July 16, 2023 

2023 WNBA All-Star Game has different feel with Brittney Griner back

The 2023 WNBA All-Star Game felt normal again with Brittney Griner back in the game for the first time since 2021

LAS VEGAS – Brittney Griner squatted down in a pose as Michelob Ultra Arena went wild.

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The Phoenix Mercury center got up from her pose as the public address announcer welcomed her back to the WNBA All-Star Game for the ninth time. Griner went to her spot on the stage, stopped, and appeared to look around the arena, soaking the moment in.

“It means a lot,” Griner said. “Like I said, it’s all the people that you never met before, that you didn’t know that wrote a letter or I’m still finding messages – people that sent me on social media. … To have that ovation and all those little memories that I can cherish now, it means the world.”

At last year’s All-Star game in Chicago, Griner was absent from the game and these moments. She was wrongfully detained in a Russian prison and was less than a month away from being sentenced to nine years behind bars. The teams wore her No. 42 to begin the second half in a somber moment.

“I wouldn’t just limit it to the All-Star Game,” said Becky Hammon, the Las Vegas Aces head coach who coached in the All-Star Game last season. “There was just a heaviness over the league. It’s family around here so when you know your teammate, your friend, your sister, your family member is sitting over there, it’s tough.”

In December, Griner was freed in a prisoner swap, giving her the opportunity to return to the basketball court. After spending most of 2022 in a Russian prison, it was a mystery whether or not Griner would return to her All-Star form.

News flash: she did. While her team struggled to a 4-15 start, Griner was not the problem the first half of the season. She leads Phoenix in points per game, averaging 19.5 and rebounds per game, averaging 6.6. She was fully deserving of her ninth All-Star nod.

“It’s amazing, obviously, with BG and we know what she’s been through,” said Mercury forward Michaela Onyenwere. “I think we all are just so grateful to see her close to back to where she was before everything happened. So yeah, she deserves it.”

The two All-Star teams were selected by two team captains. One captain was Breanna Stewart and the other captain was A’ja Wilson of the Aces. Stewart was one of the most consistent advocates for Griner’s return last year and wanted the Mercury center on her All-Star squad.

There was one issue. Stewart was set to pick second when the two stars selected their rosters. So, the Liberty star struck a deal with Wilson. Griner would be selected second but Stewart was not allowed to take any of Wilson’s Aces teammates. Griner went second to Team Stewart and Aces All-Stars Jackie Young, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray went to Team Wilson.

“I found out a little bit after the fact,” Griner said. “I was like shoutout to the teammate right there. I was super happy about it, super happy about it. That’s funny.”

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Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot was also selected to Team Stewart. Vandersloot, Stewart and Griner were members of a professional team in Russia, UMMC Ekaterinburg, and did not finish their season together in 2021-22 due to Griner’s detainment. Griner said it was “pretty special” to be back on the court with Stewart and Vandersloot.

Griner’s jovial, goofy personality was on full display during the All-Star weekend. On Friday, she was courtside for the Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest, eating various food items, including a plate of bacon and cotton candy. After the game on Saturday, she jumped onto the stage to take the podium, remarking that she’s “still got hops.”

“She’s still the same,” said All-Star DeWanna Bonner, Griner’s longtime Phoenix teammate who now plays for the Connecticut Sun. “Nothing’s changed about her. That’s the best part of this whole thing.”

Stewart echoed Bonner.

“I think it’s really just incredible,” Stewart said. “The way that she’s able to handle herself. The way that she’s started this season after being away from the game for so long.”

In the game itself, Griner had 18 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. She helped Team Stewart win the game 143-127 and probably would have won Most Valuable Player if Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd had not dropped a WNBA All-Star Game record 31 points.

The matchup was filled with Griner moments. The highlight was when she played point guard early in the game, taking the ball from end-to-end and dunking for the first time in the game. She stuck at the point guard position on defense, guarding Gray. The Aces’ point guard blew by the Mercury “point guard,” but Griner was still able to disrupt the play from behind. Gray made her layup but had to use a skillful move to do so.

Griner and Gray continued to go back-and-forth in moments during the game, which was a fun highlight of an exhibition game where the players were barely trying. Griner had a few more fun moments in the game. She dunked twice after her breakaway slam, boxed out Wilson at the half-court line and blocked Plum. She was also quadruple-teamed by Team Wilson at one point in the game.

There was another nice moment in the night when Griner was given a shoutout over the public address system and the QR code for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, which works to bring home wrongfully detained Americans, was displayed on the Michelob Ultra Arena video board.

Griner enjoyed these moments but said her favorite part of the night was seeing the legends of the game on the sidelines.

“Seeing all the legends from our side being there at the game,” Griner said. “Anytime that we get them out and be able to put on a show for them – because they paved the way for us. So just being able to see some of them there – Sue (Bird) there, (Sylvia Fowles), (Seimone Augustus). I think that’s one of the biggest moments getting to see them off the court now and interacting with them.”

A fun postgame moment occurred when Griner’s Phoenix teammate, Shey Peddy, joined the press conference. Peddy asked Griner two questions. The first one was about the difference between Griner’s first All-Star Game to her ninth and the advice she would give first-time All-Stars. The second question was about Phoenix being awarded the 2024 WNBA All-Star Game.

Earlier Saturday, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the 2024 game will be played at the Mercury’s home arena, the Footprint Center. Griner said the event will be fun and there will be “special things” happening.

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As for the other All-Star’s favorite moments from the 2023 game, Los Angeles Sparks All-Star Nneka Ogwumike said it was “playing with BG,” while Plum said it was “getting blocked by BG.”

Written by Jesse Morrison

Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.

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