PHOENIX — The public address announcer paused before introducing the final player in the Mercury’s starting lineup on Sunday. The song “Coming Home” by Skylar Grey began to play, and then Brittney Griner appeared on a red carpet with tall video screens behind her, an entrance befitting a rock star.
It was Griner’s first regular-season home game since 2021. She missed last season because she was imprisoned in Russia, caught in a geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow. But on Sunday, minutes before her team faced the Chicago Sky, Griner stood with her arms crossed in an “X” in front of her chest to acknowledge the Mercury fan base, which has the nickname the X-factor. Then she ran down the red carpet and onto the court.
Griner embraced the Sky starters at half court, wiping tears as she tightened her shorts, tucked in her jersey and prepared for the tipoff. She scored the game’s first 3 points, energizing the thousands of fans who had come to see her.
“Part of the process of healing is kind of just letting it out,” Griner said. “So, yeah, I got choked up a little bit but tried to hide it.”
Sunday’s game against the Sky wrapped up Griner’s first weekend back in the W.N.B.A., which began with a game against the Sparks in Los Angeles on Friday. The Mercury lost both games, though each felt more like a celebration or an All-Star Game where the final score doesn’t really matter.
“It’s a day of joy,” Mercury Coach Vanessa Nygaard said before Friday’s game, adding: “We brought back this woman — this Black, gay woman — from a Russian jail, and America did that because they valued her.”
Customs officials at an airport near Moscow detained Griner in February 2022 after they found a small amount of a marijuana concentrate in vape cartridges in her luggage. The U.S. State Department said that she had been wrongfully detained, but she was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. Griner was freed in December as part of a prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer nicknamed the Merchant of Death.
A week after her release, Griner made her first public statement on Instagram, saying she intended to play for the Mercury.
“I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon,” she said. On Sunday, the Mercury gave fans orange T-shirts with that message written inside of an outline of Griner’s face.
When Griner made that statement, after nearly 10 months in Russian custody, it seemed far-fetched that she could return to the court so soon. She had not been allowed to play basketball while she was detained. She was arguably the best player at her position when she last played; even if she did return, it seemed unlikely that she could quickly get back to that form.
But through her first two games, Griner has put those questions to rest. She and her teammates have acknowledged she isn’t yet the player she once was, but Griner performed like the Mercury’s best player over their first two games. She led the team in points and rebounds over the two losses, averaging 22.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks.
“By All-Star, I hope to be exactly where I want to be,” Griner said after the Sparks game. “You know, not having to limit my minutes, being able to just play — I’m going to regret this, but — being able to play 40 minutes. Just getting back to what I was before.”
Before the Friday’s game, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to both teams in their locker rooms, thanking them for supporting the campaign to bring Griner back to the United States.
“You have inspired so many people,” Harris said, adding: “And for you to be back on the court, it’s so incredible. And for all the people that look like us and need to know nothing is going to knock you down — that’s good.”
Griner has shared few details of her imprisonment in Russia. In her first news conference last month, Mercury staff said she would not discuss Russia, and on Friday, she winked and told a reporter she would elaborate in her book, referring to a memoir set to be released next spring.
But the effect of her time in Russia has been clear in one regard: When the national anthem plays, Griner has stood with her teammates.
Before her detention in Russia, Griner had for some time chosen not to participate in the anthem because of anti-Black racism in the United States. But she said not being able to stand up comfortably in prison changed her perspective on standing for the anthem. Still, she said she supports players who do not stand for the anthem.
“One of the good things about the country is you have the right to protest,” she said. “You have the right to speech, to be able to speak out, question, challenge, and do all these things. And you know what I went through, and everything just means a little bit more to me now.”
In Los Angeles, several 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 courtside next to the Mercury bench near Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, laughed and joked with Brittney during the game’s final minutes.
But, even with the celebrity-laden audience, the arena, which was filled with 10,396 fans, seemed to lack the energy expected for Griner’s return, which bothered her coach.
“Honestly, come on now, L.A. We didn’t sell out the arena for B.G.? Like, I expected more, to be honest,” Nygaard said. “It was great. It was loud. But how was it not a sellout?”
The game was scheduled to begin at 11 p.m. Eastern but started about 20 minutes later and was pushed to ESPN2 as an N.H.L. playoff game went to overtime on ESPN. The late — and delayed — start seemed like a missed opportunity for one such a significant moment. W.N.BA. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the decision for Griner’s first game to be on the road and starting so late was made before the league knew she would be back.
In Phoenix on Sunday, the Mercury fans welcomed Griner with a large crowd: 14,040 people. It wasn’t a sellout, but from the beginning the crowd brought an energy that was missing in Los Angeles.
The loudest moment of the night, other than the introductions, came in the third quarter when Griner made a 3-pointer, rare for a center. She waved her hands and yelled to the crowd.
“I’m back,” Griner yelled as she pounded her chest.
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