Brittney Griner Makes Her Emotional, Heroic Return to the WNBA

Photo:  Ronald Martinez (Getty Images)

Brittney Griner’s last home game with the Phoenix Mercury was on October 13, 2021. The Mercury were taking on the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Finals, a title Phoenix ultimately lost. Then, a few short months later everything changed for the two-time Olympic gold medalist. In Feb. 2022, she was stopped in a Moscow airport after police say they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner was arrested and spent 10 months wrongfully detained in Russia. A prisoner swap between the two countries led to her release in Dec. 2022. She immediately made it clear she planned to return to the WNBA. That officially became a reality on Friday, May 19 when the Los Angeles Sparks hosted the Mercury to kick off the season.

I was lucky enough to be at Arena for the big game and it was an exciting and emotional night. From the minute I stepped into the arena, I could feel the anticipation in the air. The first home game of the season is always an extra fun experience, as everyone has been waiting months to see their team live again. Plus, there’s the added context that—as two of the four remaining WNBA original teams—LA and Phoenix are longtime rivals. However, on Friday, the rivalry was temporarily suspended to celebrate Griner. Don’t get me wrong, Sparks fans were definitely cheering their team on, but we were also rooting for Brittney.

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When Phoenix took the court for pre-game warmups, she got a standing ovation. As she was introduced with the rest of the Mercury’s starting lineup, she received a thunderous reaction. It was a glimpse at what makes WNBA fans different from other sports fandoms. We all love our teams and want them to win, but we also really love women’s basketball and are excited to see it celebrated. And Vice President Kamala Harris showed up to salute Griner for her resolve and to thank her colleagues for everything they did to advocate for her.

Brittney Griner receives standing ovation in first game back since Russian detainment | WNBA on ESPN

As great as that night was—especially since the Sparks got the win—it wasn’t even close to the reaction Griner received on Sunday in her first home game back at Footprint Arena. As Diddy and Dirty Money’s “Coming Home” played over a montage, Brittney teared up. Being back in front of Mercury fans was the emotional moment she’s been waiting for. Though Phoenix took its second straight loss, she had 27 points and 10 rebounds.

“It was emotional in the back, just hearing, seeing some of the clips and then coming out…But, no, it was really good,” she said during the postgame press conference.

As for the basketball of it all, Phoenix has more work to do before the team returns to its former glory. However, its next two games are at home against the Minnesota Lynx and the Sparks, then they have a pair of games against the Dallas Wings. They should definitely be able to take three of those four.

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