Skylar Grey’s “Coming Home” started blaring through the sound system at Phoenix’s Footprint Arena when the imposing 6-foot-9 figure everyone had showed up to see emerged on the stage Sunday afternoon.
It was the much-anticipated WNBA return of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner. The crowd gave her a raucous standing ovation and Griner returned the love to the crowd known as the X-factor by crossing her arms across her chest in an X.
Indeed, Griner was back in her home arena for the first time in 585 days following a life-altering experience in which the Houston-native spent 10 months detained in Russia on drug charges. You could see her fighting hard to hold back the tears while greeting her teammates and opponents on the court.
“It was emotional,” Griner said of her home debut over the weekend. “Just hearing and seeing some of the clips. They set me up with that song.
“Part of the process of healing is letting it out. I got choked up a little bit and I tried to hide it.”
But it was hard to hold in all the emotions for a celebratory return that less than a year ago seemed doubtful as Griner sat imprisoned in Moscow as a political pawn between the US and Russia after she was caught at an airport with a vape cartridge containing a small amount of cannabis oil.
Griner was later sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia before the Biden administration struck a prisoner swap deal for her freedom last December.
So, this past weekend was a huge celebration and sigh of relief as Griner made her official WNBA return last Friday at the Los Angeles Sparks and then made her return to Footprint Arena against the Chicago Sky on Sunday.
Vice President Kamala Harris was on hand in Los Angeles. That was followed with a hero’s return in Phoenix with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs among the well-wishers along Griner’s devoted wife, Cherelle, and her parents, Raymond and Sandra Griner.
“You have inspired so many people,” Harris said to Griner. “And for you to be back on the court, it’s so incredible. And for all the people that look like us and need to know nothing is going to knock you down — that’s good.”
Griner, known affectionately as BG, vowed days after her release in December that she would resume her playing career. And the 32-year-old former Nimitz and Baylor star made good on her promise, with 18 points, six rebounds and four blocks in her season debut, followed by 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in her return home – both Mercury losses.
“We didn’t finish the job by getting a win, but I’m just continuing to be impressed with BG,” said Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard. “BG is somebody who can handle so many things, clearly, that many people could not handle.”
While Griner’s game seemed unchanged, what is different is her position on standing for the national anthem. Griner had joined many of the WNBA players in not standing for the playing of the national anthem as a protest against the injustice towards African Americans in this country.
Griner still supports those who still decline to stand, but after what she went through in Russia and sometimes being confined to a cell where it was difficult for her 6-foot-9 frame to stand, Griner stood tall for the national anthem before both games last weekend.
“You have the right to protest, the right to be able to speak out, question, challenge and do all these things,” Griner said. “What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now. So, I want to be able to stand. I was literally in a cage and could not stand the way I wanted to.”
Griner is understandably more grateful for all that she has in front of her.
“I appreciate everything a little bit more, all of the small moments, like, ‘Oh, I’m so tired I don’t want to go to practice today,’ that has changed, honestly,” Griner said. “Tomorrow is not guaranteed, you don’t know what it’s going to look like. I feel a lot older somehow, too.”