PHOENIX MERCURY

Mercury C Brittney Griner opens her 1st WNBA season since Russian detainment

May 20, 2023, 8:40 AM | Updated: 8:47 am

Brittney Griner...

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against Chiney Ogwumike #13 of the Los Angeles Sparks during the first half of the WNBA game at Footprint Center on May 12, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner made her WNBA regular-season return on Friday night against the Sparks in Los Angeles after a nearly 10-month detainment in Russia on drug-related charges that ended with a prisoner swap in December.

Vice President Kamala Harris was in attendance for the opening night 94-71 Mercury loss and gave a pregame speech in Phoenix’s locker room:

She also got a big hug from her Team USA coach and basketball legend Dawn Staley before the season’s opening tip-off, which Griner won.

Griner hit her first shot of the 2023 season, a long two-pointer near the elbow which was assisted by now-19-year veteran Diana Taurasi.

She finished with 18 points to lead Phoenix to go with six rebounds and four blocks. Griner shot 7-of-9 from the field.

“Not good enough, didn’t get the dub,” Griner said postgame, who nevertheless couldn’t be down in defeat.

“I appreciate everything a little bit more, all of the small moments, like, ‘Oh, I’m so tired I don’t want to go to practice today,’ that has changed, honestly,” she said. “Tomorrow is not guaranteed, you don’t know what it’s going to look like. I feel a lot older somehow, too.”

The 32-year-old center’s immediate goal is to play an entire game by the All-Star break in mid-July. She played 25 minutes Friday.

“I hope to be exactly where I want to be,” Griner said. “Just getting back to how I was before all this happened.”

Griner made an immediate impact against the Sparks. She fired a pass to Moriah Jefferson, who hit a 3-pointer for Phoenix’s first basket. Griner grabbed a couple of rebounds and scored twice in helping the Mercury to an early lead.

“How good did she just look? Unbelievable,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters at halftime.

For the first time since last season, Phoenix head coach Vanessa Nygaard opened her pregame comments without announcing how many days Brittney Griner had been jailed in Russia.

Griner hit the court for warmups about 90 minutes before the Mercury’s WNBA season opener against the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday night.

“Until the day we got the news in the morning that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen,” Nygaard said. “We did our jobs probably with less joy than professional athletes do. It was heavy every day.”

Not anymore.

“Today is a day of joy,” Nygaard said. “An amazing, amazing thing has happened.”

Griner scored 10 points in 17 minutes in an exhibition loss to the Sparks last week. It was the 32-year-old center’s first game action since she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February 2022 after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

“We brought back this Black, gay woman from a Russian jail and America did that because they valued her and she’s a female athlete and they valued her,” Nygaard said.

“Just to be part of a group that values people at that level, it makes me very proud to be an American. Maybe there’s other people that that doesn’t make them proud, but for me, I see BG and I see hope and I see the future and I have young children and it makes me really hopeful about our country,” the coach said.

Since her release, Griner has used her platform to advocate for other Americans being detained abroad. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since publicly coming out in 2013.

“She stands for so many people, so many different kind of people who can be undervalued in our society,” Nygaard said. “She stands with pride and confidence and has never once has shied away from who she is.”

Griner announced in April that she is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed last year by the family members of American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas. She said her team has been in contact with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia on espionage charges.

“She’s an amazing person on and off the court,” Phoenix guard Moriah Jefferson said. “I think her energy just inspires everybody every single day to show up and be the best version of themselves.”

With all that has happened off the court, it’s easy to forget Griner had arguably her best season in 2021. She finished second in the MVP voting after averaging 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game. She was a major reason the Mercury reached the WNBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Sky.

Some fans arriving early to Crypto.com Arena wore T-shirts with Griner’s name and jersey number on them. She is expected to receive a warm reception in Los Angeles and other WNBA arenas across the country this season. She received a standing ovation before the Mercury’s preseason game last week.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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