LOS ANGELES (AP) — Brittney Griner had 18 points, six rebounds and four blocks Friday night in her first WNBA regular season game since being jailed in Russia. Her Phoenix Mercury lost to the Los Angeles Sparks 94-71 in the teams’ opener.
Griner had an immediate impact. She fired a pass to Moriah Jefferson, who hit a 3-pointer for Phoenix’s first basket. Griner grabbed a pair of rebounds and scored twice to help the Mercury take an early lead.
“How good did she look? Unbelievable,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters at halftime as the Sparks led 45-39.
Griner played 25 minutes and spent the last few on the bench with the Mercury losing.
For the first time since last season, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard opened her pregame remarks without announcing how many days Griner had been in prison.
Griner has been free since December when he was part of a high-profile prisoner exchange.
“Until the day we got the news in the morning that she was heading home, no one 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. «Something incredible, incredible has happened.»
Griner and the Mercury were greeted with a standing ovation as they walked onto the court for pregame warmups, though the biggest applause was reserved for the Sparks.
Griner hugged vice president Kamala Harris and first gentleman Doug Emhoff as they walked off the court after Harris received a No. 49 Sparks jersey. Earlier, Harris posed for photos in Mercury’s locker room.
Griner scored 10 points in 17 minutes in an exhibition loss to the Sparks last week. It was the first game action for the 32-year-old center since she was detained 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 jail and the United States did it because they valued her and she is a female athlete and they valued her,” Nygaard said.
“Just being part of a group that values people at that level makes me very proud to be an American. Maybe there are other people who are not proud of that, but for me, I see BG and I see hope and I see the future and I have little children and it gives me a lot of hope for our country,” said the coach.
Fans who arrived early at Crypto.com Arena wore jerseys with Griner’s name and jersey number on them. The 6-foot-9 Griner stopped to photograph a group of youngsters posing courtside before the game.
Billie Jean King and his wife Ilana Kloss, 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 Los Angeles Lakers coach South Carolina women, Dawn. Staley.
Since his release, Griner has used his platform to defend for other Americans detained abroad. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since she came out publicly in 2013.
“She represents so many people, so many different types of people who can be underestimated in our society,” Nygaard said. «She comes across as proud and confident and has never shied away from who she is.»
Griner announced in April that he is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed last year by relatives of American hostages and wrongfully detained abroad. She said her team has been in contact with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being held in Russia on espionage charges.
“She’s an amazing person on and off the field,” Phoenix guard Moriah Jefferson said. «I think the energy from her inspires everyone every day to come forward and be the best version of themselves.»
With everything that happened off the court, it’s easy to forget that Griner had arguably his best season in 2021. He 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 Mercury reached the WNBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Sky.