The Kim Mulkey way

The Kim Mulkey way

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 2

TICKFAW, La. — In the two sisters’ minds, the old house remains as it was: a one-story brick ranch a hundred yards off the road, white fence under two ancient oaks, tin roof long before it all caved in.

Their father built on the farmland he had inherited. Dug a swimming pool, poured the concrete for a basketball court, carved two softball fields into pasture. His two girls, born less than a year apart, would grow up running and hiding and disappearing among the pines.

“I just miss the memories,” Tammy, the 60-year-old younger sister, says.

They’re in the backyard in her favorite, shooting baskets with Daddy by starlight. It feels so real, she says. So precious and warm.

“I wish I could have it all back,” she says.

FIFTY MILES SOUTH AND WEST, a massive crowd is here to watch the older sister, to wear sequins like her, to cheer on her team. Five decades have passed since Kim Mulkey’s father first bounced a basketball to his daughters, explaining the keys to victory.

The game itself hasn’t changed much, but everything else around Mulkey has. It’s a Sunday in early March, the same day Pete Maravich’s 54-year-old career scoring record will fall. More than 13,000 people are packed into the LSU arena named for Maravich, and Tigers alumnus and former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal is in the tunnel. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a picture of star LSU forward Angel Reese on the front and her nickname, “Bayou Barbie,” in hot pink letters on the back.

Reese strolls onto the floor. Fans chant “One more year!” pleading with her to stay in college. And because the value of her name, image and likeness (NIL) rights is estimated to be worth multiples more than the $240,000 WNBA maximum salary, she just might.

“Times are different,” Mulkey will say in a news conference following the game. “You can be beautiful. You can be talented. You can be tough. You can be you.”

Few live that last part more than Mulkey, who wears feathers almost as dramatically as she ruffles them. Her outfits during games are legendary, and during last year’s NCAA tournament, fans wanted to see Reese and her teammates tear through the bracket, sure. But they also wanted to see what their coach might wear, say or do next.

She explodes at officials and is suspicious of reporters. Mulkey declined repeated interview requests for this story, and after LSU received an email from The Washington Post seeking comment on various elements of this story, she used two NCAA tournament news conferences to take aim at The Post’s reporting, threatening legal action in the event of “a false story.” LSU declined to comment.

“Not many people are in a position to hold these kinds of journalists accountable,” she said. “But I am, and I’ll do it.”

It’s by no means her first or most high-profile controversy. In 2013, the NCAA suspended Mulkey for a tournament game after she criticized referees. She later publicly defended Baylor, her former employer, amid a sexual assault scandal in its football program. In November, she told reporters after a road game that they could blame her if they were sick at Thanksgiving.

“I ain’t a sissy,” she said, holding a tissue and choking back sniffles. “I’ve got some kind of cold. It might be covid, but I ain’t testing.”

She is also known to hold grudges and clash with players, including about their appearances and displays of their sexuality, according to interviews with former players and news reports. Mulkey and Brittney Griner, the coach’s biggest star at Baylor, have feuded for more than a decade. And while Griner’s 294-day detainment in a Russian prison eventually required White House intervention, it wasn’t enough to ease tension long after Griner first said Mulkey encouraged gay players to hide their sexuality and “keep your business behind closed doors,” Griner wrote in her memoir.

“Kim Mulkey is an amazing coach; the reason I went to Baylor is because of her,” says Kelli Griffin, who played for Mulkey from 2007 to 2010. But, Griffin says, “She made my life hell,” by drawing attention to Griffin’s clothes and issuing a suspension that ultimately ended the player’s career. And she believes it started after Mulkey found out she was gay.

Mulkey’s attorneys, in letters to The Post, denied that Mulkey treated gay players “more harshly or differently.” They provided an affidavit from former Baylor player Morghan Medlock, who said that she was in a relationship with Griffin and that she never witnessed Mulkey mistreat Griffin or other gay athletes. Former Baylor and LSU player Alexis Morris put it more bluntly to ESPN: “Coach Mulkey is not homophobic.”

Mulkey, in a 2013 interview with OutSports, insisted that she didn’t care about players’ sexuality and wouldn’t ask them about it.

“I don’t think it’s anybody’s business,” she said then. “Whoever you are. I don’t care to know that.”

Her conflicts with star players are over other issues too, though, and they’ve continued at LSU, even as players’ leverage and celebrity swell. She benched Reese for four games this season for reasons the coach refused to explain, weeks after appearing to call out Reese for a poor shooting performance. (Reese did not respond to messages from The Post seeking comment.) Mulkey told a supporter last year that Reese had been left off an awards list because of her GPA, according to email obtained via public records request by The Post. In another email, Mulkey complained that Reese was one of several players who “stay on that social media crap.”

Mulkey is many things, among them a 5-foot-4 hoops whisperer, an exceptional teacher, a coach willing to dive deeply into players’ emotions to push them past their preconceived limits. She is also one of college basketball’s most colorful personalities, viewed by some as an almost cartoonishly ornery supervillain. Regardless, as the women’s game finally takes center stage, she is an essential part of the show. In last year’s national championship game, she wore a sequined, technicolor ensemble and unfurled the best game plan of her life.

LSU forced Iowa star Caitlin Clark to battle for every shot, every touch, every step. The Tigers shut off access to the lane, allowing Clark to be predictably lethal from long range but otherwise one-dimensional, enough for LSU’s blowout win and one achievement that eluded even Shaq and “Pistol Pete”: a national title.

It was Mulkey’s seventh as a player or coach, and even in victory she was sarcastic and prickly.

“Coaches are hollering, ‘Get off the court,’ ” Mulkey snapped after winning the 2023 tournament, her fourth title as a head coach. “And I said: ‘Don’t tell me what to do; I’m fixing to win another championship.’ ”

Coaches don’t win 722 games, reach five Final Fours and hang around this long by being cuddly. Mulkey isn’t your grandmother or your mascot, and while everyone else is fighting for women’s basketball, she’s fighting against something because it’s the fight that drives her. Even if you played for her, won for her, loved her.

“I’ll just say she doesn’t care about winning the popularity contest among coaches,” longtime Texas A&M coach Gary Blair says. “She wouldn’t want to.”

So, yes, all of this — the sold-out arenas, television ratings, attention — is well and good. A fire is finally rising in the women’s game.

Because Mulkey is the fire, and she has been burning for 40 years, too busy laying waste to everything and everyone in her path to be impressed by Clark, Shaq or anyone else trying to soak in this storybook moment.

BACK WHEN THE FOOTAGE was grainy, if it existed at all, she was poetry in pigtails: whirling passes behind her back, between her legs, past opponents. Sonja Hogg knew Louisiana Tech would be getting speed and grit when she recruited Mulkey, but was it too much to hope for more?

“I thought maybe she’d grow a little bit,” Hogg says now.

No such luck, but in the early 1980s, women’s basketball teams took what they could get. There was no money for private jets or elaborate team dinners, so the Lady Techsters dined on fast food on bus rides to Texas and Oklahoma. And not even the nice bus. That one was reserved for the men’s team, leaving only the “Blue Goose,” such a rattletrap that the travel itinerary built in extra time for breakdowns.

Home games were social affairs, and everyone wanted to see the newest member of Hogg’s quintet. A point guard raining down 30 shots per game, as Clark sometimes does, would have been unseemly anywhere in 1982. But at Louisiana Tech, coaches just wouldn’t have allowed it. Mulkey’s job was to run the offense, distribute the ball, do things precisely Hogg’s way.

Hogg (rhymes with “rogue”) was the visionary, the strategist, the program’s good cop. Assistant coach Leon Barmore was the hard-ass. Fit in, do right or go see the enforcer for a profanity-laced rant or a date with the arena stairs.

“Back in the day,” former Louisiana Tech player Mickie DeMoss says, “they didn’t have to explain why. You get there, or you’re going to run.”

Louisianans drove hours to watch the Lady Techsters, so named because the men’s mascot was the Bulldogs and, as Hogg once pointed out, “a lady dog is a bitch.” Hogg required her players be ladylike, and little girls wore their hair braided like Mulkey’s as they squeezed into Memorial Gym. The arena could fit 5,200, but Hogg says if she greased the Ruston fire marshal with tickets, he would allow in a thousand more.

Because Hogg put on a show. Tennessee’s Pat Summitt wore pantsuits. Ohio State’s Tara VanDerveer donned sweaters. Cheyney’s C. Vivian Stringer occasionally wore a skirt. Hogg drove a white Cadillac, wore beaver skin or mink, styled her platinum hair into a towering meringue.

“I couldn’t be dragging around in some sweatsuit,” she says now. “I mean, I wore warmups during practice and tennis shoes and whatever, but gah-lee, you don’t do that on the sideline.”

Louisiana Tech smoked Tennessee in the 1982 Final Four, stirring whispers that Summitt was a fine coach but a choker in big games, and met Cheyney in the final. Hogg directed traffic in a dusty rose and light pink blouse, shell necklace and wool crepe pants as Stringer’s press initially put Louisiana Tech in a sleeper hold.

But Mulkey had the speed to break the press, crash the lane, lay it in. The smarts to recognize when a defender dropped into a zone before pulling up to drain one from deep. Hogg and Barmore freed Mulkey up to riff because she had the conditioning to let her ignore fatigue and continue punishing her opponents, choking them out, stomping the court and beaming as time expired. Tech won by 14, and Mulkey got hooked on winning NCAA championships after one taste.

“She looked like a cheerleader jumping,” Hogg recalls of Mulkey, who went 130-6 as a college player and reached the Final Four every year. “She wants perfection. That’s what she was always seeking.”

AS SOON AS LES MULKEY got out of the Marine Corps in 1963, he started clearing: strawberry vines, bushes, weeds and juvenile pines, even dairy cows from the playing surfaces he had been imagining for six years.

His father had given his two sons 25 acres to share off a highway in Tangipahoa Parish. Les’s younger brother planned to raise horses on his half. Les liked competition, one way to channel his overflowing energy, and if all went right, he would soon be hosting weekend softball tournaments and pickup basketball games.

Les signed Kim up to play youth baseball, then took the league to court when it refused to admit a girl, she later wrote. She made all-stars the next year. He took his daughters with him to play weeknight hoops, and if his team was a man down, he would draft Kim.

Her?” an opponent once asked.

“You scared?” Les said.

A lifelong LSU fan, he hoped Kim would play college basketball for the Ben-Gals, as they were initially known. But when she picked Tech, he made the four-hour trip to Ruston for home games, slipping into the gym and fading into the crowd to watch his little girl.

“He was so proud of me,” Kim wrote, “and I was so proud that he was my dad.”

Some nights, though, there were no games. Les and Dru, Kim’s mom, went dancing sometimes. Other nights he would go drinking as he used to in the Corps, he says, ending up in another woman’s bed. With his daughters in college, Les left Dru and married another woman. She wasn’t much older than Tammy and Kim.

In 1987, the WNBA was a decade away. After playing at Tech, Mulkey moved down the bench as an assistant coach. And a few years after that, she wrote, her boyfriend and a colleague in the athletic department, Randy Robertson, presented her a jack-in-the-box with an engagement ring inside. He was popular and gregarious. She hated parties and crowds, had never taken a sip of alcohol. She said yes anyway, planning to toast with 7 Up at the wedding.

Les packed his tuxedo and made the familiar drive to Ruston. His new wife could attend, Kim advised, but only if she sat in the rear, away from the family. The way Kim saw it, sister Tammy says, her dad hadn’t just walked out on his family. He had quit on the people who depended on him, the worst thing a person can do.

Through her attorneys, Mulkey derided The Post for contacting family members, saying they did not “relate in any way to her career.” But Mulkey herself wrote about her dad’s infidelity and their estrangement in her 2007 autobiography, “Won’t Back Down.”

“His unfaithfulness to my mother devastated our entire family,” she wrote.

Still, Les figured, if he talked to her in person, Kim would come to her senses. But she wouldn’t budge. Neither would Les. His daughter walked down the aisle alone.

They haven’t spoken since.

CAN YOU IMAGINE KIM MULKEY begging? For anything? She says it happened in 2000, when she dropped to her knees before Louisiana Tech President Daniel Reneau.

Hogg was gone, but Barmore and Mulkey kept the Techsters machine humming: seven more Final Fours and the 1988 championship. Barmore was an unrelenting competitor, and by the end of the 1999-2000 season, he and Mulkey were butting heads more often. After he called her out in front of the team, she later wrote, Mulkey reached a breaking point. She requested a transfer to a different department as she searched for a new coaching job, and Barmore apologized and stepped down. He lobbied for Mulkey to get a shot.

Reneau was willing to consider it, but he offered only a three-year contract. Mulkey, then 37, wanted five. When they met in the president’s office, Mulkey wrote: “I got out of my chair, onto my knees, and begged that man for a five-year contract. Tears were flying everywhere.” (Reneau did not return calls and messages seeking comment.)

Few things are more important to Mulkey than loyalty, codified during the 1984 Olympics. Mulkey had broken her foot and expected to be sent home, but Summitt, the Tennessee legend, declared that Mulkey had earned her spot. Team USA won the gold medal, and Mulkey forever saw Summitt as a mentor and friend.

Reneau showed no such commitment.

“I just wanted Dan Reneau to say, ‘Hey, Kim, you know we’ll take care of you, you’re one of us,’ ” Mulkey wrote. “But the man was so cold.”

She took the job at Baylor, replacing Hogg, of all people. Mulkey said later that she never spoke to Reneau again.

AT BAYLOR’S FIRST CONDITIONING SESSION under its new coach, in the spring of 2000, forward Danielle Crockrom says, Mulkey approached and collected a fistful of the exhausted player’s jersey.

“Push past this point,” she says Mulkey told her, “and you’ll be an all-American.”

But team captain? Not now, maybe not ever, Crockrom recalls being told. Because, according to Crockrom’s telling, Mulkey knew the player had gotten burned out the previous season and stepped away for two weeks. She had quit. On her teammates, her coaches, herself. Then she had gone to Baylor’s athletic director to complain about Hogg and the team’s direction, Crockrom says now, leading to the staff shake-up.

Mulkey blew the whistle, ordering more sprints, reminding everyone, Crockrom says, that she had set the wheels of agony in motion by complaining.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Crockrom says. She wouldn’t fully understand the purpose until later. “This is what you need to be disrupted, to pull out the potential in you. I had potential in me that I hadn’t even begun to scratch.”

That season, Baylor won 21 games and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time. Crockrom was indeed named an all-American. The Bears lost in the first round, though, and Mulkey told players this was only the beginning. “We might have raised the bar too early,” Mulkey said with a chuckle after the loss.

There was more work to do, even if that meant Mulkey’s process wasn’t for everyone.

“The weeding-out process,” Crockrom says.

Mulkey handed out playbooks, Crockrom says, then yanked them away. She made the team run her plays again and again until calls resulted in a Pavlovian, muscle-memory response. Crockrom says Mulkey made post players keep pace with guards, using structured failure to push beyond physical and emotional barriers. She scheduled more and more conditioning sessions, one starting earlier than the last.

Because know who else was up and grinding? VanDerveer at Stanford. Geno Auriemma at Connecticut. Summitt at Tennessee. All were building perennial championship contenders as the women’s game competed for eyeballs on the increasingly crowded sports landscape. Lisa Leslie could dunk; Candace Parker could throw down against boys; Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi anchored a U-Conn. team that couldn’t lose.

Mulkey paid special attention to Summitt, whom coaching peers praised not just for doing things the proverbial right way but her way, establishing a standard and a recruiting pipeline and a juggernaut, all while raising a son.

Back when she was still an assistant, Mulkey had leaned on Summitt when she and Randy learned, in 1991, they were expecting a baby girl. She was running Louisiana Tech’s summer camp at the time, plus overseeing academics and acting as recruiting coordinator. She was “in a depression,” she would tell the Dallas Morning News in 2012, and thought it would be impossible to add a daughter to the mix, especially when —

You can, she told her. It’s possible to be a great coach and a great mother.

Mulkey believed Summitt, always her North Star, and took Makenzie on a recruiting trip when she was two weeks old. She breastfed Kramer, the couple’s infant son, before and after practices and games. Mulkey wrote that, by the time they moved to Waco, the kids had learned to give their mom space, especially after losses, and stop asking why she cussed so much.

She leaned into the things that made her at Louisiana Tech because those things won. Only she sometimes played the roles of Hogg and Barmore: approachable emissary while handing out stuffed bears at Waco bingo halls and nursing homes, a former Baylor colleague says, and ruthless taskmaster who, according to multiple former players, might single out anyone who seemed distracted or was having a tough day.

“If you’re having a hard time with something or you’re not performing at the level that she would like you to be, then get ready,” says Emily Niemann, a swing player who joined the team in 2003. “Because there’s no holding back.”

Niemann’s vertical jump was a mere 13 inches, and she says Mulkey brought it up constantly, instructing the team not to throw Niemann a lob pass because she wouldn’t catch it. Sometimes Mulkey’s comments felt like a joke, Niemann says; other times she felt humiliated.

In the 2004 NCAA tournament, fourth-seeded Baylor ran into Tennessee in the Sweet 16. The teams were tied as time expired, but officials huddled and determined that Baylor’s Jessika Stratton had fouled Tasha Butts. After Butts made two free throws, Summitt’s team advanced.

Mulkey never mentioned the loss again. The team nonetheless remembered, and the next season, Baylor crushed NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 15 points. Niemann made five three-pointers in a title-game beatdown of Michigan State.

“She’s so locked in and intense that it trickles down to everybody,” Niemann says. “And when you have a whole team of people where every loose ball matters, every deflection matters, every block-out, every trip down the floor — everything matters.

“It’s emotionally draining. On the other hand, it gets results.”

THREE MONTHS LATER, Niemann says, Mulkey summoned her to the coach’s office. The player had been seen around Waco with a woman, and people had begun murmuring about her sexuality.

“It’s not a good look,” Niemann says Mulkey told her. Baylor is the world’s largest Baptist university, and its policy still prohibits premarital sex and defines marriage as between a man and woman. Mulkey advised Niemann to be careful because the program would be watching.

For months, Niemann had struggled with questions about her identity, slowly coming to grips with being queer, she says. The product of a conservative home in Houston, a graduate of a Christian school and now a player at Baylor, she found many of her feelings were in conflict with her surroundings.

“I can’t talk to anyone,” she says now. “I couldn’t find a way to make things feel right.”

She was thinking of transferring, Niemann says, and met with Mulkey and her parents about it. Mulkey was flabbergasted, the coach wrote in her memoir, adding that among Niemann’s reasons for wanting to leave Baylor was that Mulkey was sometimes too hard on players.

“This is how I do what I do,” Niemann recalls the coach saying. “And if you can’t take it, maybe you should leave.”

Niemann left. Later, she wrote that she “did not leave Baylor because coach Mulkey is homophobic.” The coach, Niemann wrote, was only expressing opinions that were the “dominant belief system” on campus.

Mulkey wrote about Niemann in her memoir, suggesting that “unhappiness comes from within one’s soul” and that Niemann’s experience was an isolated case.

Other players point out that hard coaching is a key driver of Mulkey’s success, even as her peers go softer amid the shifting power dynamics of college sports. For Mulkey, players say, that often extends to comments about players’ hairstyles, tattoos and makeup.

“She hates my different hair colors,” former Bears guard DiDi Richards says. “ ‘Why is your hair purple?’ ‘Are you going to wear them two ponytails?’ If you would change the color, she’d go, ‘You and these damn colors.’ ” The comments came from a place of affection, Richards believes. They could get personal, too, though Richards says they show how Mulkey pushes players, physically and emotionally, in pursuit of wins.

Mulkey’s attorneys described the comments as “good-natured banter, as often happens on and around the court.”

A few months after Baylor’s first championship, Mulkey’s husband told her he felt neglected. They attended couples counseling, Mulkey would write, and she offered to leave coaching. Robertson nonetheless wanted to end their marriage. “I told Randy … that he better be sure,” Mulkey wrote, “because there was no turning back.” (Robertson did not respond to an email.)

By this point, those in Mulkey’s orbit had learned that disloyalty could result in harsh consequences. Les Mulkey sent notes to his daughter, pleading for reconciliation, but Mulkey wrote that she returned them unread. After Reneau, the former Louisiana Tech president, sent Mulkey a message congratulating her on the national championship, Mulkey would say later, it sat unopened on her desk for years.

“Talk to that man?” she told the Dallas Morning News in 2012. “That’s not who I am.”

AT BAYLOR, MULKEY IMPORTED a layer of trust by surrounding herself with past allies: Barmore, who came out of retirement to be an assistant coach; a longtime Louisiana Tech booster to oversee Baylor’s budget and travel; and a former Techsters team manager to handle recruiting.

Everything Mulkey did, at least as it related to basketball, worked: two Sweet 16s in five years and, in 2010, another Final Four. Texas kids dreamed of wearing the green and gold, and when Kelli Griffin was in seventh grade, she wrote a paper about someday leaving Houston to play for Kim Mulkey.

Griffin had come out in high school, but though she and Mulkey never explicitly discussed her sexuality while she was being recruited, Griffin says now that it was “obvious” and that she assumed Mulkey knew. She promised Griffin’s mother, Madine, that Baylor was a “family” and that she would protect Kelli.

Not long after Griffin arrived on campus, she says, Mulkey began asking why she dressed like a boy: baggy jeans, basketball shorts, sweats. A lady, Griffin says the coach told her, wears a dress. “Okay, this lady might not like gay people,” Griffin recalls thinking.

She considered transferring, but in 2008, one of Griffin’s friends and former AAU teammates committed to Baylor. Brittney Griner was a 6-foot-8 phenom and YouTube dunking sensation who, not long after reporting to campus, grabbed a rebound, glided the length of the court with the ball, then dunked it.

“Dang, Kim,” Barmore said in an interview. “I think we’ve got something here.”

Griner is gay, but she didn’t come out publicly until 2013, after her final game at Baylor. Still, whenever Mulkey sensed Griner was distracted or stressed, Mulkey blamed “girlfriend problems,” Griner later wrote, even if Griner wasn’t dating anyone. “She sounded like she was speaking a foreign language,” Griner wrote.

“Maybe she would have understood me better,” Griner wrote, “if I had shared more with her, but there was always a little bit of a disconnect with us, because I never really knew if Kim fully accepted me for who I am.”

Mulkey also called out players if they gained weight, instructing the team’s strength coach to conduct weigh-ins in front of the team, according to Griffin and another player. Players weren’t to bring non-basketball matters to Mulkey, they say, encouraged to confide in assistant coaches instead. And Niemann and multiple other former players say shame was a frequent tool in Mulkey’s coaching arsenal, whether during practice drills or in addresses to the team. Some of these former players spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation in the close-knit women’s basketball community.

Mulkey’s attorneys said the former players’ allegations were too vague to respond to.

Mulkey didn’t like the stars tattooed on Griner’s shoulders because, the player later wrote, they sent the “wrong message.” Griner pacified her coach by wearing a T-shirt under her jersey.

“It seemed like all she cared about was the image of the program as seen through the eyes of a very specific segment of the population,” Griner wrote. “Just once, I wanted her to stop worrying about what everyone else thought and stand by my side.”

In 2010, Griffin was the second-ranked Bears’ starting point guard. One night, Griffin says, an ex-girlfriend and Bears teammate showed up at Griffin’s home, and a fight broke out.

Griffin says she called Mulkey to report the incident, and the next morning, Mulkey announced that Griffin would be suspended indefinitely. The teammate, who Griffin wouldn’t identify to The Post because, she said, the teammate had not come out as gay, wasn’t punished, according to Griffin. In a separate interview, Griffin’s mom, Madine, also recalled that the other player wasn’t suspended.

Griffin says she confronted Mulkey to ask why she was being penalized and that Mulkey told her she was owed no explanation.

“I thought I did everything I was supposed to,” she says.

After The Post asked Mulkey’s representatives about these events, they provided a statement from the former player, Morghan Medlock, who was in a relationship with Griffin at the time. Medlock claimed Griffin was actually suspended for using marijuana.

In a phone interview the next day, Medlock reiterated that Mulkey “never knew” there had been an altercation between Griffin and Medlock. Griffin just stopped coming to practice, Medlock said. Medlock said she did not remember how she had learned the reason Griffin was suspended.

Medlock said she decided to give the statement after receiving a call this week from an individual who falsely claimed Griffin had identified Medlock to The Post.

“If my name never came up, I wouldn’t be on the phone with you right now,” she said. Medlock would not reveal who had contacted her and refused to say when she had last spoken with Mulkey.

“What difference does it make?” she said. “How I got the information, who I got it from, where I got it, that doesn’t matter.”

Griffin maintains that she was not suspended for drugs and that she didn’t use marijuana in college. The Baylor women’s basketball spokeswoman from 2010, who’s now retired, told The Post in a text message Wednesday that she was “not privy” to the reason for Griffin’s suspension. Baylor’s current spokesman declined to comment on this and other elements of this article.

Griffin says she told assistant coach Damion McKinney that she intended to transfer because, Griffin says, “I couldn’t play for Kim anymore.” (McKinney did not respond to messages seeking comment.)

But transferring wouldn’t be easy. Long before the NCAA, in 2021, introduced the transfer portal, allowing players to come and go among schools without penalty, players generally needed to be released by one school before pursuing a transfer to another.

Four days after appearing in an exhibition game, the Baylor program released a statement to the media. It didn’t say Griffin intended to transfer.

YEARS PASSED, AND WITH KIM and Tammy grown and gone and their dad starting over, pine seedlings took root on the softball fields. The walls of the pool collapsed and got filled in. The basketball goal was cut down and hauled away. Trash collected on the concrete slab, once the site of late-night competitions; cans rusted; and discarded shoes became waterlogged, becoming moldy and deformed. Someone spray-painted KEEP OUT on a sheet of corrugated metal that replaced a wall, wood beams rotted, pipes sunk into the earth.

The pines matured and swallowed the fields, grass grew and weeds sprouted, flowered and spread. After nearly four decades, the overgrowth had narrowed the property’s walking paths and obscured the driveway.

The woods had retaken their land, and any evidence that a family had ever been here was gone.

IN SPRING 2016, MULKEY’S SON, who’s now 29, convinced her it was time to go see Summitt. The legendary Tennessee coach, and perhaps Mulkey’s dearest friend in coaching, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years earlier.

Summitt was in a senior living facility in Knoxville, and Mulkey knew what visiting her meant. Kim kept saying “I love ya,” she would tell reporters later, and Pat kept saying it back. Four weeks later, Summitt was gone.

This was the same year that Baylor fired football coach Art Briles after a damning investigation of the football program’s coverup of at least 17 acts of sexual or domestic assault by 19 players. Mulkey went on the attack. She snapped at reporters who brought up the scandal, saying she was “tired of hearing” about it, then turned a postgame speech after her 500th career win into a pulpit.

“If somebody is around you and they ever say, ‘I will never send my daughter to Baylor,’ you knock them right in the face,” she said. Mulkey later apologized.

The school’s leaders, many of whom had been brought in to restore the school’s reputation, found themselves dealing with new headaches involving Mulkey. Even before Baylor announced plans to replace the old Ferrell Center with a new arena, Mulkey told peers that she expected the court to be named for her.

Baylor declined The Post’s requests to interview Athletic Director Mack Rhoades and school president Linda Livingstone.

Mulkey distanced herself further from players whose time at Baylor had ended abruptly or unexpectedly. When Niemann returned to campus for a celebration of Baylor’s 2005 championship, it was an important step in her process of healing, she says.

“I wanted to go back to the place,” Niemann says, “and step back into that gym and re-engage with that community and not have my head held down in shame. That’s what I needed to do: This is me; this is who I am. I did some awesome things, I made some poor decisions, and this is still a part of my life.”

Niemann found Mulkey and approached her. Niemann says she thanked her former coach for the impact she had made on her life and said she was sorry for the way things ended.

Niemann said Mulkey said nothing and walked away.

“There was just nothing there,” she says. “There was no warmth. There was no nothing.”

Three months after Mulkey contracted the coronavirus in 2021, forcing the cancellation of a home game against U-Conn., she urged the NCAA to “dump” testing for the virus. A few weeks later, Mulkey approached Baylor administrators to let them know she had an offer from LSU. She planned to accept unless Baylor gave her a better deal.

In a decision that rocked the industry, the school made no counteroffer.

ONE MONDAY MORNING IN 2022, LSU players arrived at the basketball facility and were greeted with an unusual directive: Turn off your phones and put them in the other room.

Mulkey went ballistic. Days earlier, two LSU players had gotten into a fight. Teammates got between them, but the two kept at it, with spit flying and glass thrown. The scene had unfolded in front of a group of visiting recruits.

“My regret in this life,” one of the people present says, “I didn’t record this meeting.”

That was impossible, though, because at Baylor and now at LSU, former players say, staffers sometimes mitigated the risk of Mulkey’s tirades being recorded by barring phones from the room. (Mulkey’s attorneys did not address this incident in their responses to The Post.)

It had been a tense year already. Earlier in 2022, Griner, now starring for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained at an airport in Russia, where, like many WNBA players, she supplemented her earnings by playing overseas. Officials claimed she had vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

WNBA players wore Griner’s No. 42 during the All-Star Game, and Seattle Storm player Sue Bird pleaded for Griner to be released. NBA star Stephen Curry spoke out in support of Griner, and President Biden signed an executive order threatening sanctions on any government that wrongfully detained Americans.

It was as if everyone was discussing Griner’s plight. Everyone, that is, except Griner’s college coach.

“And you won’t,” Mulkey shot back at a reporter who said he hadn’t seen her comment on the situation.

Whatever the root of their beef, it had intensified enough that Mulkey would rarely say Griner’s name. She made an exception in June 2022, when Mulkey appeared on the “Tiger Rag” radio show.

“I pray for Brittney,” Mulkey said. “I want her home safely. I think there’s lots of people speaking out on her behalf, and those of us who don’t necessarily speak publicly about it certainly are praying for her.”

Still, former LSU players say, those within the program had learned to avoid mentioning Griner or interacting with social media posts that supported the detained player.

Even in the tightknit coaching community, a frequent discussion topic was Mulkey’s unwillingness to look beyond a grudge.

“I really was hoping that Kim would make a statement. Really hoping she would,” says DeMoss, the former Louisiana Tech player and longtime coach who adds that she considers Mulkey a friend. “You’ve got a kid that’s stuck in Russia; I mean, that’s bigger than any feud that y’all had. No one knew how long they were going to detain her over there.

“We were all hoping [Mulkey] could just rise above it for that moment. Just get her back home. But she didn’t.”

Through her attorneys, Mulkey rebutted any suggestion that she failed to support Griner.

In December 2022, after nearly a year in prison, Griner was released and returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange. The basketball community expressed relief and joy, and reactions — not all supportive, considering the exchange freed a notorious Russian arms dealer — poured out from both sides of the political aisle. Mulkey issued a brief statement to ESPN: “God is good. Prayers are powerful. Brittney is on the way home where she belongs. Our prayers remain with her and her family as they recover and heal together.”

Three months later, after Mulkey reached her fifth Final Four, a reporter asked whether Mulkey had spoken with Griner. She hadn’t. Four days later, Mulkey, in a pink- and gold-sequined jacket, cut down the net and held up a newspaper with Reese pictured and CHAMPS! in massive letters.

Even among some of Mulkey’s ex-players, the enthusiasm was muted.

“As a head coach, you’re responsible for so many people; you’re taking on a role that leaves a very lasting impression,” a former Baylor player says. “You might be able to win us a championship, but are people going to want to come back and see you?”

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, Les Mulkey climbs into his work truck, drives past the old property, makes his way 50 miles south and west to Baton Rouge. He hasn’t spoken with his older daughter in 37 years, but same as he used to, he can slip into a gym, fade into the crowd and watch his little girl.

“I love my babies,” he says. “I ain’t ashamed.”

Kim has her daddy’s eyes, the same skeptical eyebrows, the same pride. “They’re just alike,” younger daughter Tammy says. Tammy said in early March that she doesn’t speak to her sister, either. There was some disagreement five or six years ago, Tammy says, but she won’t say what caused it. She believes they will reconnect eventually. “I’m sure we will,” she says. “One day. I hope.”

Les has no such delusions. Isn’t it odd, he says, to love a child so much that you leave them be? It’s how Kim wants it, he says, but he prays every night that, tomorrow, she will want something new. He is 86 now and lives alone, in a dilapidated trailer way out past the pines. It’s where he retreats after his drives to Baton Rouge. He has dozens of pictures, newspaper cutouts, mementos from Kim’s basketball career. Tammy calls it a shrine.

It’s all he has left of her, and with many of Les’s friends dying recently, he thinks about what’s next. He was cocky, he says. Stubborn. A little too proud, he says, so when his time comes, Les figures it’ll be when he’s alone, surrounded by achievements but not people, wasting away like the things he once built.

LONG AFTER ANOTHER LSU WIN, Mulkey takes a photo with a woman in a wheelchair. Then she points at a crowd assembled beyond the tunnel, lamenting that she’s about to walk into that.

“Kim!” a young fan yells.

“You’ve got to say Coach Mulkey,” an adult corrects.

Mulkey heads that way, drawing cheers, and encourages patience. She will get to everyone, she promises. As the arena empties, the coach signs autographs, raises her eyebrows at the Kim Mulkey bobblehead the school gave out, poses for selfies not far from the banner LSU hung for last year’s championship.

As afternoon turns to evening in Baton Rouge, Mulkey is still signing and chatting with fans. She’s an icon and a winner, one of the best motivators and teachers any sport has seen. But Mulkey is right: Times are different. Long after Summitt’s Tennessee teams slept on gymnasium floors because her program couldn’t afford hotel rooms, Mulkey now makes $3.26 million per year, most in the women’s game. Meanwhile, Louisiana Tech, once a women’s basketball dynasty, hasn’t made the NCAA tournament in a dozen years. Baylor is no longer among the sport’s upper tier, another structure abandoned and left to wither.

Along the LSU baseline, families wait for Mulkey to reach them. When they’ve gotten whatever they’ve been waiting for, they head toward the steps and a row of glass doors. As they walk, fathers tell their kids that was Kim Mulkey they just met, the coach who won all those championships, told it like it is, did it all her way.

Reporters fold their tripods and unplug their microphones from press row. Athletics staffers head toward the Pete Maravich Assembly Center exits. The crowd thins, and workers use a leaf blower to remove trash from empty rows.

“Miss Kim!” a voice calls, and it echoes through the arena. Mulkey walks across the hardwood, sequins glinting and heels clicking, to snap another picture. Then, when they all have what they wanted, the last of the friends, families and groups leave together, beneath a banner marking Mulkey’s latest achievement, and the coach heads back toward the tunnel, off into the evening alone.

Molly Hensley-Clancy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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