‘A day of joy’: Brittney Griner makes her WNBA season debut after being jailed in Russia

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Brittney Griner performed for the national anthem ahead of her first WNBA regular season game since her incarceration in Russia.

Griner was outspoken for social justice in 2020 and did not take court during the pregame anthem. But nearly a year behind bars in Russia changed her.

“I was literally in a cage and couldn’t take what I wanted,” she said. “Just so I can hear my national anthem and see my flag, I really want to stand up.”

Griner had 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots Friday night for the Phoenix Mercury in a 94-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks.

“Not good enough, I didn’t get the voiceover,” said Griner, who nonetheless couldn’t be defeated.

“I appreciate everything a little more, all the little moments, like ‘Oh I’m so tired I don’t want to go to practice today’, it’s changed, honestly,” she said. . “Tomorrow is not guaranteed, you don’t know what it’s going to be like. I also feel a lot older in a way.

The 32-year-old center’s immediate goal is to be able to play a full game by the All-Star break in mid-July. She played 25 minutes on Friday.

“I hope to be exactly where I want to be,” Griner said. “I’m just going back to who I was before all of this happened.”

Griner had an immediate impact against the Sparks. She fired a pass to Moriah Jefferson, who hit a 3-pointer for Phoenix’s first field goal. Griner grabbed a few rebounds and scored twice as he helped the Mercury to an early lead.

“Just how beautiful was she? Amazing,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters at halftime.

For the first time since last season, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard opened her pregame comments without announcing how many days Griner had been jailed.

Griner has been free since December, when she was part of a high-profile prisoner exchange.

“Until the day we found out in the morning that she was going home, nobody thought it was going to happen,” Nygaard said. “We did our job probably with less joy than professional athletes. It was heavy every day.

No more.

“Today is a day of joy,” Nygaard said. “An incredible, incredible thing has happened.”

Griner and the Mercury were greeted with a standing ovation when they took to the field for pre-game warm-ups, although the biggest cheers were reserved for the Sparks.

“I’m just taking it into account but staying focused because at the end of the day I’m at work,” Griner said. “I can’t get carried away with the moment. In a way, feel it, but put it aside and feel it a little later.

Griner hugged Vice President Kamala Harris and First Gentleman Doug Emhoff as they walked off the field after Harris received a No. 49 Sparks jersey. Earlier, Harris posed for photos in the Mercury locker room.

“It was nice to be able to see her face to face and thank her for everything,” Griner said.

She patted her heart and clapped back during a brief video wishing her back to the WNBA.

“It was nice to be back on the court for a real game,” she said. “The love from the fans when we came out was amazing. I definitely feel it.

Griner scored 10 points in 17 minutes in a standout loss to the Sparks last week. It was his first gambling action since he was arrested at a Moscow airport in February 2022 after Russian authorities said a search of his luggage revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

“We brought this black, gay woman back from a Russian prison and America did it because they liked her and she’s a female athlete and they liked her,” Nygaard said.

“Just being part of a group that values ​​people on that level makes me very proud to be an American. Maybe there are other people that don’t make them proud, but for me, I see BG and I see hope and I see the future and I have young children and that makes me really optimistic for our country,” the coach said.

Fans arriving at Crypto.com Arena early wore T-shirts with Griner’s name and jersey number on them. The 6-foot-9 Griner stopped to photograph a group of young girls posing on the field before the game.

Billie Jean King and his wife Ilana Kloss, who are co-owners of the Sparks, were on hand for the opener, as were Magic Johnson, Pau Gasol, Byron Scott, Robert Horry, Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham and coach South Carolina Women’s Dawn. Staley.

Since his release, Griner has used his platform to advocate for the detention of other Americans overseas. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since coming out in public in 2013.

“She represents so many people, so many different types of people who can be undervalued in our society,” Nygaard said. “She stands with pride and confidence and has never once hesitated who she is.”

Griner announced in April that she was working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign launched last year by family members of American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas. She said her team was in contact with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being held in Russia for espionage.

“He’s an incredible person on and off the court,” Phoenix guard Moriah Jefferson said. “I think his energy inspires everyone every day to come forward and be the best version of themselves.”


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