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Explaining Kim Mulkey’s complicated relationship with Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner and coach Kim Mulkey address the media after Baylor's 2012 national championship win. (Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)

Since Brittney Griner was taken into Russian custody in February, basketball players and coaches around the world have offered their support for the WNBA star.

But one person has been absent from the outpouring of support: Kim Mulkey.

The conversation around Mulkey’s silence came to a head on Monday, after Cory Diaz, an LSU women’s basketball reporter for The Daily Advertiser, asked Mulkey to comment on Griner’s detainment in a press conference.

Diaz said that he had yet to hear Mulkey say anything about Griner.

“And you won’t,” the coach replied.

Griner was arrested in February in a Moscow-area airport for allegedly having hashish oil in her luggage. Since then, WNBA players such as Skylar Diggins-Smith and Breanna Stewart as well as coaches such as South Carolina’s Dawn Staley have spoken out and answered questions about Griner, emphasizing their desire to bring her home.

After Griner was convicted in August and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for drug smuggling charges, Just Women’s Sports obtained a statement from Baylor, where Mulkey coached Griner from 2009-13.

“With the unsettling news of the verdict and sentencing of Brittney Griner, we continue to pray for her ongoing strength and safety throughout her detainment,” read the statement from the Baylor women’s basketball program. “We recognize the extraordinary complexity of this situation, yet we remain hopeful of the day she will again set foot on U.S. ground.”

JWS also reached out to LSU, but no comment was provided. An athletic department spokesperson said he would reach out if Mulkey decided to release a statement. She never did.

Though Mulkey said Monday that she wouldn’t comment on the ongoing situation, she did offer some insight to her silence on the Tiger Rag podcast back in June.

“Well I keep up with it, like you guys do as far as what’s in the National Media,” Mulkey said on the podcast. “I don’t make public comments. I think that is a personal issue. You just want everybody to come home safely, and I pray for Brittney. I want her home safely. I think there are lots of people speaking out on her behalf, and those of us who don’t necessarily speak publicly are praying for her.”

That is the only time Mulkey has offered any insight into her thought process on the Griner situation.

This isn’t the first time Mulkey has been embroiled in controversy regarding her statements about Griner. After Griner left Baylor in 2013 and was selected as the first overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury, information about the seemingly contentious relationship between the two came to light.

In a 2013 profile by ESPN’s Kate Fagan, Raymond Griner, Brittney’s father, stated that once Baylor lost to Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, Mulkey didn’t contact his daughter again.

“It’s about dollar signs,” Raymond told Fagan. “There’s nothing in it for Kim anymore, so she’s done with Brittney.”

Shakira Austin, current WNBA player and former Ole Miss standout, echoed that sentiment Monday in a tweet about the Mulkey press conference in which she declined to comment about Griner.

“It’s all business smh once you no longer benefit their lives watch how they move after. Recruits, idk what else to suggest besides just go overseas and be selfish,” she tweeted.

Queen Egbo, who played for Mukley from 2018-21, before Mulkey took the head coaching job at LSU, retweeted Austin’s statement, and she offered insight of her own with multiple tweets about Griner and Mulkey.

Perhaps the most pointed was a tweet in which she referenced the success Baylor and Mulkey had thanks to Griner.

“A player that built Baylor, 2 national titles & a 40-0 record,” Egbo wrote. “Yet her former coach refuses to say anything or simply just show any kind of support. Keep that in mind when choosing schools.”

Egbo, a 2022 WNBA All-Rookie selection of the Indiana Fever, later corrected her tweet to say “two Final Fours” rather than “two national titles,” as Baylor made the Final Four with Griner in 2010 and later won an NCAA championship with her in 2012.

(Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Fagan’s 2013 article revealed more tension between Griner and Mulkey, specifically in relation to Griner’s sexuality. Mulkey did not want Griner to talk about her sexuality while playing for the Bears, Griner said, though her being gay was an “open secret.”

During Griner’s playing career at Baylor, Mulkey was outwardly supportive of her star center. She even addressed the hate Griner received online during a 2012 NCAA Tournament press conference, stating that Griner was a “human being.”

Fagan’s article about Griner can be marked as the start of Mulkey choosing not to address controversy surrounding Griner.

The coach declined an interview for the story, though she later released a statement to Fagan through a spokesperson which said: “Brittney Griner represented Baylor University proudly on and off the basketball court, and she leaves behind an incredible legacy. I cannot comment on personal matters surrounding any of our student-athletes, but I can tell you Brittney will always be a celebrated member of the Baylor family.”

After the story was published, Fagan said Mulkey reached out to ESPN, her employer at the time, asking for Fagan to be fired. Mulkey allegedly claimed Fagan “forced” Griner into making statements for the article.

While several of Mulkey’s former players, including Egbo and NaLyssa Smith, have been critical of their former coach, current LSU player Alexis Morris was firm in her support of Mulkey on Twitter.

Morris tweeted that the “ball was in Russia’s court,” and “them people told us to be quiet or they won’t do the trade,” before later tweeting, “I’m saying God is in control and this is bigger than you, me and Kim.”

Morris also pinned a tweet in which she offered support for Griner, stating the following: “No matter what. It’s forever #FreeBG, until it’s backwards.”

Morris played for Mulkey at Baylor during the 2017-18 season, but was dismissed from the squad following an arrest for allegedly assaulting another woman. Morris was then arrested again in December of 2017 in Beaumont, Texas, for “marijuana possession and possession of a dangerous substance.”

Since then, Morris bounced around, playing at Rutgers and then Texas A&M before getting a second chance with her former coach. She transferred to LSU in 2021 after Mulkey took the helm for the Tigers.