On Friday night, Brittany Griner walked the sidelines hours before the Phoenix Mercury game, offering hugs and high-fives to her teammates, coaches and opposing players.
Then it was a little stretching, a little shooting and a little agility work to prepare for a basketball game.
It was just like old times.
“I’m grateful to be here, that’s for sure,” Griner said. “I’m not going to take a day for granted.”
Greener returned to game action for the first time Detained in Russia for nearly 10 months on drug-related charges Ended with a prisoner exchange for arms dealer Victor Bout in December. The seven-time All-Star, who missed the entire 2022 season due to a concussion, finished with 10 points and three rebounds in a WNBA preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks.
The 6-foot-9 Greener looked good, especially considering the long layoff, casually throwing down a one-handed dunk during warmups. He stood with his teammates during the playing of the national anthem and received a loud welcome from the home crowd when he was introduced before tipoff.
“Hearing the national anthem, it definitely struck a different chord,” Griner said. “It’s like when you go to the Olympics, you’re sitting there, about to wear the gold around your neck, the flags are going up and the music is playing, it’s a different hit.
“Being here today … means a lot.”
Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said the music and introductions were emotional for the entire team.
“We looked at each other and we just got chills,” Nygaard said. “We were here for all of this last year. I’m getting emotional about it now. Just to see him back there — it’s an absolute miracle. It’s been amazing. It’s giving me chills again.”
Once the game started, the 32-year-old Griner immediately went to work, scoring on a turnaround jumper early in the first quarter. Minutes later, he was fouled on another turnover and sank both free throws.
He even had a cameo with the medical staff in the third trimester. Teammate Sophie Cunningham went down with a knee injury and Griner helped carry her off the court so she wouldn’t have to put weight on her leg.
“When one of us goes down, we’re always there,” Griner said. “That’s one thing on this team — we’re always there for each other. We’ve got each other’s backs, big time.”
Griner’s return to the Mercury hopes the franchise can make another run to the WNBA Finals. The former Baylor star helped the franchise win its third title in 2014 and averaged 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds over his nine-year career. He was runner-up for Most Valuable Player in 2021, when the Mercury also played in the finals but lost to the Chicago Sky.
Griner said he was more rusty on the court than expected. But given the trials and emotions of the past 18 months, it was a beautiful night.
“Not where I want it to be, but in the right direction,” Griner said. “We are taking the right steps.”
Phoenix opens the regular season next Friday at Los Angeles.
The added exposure of being detained in Russia for carrying cannabis-oiled vape cartridges in his luggage has given Griner a platform to advocate for other Americans detained abroad. He was already an LGBTQ+ activist since coming out in 2013 and became the first openly gay athlete to be sponsored by Nike.
During his first press conference after returning to the US, Griner said he would no longer play basketball overseas During the WNBA offseason.
“I can say, for me, if I don’t represent my country in the Olympics, I will never play overseas again,” Griner told reporters.
Griner noted that the reason she and other WNBA players even play in other countries in the offseason in the first game is because of the salary disparity between their league and the WNBA.
Griner announced in April that he was working with Our Families Home, a campaign formed last year by family members of American hostages and wrongfully detained overseas. He said his team has contacted the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Ivan Garshkovich, who is being held in Russia on espionage charges.