May 20, 2023 

Brittney Griner returns to the WNBA court — and shines

Griner looks like her old self in Mercury's loss to Sparks

LOS ANGELES — The stars were out in full force at Arena as Brittney Griner made her return to regular season WNBA action against the Los Angeles Sparks after being wrongfully detained in Russia the entirety of the 2022 season.

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Vice President Kamala Harris, Tennis and civil rights icon Billie Jean King, South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley, part-owner of the Sparks and Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson, Lakers legend Pau Gasol, former Saturday Night Live cast member Leslie Jones and current Lakers head coach Darvin Ham were among the celebrities in attendance on Friday.

Harris gave a speech to the Mercury before the game, giving Griner a chance to show her appreciation to the executive branch.

“It was nice to be able to see her face-to-face, talk to her, thank her for everything as well.” Griner said. “And then the team really enjoyed it too when she came in.”

The reception for Griner was warm from the moment she stepped on the floor for warmups. The pro-Sparks crowd welcomed the Mercury to the court with a standing ovation. A video was played on the jumbotron to celebrate the return of Griner, which was followed by another standing ovation. And when she was announced as a starter, yet another standing ovation ensued.

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“The love from the fans when I came out was amazing,” Griner said. “The players – I definitely feel it. I definitely felt it. I felt it when I was over there still. Every single lady in this league, coach that reached out, did anything, I felt that. So, it was nice.”

For all of the celebrities that turned out, only 10,396 fans showed out for the season opener in the 19,068-seat Arena, leading Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard to express her disappointment.

“It was great but honestly, come on LA,” Nygaard said. “Like, we didn’t sell out their arena for BG? Like I expected more to be honest, right? It was great, it was loud. But how was it not a sellout?”

It was a pretty dreadful night on the court for the Mercury, as the Sparks blasted them 94-71. But Griner’s performance did not have many negative aspects.

She was not sluggish on the defensive end as she was a week ago in the team’s final preseason game, blocking four shots and grabbing four defensive rebounds. On the offensive side, she tallied 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and two rebounds, for a total of six (though she only had one in the second half).

While a great performance for someone who spent about 10 months away from the game in a Russian prison, Griner was not happy about it.

“Not good enough,” Griner said. “Didn’t get the dub.”

Prior to Friday’s game, Los Angeles Sparks head coach Curt Miller spoke about his team being able to be a part of Brittney Griner’s return.

“Unbelievable opportunity first and foremost,” Miller said. “So excited that Brittney’s back. Obviously, so important for our league, so important for the Phoenix franchise. But it’s so much bigger than even our league. … She’s a tremendous person.”

After the game, Griner had a noticeable limp from a collision where she banged shins.

“Getting kicked in the shin is never fun,” Griner said. “… Just got tied up. Took a shin to a shin. So that never feels great.”

But that shouldn’t stop Griner from playing on Sunday, when the Mercury will look to bounce back against Chicago at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, with the game being broadcasted on ESPN. In what the team is calling the “Welcome Home Opener,” Griner’s first game in front of the X-Factor fan base already has the ticket allotment for the entire lower bowl sold out.

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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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