‘A day of joy’: Brittney Griner set to open 1st WNBA season since detention in Russia
LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time since last season, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard opened her pregame comments without announcing how many days Brittney Griner had been jailed in Russia.
Griner has been free since December, when she was part of a high-profile prisoner exchange. She hit the field for warm-ups about 90 minutes before Mercury’s WNBA season opener against the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday night.
“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.
“Today is a day of joy,” Nygaard said. “An incredible, incredible thing has happened.”
Griner scored 10 points in 17 minutes in a standout loss to the Sparks last week. It was the 32-year-old center’s first gambling action since his arrest at a Moscow airport in February 2022 after Russian authorities said a search of his luggage revealed vape cartridges containing vape. 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.
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.”
With all that’s happened off the court, it’s easy to forget that Griner had arguably her best season in 2021. 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.
Some fans arriving at Crypto.com Arena early wore T-shirts with Griner’s name and jersey number on them. She should get a warm welcome in Los Angeles and other WNBA arenas across the country this season. She received a standing ovation before the Mercurys’ preseason game last week.
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