Griner played in her first official game since returning to the United States after being detained for 10 months in Russia last year. As the WNBA started its 27th season Friday, Griner smiled broadly, acknowledging the fans who gave her a standing ovation, the Sparks and her Mercury teammates, as she made her much-anticipated return in Phoenix’s 94-71 loss to Los Angeles. She finished with 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in 25 minutes.
Griner said she tried to take in the emotion of the night, especially when her name was announced to cheers, while also trying to stay focused for the game. And she was thrilled the vice president was there.
“It was amazing,” Griner said of Harris. “It was nice to be able to see her face-to-face, talk to her, thank her for everything. And then the team really enjoyed it, too, when she came in.”
Harris met with both teams in their locker rooms before the game.
“Thank you for all that you did in supporting Brittney,” the vice president told the Mercury. “I know that was rough and so difficult.”
Harris also talked about how “team is family” and how important it was that the Mercury kept Griner’s “story alive” while she was in Russia.
Nneka Ogwumike, the Los Angeles star and WNBA players’ union executive committee president, presented Harris with a Sparks jersey and thanked her.
“Tonight is a game, but we’re also celebrating the return of one of our own, and what the Biden administration did to make that happen is really important,” Ogwumike said. “We know that wasn’t easy. But we want to say thank you so much for us to be able to play against BG tonight.”
“It’s so heartening to see the fan reaction,” Engelbert said. “I think you can feel it and see it in the players’ eyes.”
For Griner, 32, it’s her 10th season in the league and one she might have thought was never going to happen.
“When you’re in a situation, you adapt,” Griner said. “I looked at it from a worst-case scenario. So I [didn’t] get my hopes up. I’m just happy to be here.”
Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February 2022 when she was returning to Russia to continue her overseas basketball season there with UMMC Ekaterinburg. Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, which she later acknowledged in court while saying she had no criminal intent and had packed them in haste.
In May 2022, the State Department designated Griner as unlawfully detained. But in August, Griner was sentenced to a nine-year prison term, which her lawyers said was excessive for the offense.
Griner’s only hope of returning home sooner was through a negotiated prisoner exchange between the United States and Russian governments. In December, Griner returned to the U.S. while arms dealer Viktor Bout was freed and went back to Russia. The exchange took place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. “Every city we went last year, BG was the story,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “This year, it will be a story of joy, of happiness, of ‘welcome back.’ That positive energy I think will help our team.
“I’m so glad she’s home. It’s a miracle that she’s here. BG stands for so much, so many different kinds of people who can be undervalued in our society. And is even using her platform now to bring others home.”
Griner stood for the national anthem before Friday’s game, something she was asked about afterward. Griner and other WNBA players during the 2020 season sometimes kneeled during the anthem as part of social justice protests.
“You have the right to protest, the right to able to speak out, question, challenge and do all these things,” Griner said. “What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now. So I want to be able to stand. I was literally in a cage [in Russia] and could not stand the way I wanted to.
“Just being able to hear my national anthem, see my flag, I definitely want to stand. Now everybody that will not stand or not come out, I totally support them 100 percent. That’s our right, as an American in this great country.”
Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who is playing her 19th season in the WNBA, reflected on how difficult it was for the Mercury to focus on playing during the 2022 season.
“Last year really had nothing to do with the basketball court,” Taurasi said. “We had a sister, a friend in prison in Russia. Emotionally, it took a toll on us every day. You really didn’t know what to say on certain days. But it was toughest on BG.”
Griner competed in an exhibition game on May 12 in Phoenix, but Friday marked her first regular-season contest. The last official game Griner played before that was Game 4 of the WNBA Finals in October 2021.
“I’m an optimist. So for me it was like, ‘I’m going to see her again,'” Ogwumike said of last season without Griner in the WNBA. “However, I didn’t expect her to want to play so soon. I just want her to be happy and healthy.”
Griner will make her regular-season debut in Phoenix on Sunday (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET). Ogwumike said it was special that Griner returned in Los Angeles against the Sparks, one of the original WNBA franchises from 1997 with a fan base that appreciates the league as a whole.
“Our fans are supportive,” Ogwumike said. “It will hopefully create a warm welcome, a warm hug, for her coming into this season. This is also a great place for people to convene to support her, given the diversity of the city and the history of our franchise. It’s amazing we have the first game with BG back.”
Griner said that overall, she is feeling good physically and will just need more time to get in regular basketball shape after so much time off. But she believes she can get there.
“By All-Star, I hope to be exactly where I want to be,” Griner said of the league All-Star Game in July. “Not having to limit my minutes.
“I appreciate everything a little bit more. That has changed. Tomorrow is not guaranteed; you don’t know what it’s going to look like. So I think that’s how I’ve changed.”