PHOENIX—Brittney Griner’s return to the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) after nearly 10 months in a Russian prison hasn’t always been the smoothest ride.
There have been injuries. There was a break for mental health. There were travel issues, including being confronted by a ‘provocateur’ at a Dallas airport. Her team — the Phoenix Mercury — hasn’t been very good, and their coach was fired less than halfway through the season.
But there have also been many moments of joy.
She was welcomed by adoring crowds at nearly every WNBA arena. Individually, she played well, and was selected to play in another All-Star game. She also got to celebrate as teammate and friend Diana Taurasi became the first player to score 10,000 career points in WNBA history.
One more joyful moment came on Friday night, when the 6-foot-9 Griner played her final home game of the season in front of an announced sellout crowd of 13,206. She scored 10 points — including a turnaround jumper at the first quarter buzzer — and grabbed two rebounds in the Mercury’s 94-73 loss to the Las Vegas Aces.
The Mercury fell to 9-30 for the season and will miss the playoffs for the first time in her 10 seasons, but the past 18 months have helped her deal with that disappointment much more easily.
After Friday’s game, she was among the players helping throw T-shirts to fans in the stands.
“It’s been good — minus the record,” Griner said. “I’ve really enjoyed being here, playing basketball, being with this group, being back in the Valley with the fans. The crowd was amazing.
“I’m just happy to be here, doing what I love.”
She’ll have one more game on Sunday in Las Vegas. After that, it’s time for some rest.
“Going hunting with my dad,” Griner said. “Try to get me a whitetail and a hog. I’m country. I like hunting, I like doing all that stuff, fishing, off-roading in my Jeep, mountain biking. That’s what I’ll be doing.
“It probably sounds like a lot, but that’s my peace.”
Griner’s return this season has been widely celebrated around the WNBA and much of the expected vitriol — she was freed as part of a swap for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — never really materialized. Aces coach Becky Hammon said she was working for ESPN last year when the news came that the Mercury star was returning to the United States.
She said the relief was immediate. Like Griner, Hammon also played for Russian teams during the offseason in her playing days and even represented the country in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012.
“There was a heaviness over the league last year,” Hammon said. “When she came back, that cloud was lifted, and it was almost palpable, her effect on the league, her teammates and really, the whole world in general.”
The 32-year-old Griner has averaged 17.7 points and 6.6 rebounds this season going into Friday’s game, numbers that are slightly below her averages from 2021, but still remarkable production for someone who missed all of last season in such extreme circumstances.
“Am I surprised she’s kicking (butt) on the court? Not at all,” Hammon said. “That’s like riding a bike for her.”
Aces guard Sydney Colson and Griner are both from Texas and played against each other in high school
“I’m still surprised at the fact that she came back on American soil and decided to play,” Colson said. “I think it speaks volumes about Brittney and her resilience, just mental, on top of physical toughness.”
Griner is also trying to turn last year’s ordeal into something positive.
The extra exposure from being detained in Russia for having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage has given her a platform to advocate for other Americans being detained abroad. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since publicly coming out in 2013 and became the first openly gay athlete to be sponsored by Nike.
Griner announced in April that she is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed last year by the family members of American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas.
Image credits: AP