Brittney Griner Returns to the W.N.B.A. With a Weekend of Celebration-News

PHOENIX – The public broadcaster paused before introducing the final player on Sunday’s Mercury News lineup. The song “Coming Home” by Skylar Gray began to play, and then Brittney Griner appeared on the red carpet with tall screens behind her, an entrance fit for a rock star.

It was Griner’s first home game since 2021. He missed last season because he was arrested in Russia, caught during a game between Washington and Moscow. But on Sunday, minutes before his team faced the Chicago Sky, Griner stood with his arms crossed in an “X” in front of his chest to acknowledge the Mercury fan group, known as the X-factor. Then he walked down the red carpet and entered the arena.

Griner hugged the Sky starters at half court, wiping away tears as he tied his shorts, changed into his jersey and prepared for tipoff. He scored the first three points of the game, electrifying the thousands of fans who came to see him.

“Part of the healing process is just getting it out,” Griner said. “So, yes, I choked a little but I’m trying to hide it.”

Sunday’s game against the Sky concluded Griner’s first week back in the WNBA, which began with a game against the Sparks in Los Angeles on Friday. The Mercury lost both games, though everyone felt like it was a celebration or an All-Star Game where the final score didn’t matter.

“It’s a happy day,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said before Friday’s game, adding: “We got this woman back – a black, gay woman – from a Russian prison, and America did it because they respect her.”

Customs officials at an airport near Moscow arrested Griner in February 2022 after finding a small amount of marijuana in vape bags in his luggage. The US State Department said he was there wrongful arrest, but was convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to nine years in prison. Griner was released in December as part of a prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death.

A week after his release, Griner made his first public statement on Instagram, saying he wanted to play Mercury.

He said: “I look forward to saying ‘thank you’ to those of you who have supported me, written to me, and sent me messages recently. On Sunday, the Mercury gave fans orange T-shirts with a message emblazoned inside the image of Griner’s face.

When Griner made the announcement, after nearly 10 months in prison in Russia, it seemed unlikely that he would return to court anytime soon. He was not allowed to play basketball while he was incarcerated. He was arguably the best player in his position when he last played; even if he did return, it seemed unlikely that he would return soon.

But through his first two games, Griner has put those questions to rest. He and his teammates admitted he hasn’t been the player he once was, but Griner performed as the Mercury’s best player in their first two games. He led the team in points and rebounded in those two losses, averaging 22.5 points, 8 rebounds, and two blocks.

“I’m an All-Star, I hope to be where I want to be,” Griner said after the Sparks game. “You know, not reducing my minutes, I’m just playing – I’m sorry, but – I can play 40 minutes. I’m just getting back to what I was before.”

Before Friday’s game, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to both teams in their locker rooms, thanking them for supporting the campaign to bring Griner to the United States.

“You have inspired many people,” Harris said, I added: “And for you to come back to court, it’s amazing. And for all the people who look like us and don’t have to know that nothing can bring you down – it’s great.”

Griner did not elaborate on his arrest in Russia. In his first press conference last monthEmployees of Mercury said that they could not talk about Russia, and on Friday, they looked closely and told the reporter to explain more in his book, about the memoir that will be published next year.

But the impact of his time in Russia has been clear on one point: When the national anthem plays, Griner stands with his teammates.

Before his arrest in Russia, Griner had for some time chosen not to participate in the national anthem because of anti-black racism in the United States. But he said that not being able to stand properly in prison changed his mind about singing the national anthem. However, he said he supports players who don’t stand for the anthem.

“One of the good things about this country is that you have the right to protest,” he said. “You have the right to speak, to be able to speak, to question, to protest, and to do all these things. And you know what I’ve been through, and it all just means a lot to me now.”

In Los Angeles, many celebrities and athletes came to watch the game and support Griner, including Magic Johnson, Dawn Staley, Billie Jean King, Pau Gasol, Darvin Ham, and Leslie Jones. Staley, who was sitting near the Mercury bench next to Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, laughed and laughed with Brittney in the final minutes of the game.

But, even with the celebrities, the arena, which was packed with 10,396 fans, did not seem to have the energy expected for Griner’s comeback, which troubled his coach.

“Honestly, come on, L.A. We didn’t sell out BG Stadium? Like, I expected more, to be honest,” Nygaard said. “It was good. It was noisy. But how was it not for sale?”

The game was supposed to start at 11pm Eastern but started 20 minutes later and was pushed to ESPN2 when the last NHL game went to ESPN. The late – and late – start seemed like a missed opportunity for one crucial moment. WNBA. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the decision for Griner’s first game to be on the road was made late before the league knew he would return.

In Phoenix on Sunday, the Mercury fans welcomed Griner with a huge crowd: 14,040 people. It wasn’t a sellout, but from the start the crowd brought an energy that was missing in Los Angeles.

The most powerful moment of the night, aside from the first one, came in the third quarter when Griner made a 3-pointer, missing the middle. He waved his hands and shouted at the people.

“I’m back,” Griner yelled while rubbing his chest.

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