LOS ANGELES (AP) — Brittney Griner had 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in her first WNBA regular-season game since her incarceration in Russia on Friday night. Their Phoenix Mercury lost in the teams’ opening game with 94:71 against the Los Angeles Sparks.
“Not good enough, I didn’t get the dub,” Griner said afterwards.
She made an immediate impression. She fired a pass at Moriah Jefferson, who scored a 3-point shot for Phoenix’s first basket. Griner snagged a few rebounds and scored twice, giving the Mercury an early lead.
“How good did she look right now? Unbelievable,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters at halftime when the Sparks led 45-39.
Griner played 25 minutes and spent the last few minutes on the bench while the Mercury routed.
For the first time since last season, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard opened up about her pregame comments without revealing how many days Griner was in prison.
Griner has been free since December when she was there a high-profile prisoner exchange.
“Up until the day we got word in the morning that she was on her way home, nobody thought it was going to happen,” Nygaard said. “We probably did our job with less joy than professional athletes. It was hard every day.”
“Today is a day of joy,” said Nygaard. “Something amazing, amazing happened.”
Griner and the Mercury were greeted with a standing ovation as they came onto the court for a pregame warm-up, although the biggest cheers went to the Sparks.
“I just take it in, but stay focused because at the end of the day, I’m at work,” Griner said. “I can’t get caught up in the moment. Feel it somehow, but put it aside and feel it a little later.”
Griner hugged Vice President Kamala Harris and First Gentleman Doug Emhoff as they left the court after Harris was presented with a number 49 Sparks jersey. Earlier, Harris posed for photos in the Mercury’s dressing room.
“It was nice to see her in person and thank her for everything,” Griner said.
She patted her heart and applauded in return during a short video welcoming her return to the WNBA.
“It was nice to be back on the pitch and see a real game,” she said. “The love from the fans when we came out was incredible. I definitely feel it.”
Griner scored 10 points in 17 minutes in a show loss to the Sparks last week. It was the 32-year-old center player’s first game action since she was arrested at a Moscow airport February 2022 After Russian authorities said a search of their luggage uncovered e-cigarette cartridges containing cannabis oil.
“We got this black, gay woman back from a Russian prison, and America did that because they valued her, and she’s an athlete, and they valued her,” Nygaard said.
“Just being part of a group that values people at this level makes me very proud to be an American. Maybe there are other people that they’re not proud of, but I see BG and I see hope and I see the future and I have small children and that makes me really confident about our country,” said the coach.
Fans who arrived early at Crypto.com Arena wore t-shirts with Griner’s name and jersey number on them. The six-foot-tall Griner stopped to photobomb a group of young girls posing on the sidelines before the game.
Billie Jean King and wife Ilana Kloss, who co-own the Sparks, were in attendance for the opening game, as were Magic Johnson, Pau Gasol, Byron Scott, Robert Horry, Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham and South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley.
Since her release Griner has used her platform to advocate for this for other Americans incarcerated abroad. She has been an LGBTQ+ activist since coming public in 2013.
“She represents so many people, so many different types of people who may be underappreciated in our society,” Nygaard said. “She stands with pride and confidence and has never shied away from who she is.”
Griner announced in April that she is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign launched last year by the families of American hostages and inmates wrongfully held overseas. She said her team is in touch with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being jailed in Russia on espionage charges.
“She’s a great person on and off the field,” said Phoenix guard Moriah Jefferson. “I think her energy just inspires me every day to step up and be the best version of myself.”
With all that’s been happening off the field, it’s easy to forget that 2021 was Griner’s arguably best season. She finished second in MVP voting after averaging 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game. She was one of the main reasons the Mercury reached the WNBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Sky.