It was a legendary night.
On May 19, Brittney Griner returned to the basketball court for her first WNBA game since being released from a Russian prison in December 2022. Griner was arrested in February 2022 for possession of a vape cartridge with hash oil in it. She traveled to Russia to return to the team she played for in the WNBA offseason for a $1 million salary. The arrest happened after the United States warned citizens not to travel to Russia in the wake of the tensions over the conflict with U.S.> ally Ukraine.
Griner revolutionized the game of women’s basketball by dunking on a consistent basis and was named one of the 25 greatest players in league history in 2021.
“What I went through and everything, it just means a little more to me now, so I want to be able to stand [for the national anthem],” Griner told The Atlantic‘s Jemele Hill in the postgame press conference. “I was literally in a cage and could not stand the way I wanted to.”
The Los Angeles Sparks ended up defeating the Phoenix Mercury 94-71 as Griner finished with 18 points and six rebounds.
Griner hit the floor a couple of hours before tip-off with teammate Brianna Turner as the cameras rapidly flashed in her direction when she walked out of the tunnel. She sat on the bench with her teammates as she finished a pre-game meal and cracked jokes with her peers. Through all the added attention, Griner looked unbothered.
As she returned to the court with the rest of the Mercury for the pre-game layup line, the Sparks fans gave her a standing ovation, and she applauded in return showing gratitude. Minutes before tip-off, the Sparks played a “Welcome back, BG!” video tribute. After Griner waved to the crowd, it was the first time she showed visible emotion signifying this night was different.
First Lady Kamala Harris walked onto the floor, waved to the crowd, received an honorary Sparks jersey from Nneka Ogwumike and hugged Griner to show support before the start of the game. Other familiar faces in attendance included Dawn Staley, Cherrelle Griner, Billie Jean King, Leslie Jones, Magic Johnson, Darvin Ham, Robert Horry, Pau Gasol, Brittney Elena, Symba, Cathy Englebert and Byron Scott.
“Today definitely wasn’t normal,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said.
Outside the arena, there were “Basketball Is Home” billboards from Nike. In the large number of celebrity fans, Nike female athletes Allyson Felix and Ibtihaj Muhammad sat front row to catch the action.
— Rashad Milligan (@RashadMilligan) May 20, 2023
Phoenix got off to a fast start in the game, headlined by a couple of buckets from Griner. After missing her first handful of attempts, 40-year-old legend Diana Taurasi got it going from the field as the Mercury led by near double digits early in the first quarter. The Sparks responded on a huge run led by Chiney Ogwumike and shooters Lexie Brown and Karlie Samuelson the Mercury could not respond to. Although Griner has returned, Phoenix is still missing key players Sophie Cunningham and All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith.
The Mercury return to action on May 21 to host the Chicago Sky. Wyclef Jean is set to perform at the home opener to continue the league’s warm welcome back to one of its greatest players ever.
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Good to see Griner do what she do best 🏀