I would do it, I've heard a lot of hurtful things, things I won't repeat.
"You know, Mark Cuban trying to make headlines, but he brought up an important question," Griner's godfather Ellison Joiner said.
Despite weight-of-the-world expectations, the 22-year old Griner wasn't fazed by the spotlight on draft day. She joked around with the more-reserved Diggins and Delle Donne during photo shoots, posed for a picture with Tony Hawk, using his skateboard and calling the eye-watering moment "mind-blowing." Most notably, she continues to take the advice that her father, Ray Griner, gave her growing up when she was bullied for her size: Just be yourself.
Griner, who has been in the national spotlight since high school when videos of her dunking went viral on the Internet, helped transform women's college basketball with her ferocious dunking in games, including an NCAA-record 18 this past season. She finished her career as the second-highest scorer in NCAA history.
Transforming the women's professional game won't come as easy. The challenge for Griner and the league she's now the face of won't be putting on a show, it'll be drawing an audience. Following a season with an attendance-low of 7,457 fans per game, the WNBA has made Griner the focal point of a new era highlighted by a new logo and $12 million ESPN television deal.
Towering expectations await Griner in the WNBA. On the court, she's expected to bolster a Mercury team that finished 7-27 last year with star guard Diana Taurasi sidelined. Off the court, the bigger goal will likely come with drawing endorsements, still uncommon in women's team sports.
Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who represents Griner, confirmed to USA TODAY Sports that Griner signed a deal with Nike on Saturday.
"It's big-time, let's just say that," Griner said of the deal.
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