PHOENIX — The public address announcer paused before introducing the final player in Mercury’s starting lineup on Sunday. As Skyler Gray’s “Coming Home” kicked in, Britney Griner stepped onto the red carpet against tall video screens, making for a rock star-worthy entrance.
It was Greiner’s first regular-season home game since 2021. She missed last season because she was caught in a geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow and she was imprisoned in Russia. But on Sunday, minutes before her team played Chicago Sky, Greiner stood with her arms crossed in front of her chest in an “X” to thank Mercury’s fanbase, nicknamed the X Factor. bottom. Then she ran down the red carpet and onto the court.
Greiner hugged Sky’s starters on the half court, wiped away his tears, pulled on his shorts and tucked his jersey into his hem for tip-off. She scored her first three points in the match and cheered thousands of fans who came to see her.
“Part of the healing process is just letting it out,” says Greiner. “So yeah, I choked a little bit, but I tried to cover it up.”
Griner’s first weekend back in the WNBA, which started Friday against the Sparks in Los Angeles, wrapped up Sunday against Sky. Mercury lost both games, but both had the feel of a celebration or All-Star game where the final score didn’t matter so much.
“Today is a day of joy,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said before Friday’s game, adding, “We brought this woman, this black, gay woman out of prison in Russia. America appreciates her. That’s why I did it,” he added.
In February 2022, customs officials at an airport near Moscow detained Griner after finding a small amount of marijuana concentrate in an e-cigarette cartridge in his luggage. The US State Department announced that she was wrongfully detained, but she was convicted on drug charges and she was sentenced to nine years in prison. Mr. Greiner was released in December as part of a prisoner exchange with death merchant and arms dealer Viktor Bout.
A week after his release, Greiner made his first public statement on Instagram, saying he planned to play for Mercury.
“I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ in person soon to those who have championed, written and posted for me,” she said. On Sunday, the Mercury gifted fans orange T-shirts with the message in the outline of Mr. Greiner’s face.
When Griner made this statement after being detained in Russia for nearly 10 months, it seemed incredible that she could be back in court so quickly. She wasn’t allowed to play basketball while she was in her custody. When she last played, she was probably the best player at the position. Even if she does return, it is unlikely that she will be able to return to that form any time soon.
Through the first two games, however, Greiner cleared those doubts. She and her teammates admit she’s not the player she once was, but Griner performed like Mercury’s best in her first two games. She led the team in scoring and rebounding in two losses, averaging 22.5 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
“By the All-Star season, I hope to be exactly where I want to be,” Greiner said after the Sparks game. “If you don’t have to limit minutes and you can just play – which you’ll regret – you can play 40 minutes. It’s just back to how it was before.”
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to both teams in the locker room before Friday’s game, thanking them for their support in bringing Greiner back to the United States.
“You have inspired many people.” Mr Harris added:: “And to see you back on the court is absolutely unbelievable. And for all those who look like us and need to know that nothing beats you down, That’s good.”
Greiner divulges few details about his imprisonment in Russia. At the first press conference last month, Mercury staff said they wouldn’t talk about Russia, but on Friday she winked and told reporters that she would elaborate on her memoir, due out next spring. Told.
But the impact of my stay in Russia is clear in some respects. Greiner stood with his teammates as the national anthem played.
Before being detained in Russia, Griner chose not to sing the national anthem for some time, citing anti-black racism in the United States. But she said her inability to stand comfortably in prison changed her perspective on her standing during the national anthem. Still, she said she supports players who don’t stand for the national anthem.
“One of the good things about this country is that you have the right to protest,” she said. “You have the right to speak, you have the right to speak up, you have the right to ask questions, you have the right to object, you have the right to do all this. And you know what I have been through and now all means a little bit to me.”
In Los Angeles, several celebrities and athletes, including Magic Johnson, Dawn Staley, Billie Jean King, Pau Gasol, Durbin Hamm and Leslie Jones, attended the game and came out to support Greiner. Here we come. Sitting courtside next to the Mercury Bench near Griner’s wife, Sherrel Griner, Staley laughed and joked with Britney near the end of the game.
But despite the celebrity-filled crowd, the arena filled with 10,396 fans seemed to lack the energy expected of Greiner’s return, which haunted her coach. I let
“Honestly, come on, LA, didn’t you sell out the arena for BG? To be honest, I expected more,” said Nygaard. “Good. It was noisy. But why didn’t they sell out?”
The game was scheduled to start at 11 p.m. ET, but started about 20 minutes late and was postponed to ESPN2 after the NHL playoff game went into overtime on ESPN. A late start, starting late seemed like a missed opportunity for such an important moment. WNBA. Commissioner Kathy Engelbart said the decision to start so late in Griner’s first game as she was on a road trip was made before the league knew she would be back.
Mercury fans welcomed Greiner to a crowd of 14,040 in Phoenix on Sunday. It wasn’t a full house, but from the start the audience brought the energy that Los Angeles lacked.
Outside of self-introductions, the loudest moment of the night came in the third quarter when Griner made a rare 3-pointer for a center. She waved her hand and shouted at the crowd.
“i’m back,” Greiner cried. while she beats her chest.