Brittney Griner made an emotional return to women’s basketball on Friday, playing in her first competitive game in nearly two years after her imprisonment in Russia.
Griner, who was released to Russia as part of a prisoner swap last year, made her first appearance in a WNBA game in 579 days as the Phoenix Mercury faced the Los Angeles Sparks in a season opener. in California.
US Vice President Kamala Harris was among those cheering at the Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles as the WNBA superstar finally returned to action.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist made an immediate impression on his return, winning the tip-off and scoring four points as the Mercury jumped out to an early 7-0 lead. “It felt good,” said Griner in an on-court interview at the end of the first quarter. “I feel great. It feels like the last time I played.”
In the end, Griner finished with 18 points and six rebounds but could not prevent Phoenix from crashing to a comprehensive 94-71 loss. The result, however, was almost a footnote in an occasion that Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard described as a “day of joy.”
“All last season I opened every press conference with how many days he was gone,” Nygaard said in pre-game remarks.
“And until the day we got the news in the morning that he was going home, no one thought it would happen.
“We do our jobs maybe with less joy than professional athletes. It’s hard every day. But it’s nice to have this game today. Today it’s a day of joy.
“I’m so glad she’s home. It’s a miracle that she’s here and everyone who sees this game today will witness a miracle that she’s back from a prison in Russia and playing basketball again in the WNBA .”
Courtside celebrities on Friday included tennis legend Billie Jean King, Los Angeles Lakers icon Earvin “Magic” Johnson and current Lakers head coach Darvin Ham.
‘A team is a team’
Before tip-off, Vice President Harris congratulated the Phoenix players for making sure Griner’s case was never forgotten.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done to support Brittney, because I know it’s been hard,” Harris said in a locker room address. “It’s very difficult for you because a team is a team – that’s family.”
WNBA players’ union chief and Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike thanked Harris and the Biden administration for helping secure Griner’s release. “Tonight is a game but we are also celebrating the return of ourselves,” Ogwumike said.
Griner, 32, a WNBA champion and LGBTQ trailblazer, was arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport in February 2022 against a backdrop of rising tensions in Ukraine. At the time of her arrest, Griner was playing for a professional team in Russia, as many WNBA players do in the off-season.
He was accused of possessing vape cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil and was sentenced in August to nine years in prison. He pleaded guilty to the charges, but said he had no intention of breaking the law or using a banned substance in Russia.
Griner was eventually released as part of a deal that saw him traded for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – known as the “Merchant of Death” – in December. Phoenix coach Nygaard, meanwhile, said he hopes his team can benefit from the feel-good factor behind Griner’s return.
“We toured every city last year and BG was the story,” Nygaard said. “This year it’s a story of happiness, and love and happiness. So the positive energy is probably going to help our team and not get in the way as much.”
“We brought this woman, this Black, gay woman out of a Russian prison, and America did that because they valued her,” Nygaard said.
“Just to be a part of a group that values people on that level, it makes me so proud to be an American. I see BG and I see hope and I see the future.”