Entering only her second season as head coach of the LSU Lady Tigers, Kim Mulkey already has flexed the recruiting chops that allowed her to establish the Baylor Lady Bears as a women’s college basketball powerhouse, attracting an impressive collection of players to Baton Rouge.
Rapper-hooper Flau’jae Johnson, the 26th-ranked recruit in the class of 2022, headlines a freshman class that also includes a fellow four-star recruit in Sa’Myah Smith.
Mulkey also snagged the prize jewel of the transfer portal, with Angel Reese deciding to take her talents to LSU after two seasons at Maryland. Mulkey and the Lady Tigers will welcome transfers LaDazhia Williams (Missouri) and Jasmine Carson (West Virginia) as well.
Yet, for outside observers, recent comments, or lack thereof, from Mulkey raise questions as to why these players chose to play for her. Yes, players are right to be drawn to Mulkey based on her track record at Baylor — she knows how to build and sustain a successful women’s college hoops program. She also has situated her players to get a shot in the WNBA.
But, what about when an athlete’s eligibility expires and the player-coach relationship evolves into a human-human relationship? What about life beyond the basketball court?
At a press conference last week, Mulkey was asked about Brittney Griner, who, on the date of the publication of this article, has been wrongfully detained in Russia for 229 days, she offered a curt response that reeked with condescension.
She simply and shortly said, “And you won’t …,” after a reporter proposed, “I just wanted to get your thoughts on Brittney Griner’s situation. I don’t think I’ve seen anything from you on that …”
Her refusal to comment, and the tone with which she issued that refusal, was stunning, alighting the social media streets afire with criticisms of Mulkey and her apparent lack of sympathy for the best, most successful player she has ever coached.
Her self-imposed silence also was befuddling when she, in fact, has offered her thoughts on Griner. In a June interview with Tiger Rag Radio, Mulkey shared that she has chosen not to speak publicly about what she termed a “personal issue” before noting that, “I pray for Brittney. I want her home safely … Those of us who don’t necessarily speak publicly about it certainly are praying for her.”
Even if Mulkey is unbothered by the deluge of online denouncements, a sense of human decency, or at least media savvy, should have encouraged her to respond similarly last week. Possibly, if one wants to be charitable to Mulkey and her choice, she did not want to take attention away from her current team.
However, it is worth noting that a number of Mulkey’s former players, did not give her the benefit of the doubt, much less rally to her defense.
Chloe Jackson, a member of Baylor’s 2019 national championship team, tweeted a veiled critique of Mulkey, before making her intentions by clear by following up with a tweet that read, “#FREEBG.”
And I will say it again. SILENCE SPEAKS VOLUMES, smh.
— Chloe Jackson (@Clj_0) September 26, 2022
Queen Egbo, also a member of the 2019 championship squad, tweeted a more direct and severe indictment of Mulkey’s character, going so far as to advise prospects against playing for Mulkey.
A player that built Baylor, 2 national titles, & a 40-0 record. Yet her former coach refuses to say anything or simply just show any kind of support. Keep that in mind when you’re choosing schools.
— Queen (@QueenEgbo_) September 26, 2022
While outside critics, especially those who root for rival teams, could be accused of overreacting to Mulkey’s decision to remain mum, that her former players, who have an insider understanding of how she manages and maintains her personal relationships, saw her silence as significant indicates that it is.
And it stands in sharp contrast to other coaches who have used their platforms to express concern for Griner and push for her freedom. Dawn Staley, head coach of South Carolina who coached Griner with Team USA at the 2018 World Cup and 2020 Olympic Games, sends a daily post on Twitter and Instagram, with a photo of her “WE ARE BG” pin attached.
Staley also has spoken publicly about Griner on multiple occasions, including offering an extended, implicit response to Mulkey’s silence last week:
“I’ve known Brittney for the past 10 years. I know her heart, I know who she is as a person … She’s a human being. She’s an American over in Russia at the worst time that anybody could be in Russia. Why wouldn’t I want to send prayers her way and make sure she’s in a good headspace? … I just want her to continue to have hope that people are voicing their thoughts and prayers on her behalf.”
Mulkey’s successor as head coach at Baylor, Nicki Collen, spoke for almost five minutes about Griner at a recent press conference, celebrating not only what Griner meant to Baylor as a basketball player but also recognizing her as a multidimensional person.
By electing not to expand on her thoughts about Griner, Mulkey leaves it unclear as to whether she sees and appreciates Griner as more than a basketball player. Her silence also makes one wonder what she will, or will not, do for her current players when they leave LSU.