Brittney Griner is officially returning to the WNBA — and she's taking a massive pay cut to make it happen

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images
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  • Brittney Griner has signed a one-year deal to return to the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury in 2023.

  • The eight-time All-Star took a 32% pay cut to rejoin the franchise that drafted her into the pros.

  • After spending nearly a year detained in Russia, Griner is set to make her Mercury return on May 19.

Brittney Griner is officially returning to the basketball court.

The WNBA superstar has signed a one-year deal to return to the Phoenix Mercury — the team that drafted her into the pros with the first overall pick in 2013 — after spending last season away from the hardwood under dire circumstances.

Brittney Griner.
Griner.AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

The eight-time All-Star was jailed in Russia for most of 2022 after customs agents at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport reported finding vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage last February. Six months later, Griner was found guilty of drug smuggling with criminal intent and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison, though the US government classified her as "wrongfully detained" not long after her arrest.

But President Joe Biden and the US State Department negotiated for her freedom in early December, agreeing to a prisoner swap with the Kremlin in exchange for the release of the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. And though there was speculation that Griner may not be ready to return to play for the 2023 season, if ever, the two-time league scoring champion announced shortly after her homecoming that she intended to return to the WNBA.

"I also want to make one thing very clear: I intend to play basketball for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury this season," Griner wrote in the caption of an Instagram post in December, marking her first public comments since returning to the US. "And in doing so, I look forward to being able to say 'thank you' to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon."

The 6-foot-9 center hit "send" on that fateful Instagram post "as soon as we were wheels up" from a military base in San Antonio, Texas, said the Phoenix Mercury's president, Vince Kozar. He, along with the team's general manager, Jim Pitman, and Griner's longtime Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, surprised Griner and her wife, Cherelle, with a lift home to Arizona.

"She loves basketball, so she wanted to talk about the team, she wanted to talk about last year, and she wanted to talk about this year," Kozar told Insider of the in-flight conversation with Griner.

"She wants to get back the pieces of her life that were taken away from her for a while," he added. "Basketball is one of those things."

Now, some two months later, she's taking a considerable pay cut to make it happen.

Liberty defenders Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb look to defend Phoenix Mercury superstar Brittney Griner during the 2021 playoffs.
Griner facing a double team during the 2021 playoffs.AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Griner will earn $165,100 to play for Phoenix over the 2023 WNBA campaign, per Spotrac. That base salary is a whopping 32% drop from last season and far less than the $234,936 supermax for which she was eligible and could have easily commanded from the Mercury this season.

But thanks to Griner's financial sacrifice, Phoenix was able to re-sign Taurasi — a 10-time All-Star and the WNBA's all-time scoring champion — while reaching deals with several other free agents to round out its roster.

Griner is set to make her WNBA return on May 19, as the Mercury take on the Los Angeles Sparks at Arena. Two days later, she'll suit up at Phoenix's Footprint Center for the first time in 19 months for her homecoming game against the Chicago Sky.

Brittney Griner high fives her Phoenix Mercury teammates.
Griner with her Phoenix Mercury teammates.AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Kozar said he expected the moment to be "one of the most special things any of us has ever experienced."

"After December 8, nothing will compare to December 8, right?" Kozar told Insider, referring to the date of Griner's release. "The news of BG coming home is the best thing that I've ever experienced in this job. What will probably come close to that is May 21 — what this building is going to look and feel like the moment she returns to play a home game for the first time."

"It's a moment in history: It's sports history; it's American history; it's just this moment in history that you'll be able to say you were a part of, but that also one that no news story or broadcast will be able to capture," he added. "I hope everyone's in the building and I hope there's not a single seat left."

Read the original article on Insider