Joseph D’Hippolito at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles
Sat, 20 May 2023 at 1:29 pm BST
Two hours before Brittney Griner would play her first WNBA game in 19 months, her coach with the Phoenix Mercury described the meaning of the occasion in a simple yet poignant manner.
“All last season, I opened with how many days she was gone,” Vanessa Nygaard, the team’s second-year coach, said concerning her interviews. “This is the first press conference for a game that I haven’t.”
Griner, who spent 10 months imprisoned in Russia, returned to an exuberant reception Friday night from the 10,396 fans attending the season opener at the Crypto.com Arena, where the Los Angeles Sparks routed Griner’s Mercury, 94-71. Those attending included US vice-president Kamala Harris, who spoke to both teams before the game.
Though she played Wednesday night in an exhibition loss to the Sparks in Phoenix, Griner’s appearance in the season opener marked her first meaningful game since 17 October 2021. On that date, one day shy of Griner’s 31st birthday, the Chicago Sky defeated the Mercury to win the WNBA finals in four games.
Exactly four months later, Russian police arrested Griner in Moscow after customs officials found cannabis oil in her vaping cartridges. Griner, who played with UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s off-season, received a prescription from her doctor in Arizona to use medical marijuana to treat pain. But medical marijuana is illegal in Russia.
On 2 May, the US state department declared Griner to be “wrongly detained”. During her trial, Griner pled guilty to possession on 7 July but said she had no intention to break any laws. On 4 August, the court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison and fined her 1m rubles, or $16,301. By contrast, the standard sentence in Russia for possessing less than two grams of cannabis oil is 15 days.
While the United States and Russia negotiated her release, Griner was held at a women’s prison 310 miles southeast of Moscow. On 8 December, Russia exchanged Griner for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer.
“Till the day we got the news that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen,” Nygaard said. “The emotion that we went through last year as a group was hard to process. It was heavy every day. We did our jobs probably with less joy than professional athletes typically do. So it’s great to have this game today. Today is a day of joy.”
That joy expressed itself early, when the Mercury took the floor for pre-game warmups – and received a standing ovation. A brief tribute video featuring clips of Griner’s performances interspersed with comments from members of the Sparks played. Griner, visibly moved, clapped and put her right hand over her heart when the arena cameras focused on her.
“The love from the fans when I came out was amazing,” Griner said. “I definitely felt that. I didn’t experience that for a while.”
The two-time Olympic gold medalist received another loud ovation when she was announced as a member of the starting lineup, then hugged the Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike, the team’s leading player, before they jumped against each other in the opening tip-off.
Griner started strong. The 6ft 9in center scored four points, grabbed three rebounds, blocked two shots and passed for an assist as the Mercury began with a 9-0 spurt. Phoenix led by as many as 11 points with 3:13 left in the first quarter but collapsed in the final three periods.
In her 25 minutes of playing time, Griner finished with a game-high 18 points, six rebounds and four blocks. But her lack of conditioning became evident. When she left the game for good with 5:52 to play, Griner looked exhausted and walked with a slight limp.
“It’s hard just taking a break anyway in between seasons,” she said. “I remember I had a month off one time, and I thought it was death. By the All-Star game, I hope to be exactly where I want to be, just being able to play – I mean, I’m going to regret this – 40 minutes, just getting back to how it was before all this happened.”
Nygaard believes Griner faces a unique challenge. “No one’s ever had a player come back from a year detention in a prison and play,” Nygaard said. “We’re having conversations with her about how she is physically. BG has told me, ‘Whenever you want me in the game, put me in the game. Whatever you need me to do, I’m going to do.’ I think playing games is the best way to get her back to her physical peak. She’s an athlete that’s used to playing year-round, without a break, for 10 years.”
That unwanted break, however, made a dramatic personal impact. “I appreciate everything a little bit more, all of those small moments,” Griner said. “You know I used to say, ‘I’m so tired. I don’t want to go to practice today,’ or this or that. I think that has changed, honestly. You just appreciate everything because you know tomorrow’s not guaranteed. You don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
Griner’s return might have made a more profound impact on her coach. “An amazing, amazing thing has happened: We brought back this Black gay woman from a Russian jail,” Nygaard said. “America did that because they valued her. She’s a female athlete and they valued her. Just to be part of a group that values people at that level makes me very proud to be an American.
“For me, I see BG and I see hope and I see the future. I have young children, and it makes me really hopeful about our country.”