LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – MAY 19: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury controls the ball against Joyner Holmes #24 of the Los Angeles Sparks in the first half at Crypto.com Arena on May 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by RONALD MARTINEZ / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
Brittney Griner made an emotional return to women’s basketball on Friday, playing her first competitive game in nearly two years following her incarceration in Russia.
Griner, who was released by 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 the well-wishers 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 instant impression on her return, winning the tip-off and scoring four points as the Mercury jumped into an early 7-0 lead.
“It felt good,” Griner said in an on-court interview at the end of the first quarter. “It felt real good. It felt like the last time I played.”
Griner eventually finished with 18 points and six rebounds but could not prevent Phoenix from slumping to a comprehensive 94-71 loss.
The result, however, was almost a footnote to 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 she is gone,” Nygaard said in pre-game remarks.
“And until the day when we got the news in the morning that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen.
“We did our jobs probably with less joy than professional athletes do. It was heavy every day. But it’s great to have this game today. Today it’s a day of joy.
“I’m just so glad she’s home. It’s a miracle that she’s here and everyone going to see this game today is going to witness a miracle that she’s returned from a Russian jail and is playing basketball in the WNBA again.”
Celebrities at courtside 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’ –
Shortly before tip-off, Vice President Harris congratulated Phoenix’s players for ensuring that Griner’s case was not forgotten.
“Thank you for all that you did for supporting Brittney, because I know that was rough,” Harris said in a locker room address. “That was so 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 to secure Griner’s release.
“Tonight is a game but we’re also celebrating the return of one of our own,” 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 soaring tensions over Ukraine.
At the time of her arrest, Griner had been playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the off-season.
She was accused of possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.
She pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner was eventually released as part of a deal that saw her swapped for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — known as the “Merchant of Death” — in December.
Phoenix coach Nygaard, meanwhile, said she hoped her team would benefit from the feel-good factor surrounding Griner’s return.
“We went around every city last year and B.G. was the story,” Nygaard said.
“This year it will be a story of joy, and love and happiness.
“So that positive energy will probably help our team and be less of a distraction.”
“We brought back this woman, this Black, gay woman from a Russian jail, and America did that because 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. I see B.G. and I see hope and I see the future.”