Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony in a high-profile prisoner exchange with the United States late last year.
Brittney Griner made a moving return to women’s basketballplaying his first competitive game in nearly two years after his incarceration in Russia.
Griner, who was published by Russia as part of a prisoner trade last year, made his first appearance in a WNBA game in 579 days on Friday night as the Phoenix Mercury took on the Los Angeles Sparks in a season opener in California.
US Vice President Kamala Harris was among the supporters at the Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles as the WNBA superstar finally returned to action.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist made an instant impression on her return, earning the tip and scoring four points as the Mercury quickly took a 7-0 lead.
The crowd erupted when she hit a 17ft jumper on her first attempt of the contest.
“It felt good,” Griner said in an on-court interview at the end of the first quarter. “It was really good. It was like the last time I played.
Griner eventually finished with 18 points and six rebounds but couldn’t save Phoenix from collapsing to a complete 94-71 loss.
Images and sounds of BG’s first half back on the pitch 🗣️ #BGisBack pic.twitter.com/1v6hRSmbBf
— WNBA (@WNBA) May 20, 2023
The result, however, was almost a footnote to an occasion that Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard described as a “day of joy”.
“All last season I opened every press conference with the number of days she was gone,” Nygaard said in his pre-match remarks.
“And until the day we found out in the morning that she was going home, no one thought it was going to happen.
“We did our job probably with less joy than professional athletes. It was heavy every day. But it’s great to have this game today. Today is a day of joy.
On-court celebrities on Friday included tennis legend Billie Jean King, Los Angeles Lakers icon Earvin “Magic” Johnson and current Lakers head coach Darvin Ham.
Shortly before the whistleblower, Vice President Harris praised the Phoenix players for ensuring Griner’s case was not forgotten.
“Thank you for everything you did to support Brittney, because I know it was tough,” Harris said in a locker room address. “It was so difficult for you because a team is a team – it’s family.”
THANKS @VP Kamala Harris for all you and the administration have done to bring our sister home.
And thank you for the pre-match speech! 💜 pic.twitter.com/SzuFrpMnP2
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) May 20, 2023
WNBA players’ union chief and Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike thanked Harris and the Biden administration for helping secure Griner’s release.
“Tonight is a game, but we are also celebrating the return of one of our own,” Ogwumike said.
Griner, 32, a WNBA champion and LGBTQ trailblazer, was arrested for drug trafficking at a Moscow airport in February 2022 amid rising tensions in Ukraine.
At the time of her arrest, Griner was playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the offseason.
She was charged with possession of vaping cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.
She pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she had no intention of breaking the law or using the banned substance in Russia.
Griner was eventually freed in a deal that saw her being traded for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – known as the “Merchant of Death” – in December.