'A symbol of hope': Brittney Griner's return resonates far beyond the court

PHOENIX — Sarah D. traveled more than 5,000 miles from Paris with her partner to sit in the rafters at Footprint Center and watch Brittney Griner’s 2023 home debut in person. During warmups, they sit a few rows up from the court and marvel at the Phoenix Mercury center each time she comes around. Sarah is so excited, she forgets her own age. Lea S., her girlfriend of five years, can only laugh at the mind melt.

“In the WNBA there [are] a lot of queer symbols that we don’t have in France,” Lea told Yahoo Sports. “So it’s really important. They’re like a model for us [that] we don’t really have.”

Sarah, 31, and Lea, 24, were among the hundreds, even thousands, of people in the arena on Sunday afternoon for something bigger than watching a historically successful team’s home opener. Even bigger than watching the talented post go to work in a way only she can. Griner’s safe return to the United States in a prisoner swap after being declared by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly 10 months is bigger than the elevated status American society bestows on professional athletes.

For many, it’s about symbolism. What she signifies to them personally before her detainment was made public in March 2022 and what she stands for now as a prisoner freed. Fans who traveled to Phoenix told Yahoo Sports they wanted to make the trip because of what Griner meant to them as gay women, Black Americans and as fans of a sport treated as less-than most of its existence.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner smiles as she warms up prior to a WNBA basketball game against the Chicago Sky Sunday, May 21, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Griner, who at 6-foot-9 with characteristic dreadlocks can rarely blend in, has always been a symbol. Ahead of going No. 1 in the 2013 WNBA Draft, Griner became one for the LGBTQ+ community when she publicly and casually said she was gay, something then still controversial in sports and before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. In her decade-long career, every time she dominates the glass or dunks, she’s a symbol of the success and power of women’s basketball, making bad faith arguments against it more difficult for naysayers.

And as soon as the WNBA’s players began speaking out a year ago and the government classified her as “wrongfully detained,” she became a symbol for dozens of families whose loved ones were in the same situation. When she was released in a prisoner exchange in December, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion added another badge that she will carry this season and beyond.

“She symbolizes a voice and a passion for this issue that we have never had before,” Neda Sharghi, whose brother, Emad, has been wrongfully detained in Iran since April 2018, told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “She has the platform that no one really has had before and she is choosing herself to make this part of her legacy, to make this part of her basketball career.”

It is only the latest reason fans cheer for her so vehemently and peers care for her so passionately. The show in Phoenix was such a spectacle because of the fandom she’s developed even outside of the city and the relationships she’s fostered since coming home.

The look Lea gives when asked the cost of a trip from France to Phoenix for two is easily readable across any language. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s also an experience they already know they will hold dear.

Sarah, a former high school basketball player, brought Lea into the sport’s fandom in 2021 during the Tokyo Olympics when they would wake up at 3 a.m. local time to watch Team USA. It was then they discovered their affinity for Griner, who scored an Olympic-record 30 points in the gold-medal game for the country’s seventh consecutive title.

The couple followed her on social media and months later followed the story of her Russian detainment in digital media. This past February, two months after Griner was released and said she intended to play, Sarah saw that Mercury ticket sales were opening and immediately called Lea.

“I was at the office [and] I was supposed to check something for work,” said Sarah, her eyes on Griner the entire time she’s talking. “And it was the first post that I saw on Instagram. After that I completely forgot what I was supposed to do for work. And I just called her and said, ‘Let’s go to Phoenix next May. BG is coming back.’”

They estimated they spent around $3,200 for the flights, rental car and accommodations. That price tag doesn’t include their food or gas for the road trip they planned to take afterward. They said it was worth it, which showed every time Sarah tried to put into words what the day meant to her. As much as it was about Griner, it was also about spending it with her longtime partner in a community that Griner helped open up in the public eye.

“We decided to go here because we know it’s a once-in-history [event],” Sarah said. “It’s something really special for basketball history, but also for us. It’s our first big trip. We’re going to have huge memories for all of our life. It means a lot.”

Kaitlyn McDermott, 29, and her family spent far less on their six-hour road trip from Los Angeles to see Griner’s debut. They’re LA born and raised, but McDermott has been a Mercury fan since 2010 because of Diana Taurasi.

McDermott, her older brother Cody, 30; mother Gael, 65; and family friend Scott Kido, 41; try to make the trip at least once a season. This one had the “icing on the cake” of celebrating Griner’s safe return home.

“It was very important for us,” McDermott told Yahoo Sports. “We watched and we read all of the things that were going on with her and it wasn’t fair. We had to cheer and put respect on her name.”

McDermott is a superfan and Cody recalled watching her “frantically running around trying to find a pen” when they saw Taurasi and the Mercury at the airport in 2007. Cody was more into baseball than basketball growing up, but his sister turned him into a WNBA and women’s basketball fan. The connection provides them those nice “brother-sister moments” and he’s met some WNBA players working security for events in Hollywood.

“She’s just dominant. She gets it done,” Cody said of Griner on Saturday night in the lobby of a Phoenix hotel that had a large number of fans in town for the game. “She’s in the key, she’s ready to go, and she just gets the rebounds and gets the team going.”

For McDermott, it’s more than that. She likes that Griner is Black and openly gay, describing her own sexuality as “a little bit gay, but who isn’t?”

“It brings out the other side of women's basketball; 85% is lesbian,” said McDermott, who played collegiately. “It shows who you love is nothing — it doesn’t matter, we play the sport and it doesn’t matter.”

The McDermotts were at Arena on Friday night for Griner’s season debut where the 10,396 fans delivered cheers and a standing ovation for the visiting shot-blocking star. A group of 24 Sparks season-ticket holders waved signs with her face on them. On the back it read, “Welcome Home BG! We love you! But … Let’s Go Sparks!!!”

Sonia Campos and Darlene Granillo were among the two dozen Sparks season ticket holders with special signs celebrating Brittney Griner’s first game after her wrongful detention, but rooting for Los Angeles at home. (Cassandra Negley/Yahoo Sports)
Sonia Campos and Darlene Granillo were among the two dozen Sparks season ticket holders with special signs celebrating Brittney Griner’s first game after her wrongful detention, but rooting for Los Angeles at home. (Cassandra Negley/Yahoo Sports)

“She made some so we could represent for [Griner],” Darlene Granillo said of her season-ticket holder friend’s design. “People have been asking to buy them.”

As if on cue, fans walking up the lower bowl after shootaround ask where they got them. Granillo, happy to see fans enjoying the warmups from her seat close to the court, has been a Sparks season-ticket holder for nearly their entire existence. Her sister, Sonia Campos, joined about eight years ago after retiring from her job in athletics. They wanted to have the signs to support Griner because she’s a Black woman and they don’t think it was right she was taken as a political prisoner despite playing and representing Russia for nearly a decade.

“You just don’t know what to believe, but thank God she got home, thank God she’s safe,” Campos said. “And hopefully they can continue to bring home the other people. Because who knows what happened to them?”

The sisters said they supported Griner last year through a lot of prayers and would sometimes text others. They plan to continue to do the same for the others wrongfully detained overseas.

Sharghi stood in shock at center court in Footprint Center holding a large check and enveloped in an embrace from a woman she hadn’t even heard of a little over a year ago. Now she feels as if she could reach out to her for guidance or assistance if she or her Bring Our Families Home (BOFH) campaign really needed it.

The organization, which Sharghi chairs, launched on May 4, 2022, coincidentally the day after the U.S. government declared Griner wrongfully detained and the WNBA announced its plans to honor her throughout the season.

“It just happened to be perfect timing, in a way,” Sharghi told Yahoo Sports.

(From left) Brittney Griner, wife Cherelle Griner, Neda Sharghi, artist Antoinette Cauley and Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs pose together alongside the
(From left) Brittney Griner, wife Cherelle Griner, Neda Sharghi, artist Antoinette Cauley and Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs pose together alongside the "Bring Our Families Home" mural at Footprint Center in Phoenix on April 27, 2023. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The group’s first event was a mural in Washington, D.C., created by artist Isaac Campbell that originally featured photos of 17 wrongfully detained Americans. Included is Emad Sharghi, who was arrested in Iran by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in April 2018 while visiting family and sightseeing. Eight months later, Emad was released and told he was cleared of all allegations of spying and national security charges, Sharghi said. But his passport was never returned to him, so he couldn’t leave for home in Washington, D.C. He was ordered back to court in November 2020 where he was told he was convicted of espionage in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Next to Sharghi on the mural is Griner smiling in a visible Team USA jersey. Sharghi and Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife who became her largest advocate, met at the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation annual dinner in May and BOFH added the player to their plans as well as the family to their group. Washington Mystics players Elizabeth Williams and Natasha Cloud helped install the mural and the New York Liberty attended the unveiling in July ahead of a road game.

“I slowly learned that she is incredibly well loved,” Sharghi said. “The campaign the WNBA and the Mercury did for her with Cherelle and her agent was just beautifully orchestrated with dignity and just on point.”

There are 53 Americans publicly disclosed as wrongfully detained, according to the James W. Foley Foundation, and Bring Our Families Home aims to bring attention to them collectively while putting pressure on the White House. The longstanding playbook for families has been to stay quiet and avoid any media spotlight so as to not complicate political efforts. That’s what the WNBA and its players initially did for Griner until breaking their silence in late March.

It was the same type of loud campaign the family of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed delivered. Reed came home in a prisoner swap with Russia in April 2022, a month after the family protested outside a presidential event in Texas and at the White House to receive a phone call and sit down with President Joe Biden.

It was after that Sharghi and other families decided to work together rather than individually. Griner’s case has provided a key assist.

“What Brittney’s detention did — and the way the Mercury and Cherelle and the WNBA and even the NBA rallied around her — was bring this idea of wrongful detention into families’ living rooms and kitchens and conversations in a way that hadn’t really happened before,” Sharghi said. “I like to say that it brought it out of the shadows.”

“Wrongful detention” is a formal designation made by the U.S. Department of State and in Sharghi’s experience, most people didn’t seem to understand what that meant when she spoke about her brother using that language. To her, it’s that the person was “taken really for no other reason than being American.”

When an American is detained overseas, a consular official from the U.S. embassy or consulate representing that area of the world will reach out to them to confirm the detention, check in and ensure they are treated in accordance with the local law and human rights law.

If the situation suggests the arrest was on “discriminatory or arbitrary grounds,” the U.S. Department of State will look into the totality of the circumstances. If the Secretary of State decides the person is wrongfully detained, the work begins across a wide spectrum of agencies and individuals to secure a release.

“Everyone seems to think that the U.S. government brings people home, and we don’t,” Roger D. Carstens, Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs of the U.S., said after Sunday’s game. “What brought BG home [was] No. 1, BG stayed strong and resilient under some very trying conditions and exhibit[ed] character and leadership. But there’s this whole team that brings people home and the government simply partners with folks like [Mercury president] Vince [Kozar], with folks like the Mercury, the X-Factor, members of Capitol Hill, congressmen, senators, their staff, the media, civic society. We all partner together to find a way to bring someone home.”

Sharghi believes Griner’s camp was very successful at getting the message of “wrongfully detained” across to the public and to the White House, which helped bring her home after 294 days in Russia during a tumultuous time between the two countries.

President Joe Biden holds the hand of Cherelle Griner after announcing the release of Brittney Griner from Russian custody on Dec. 8, 2022 at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Oliver Contreras/for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden holds the hand of Cherelle Griner after announcing the release of Brittney Griner from Russian custody on Dec. 8, 2022 at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Oliver Contreras/for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“It became clear to the White House that Brittney was someone of value to her family, to the basketball establishment and as an American symbol. As an Olympic athlete,” Sharghi said. “And that bringing her home would be celebrated, but there were going to be repercussions for not bringing her home. And I think that is something that will be helpful to us.

“Brittney was a case example, a proof of concept, that if an American is important enough, the administration will respond to the advocacy that they have seen and do whatever they need to do to bring her home.”

Carstens described his office as a group of optimists out of necessity because they are the final piece.

“You have to go to bed every night knowing that you’re failing 30 to 40 families because you’ve not brought their loved ones home,” he said.

Griner’s case was a “textbook example,” he said, that it takes a village of people to do this work. When he takes a case, he envisions the final pages of the person coming home to settle into their lives and family roles again, then he works back from there. When he took Griner’s case, he pictured Sunday when she played in front of 14,040 home fans in the Valley.

Vanessa Nygaard did not open her first pregame media session of 2023 by stating how many days Griner had been in Russian jail. For the first time in her head coaching career, it wasn’t applicable.

Griner lined up for her first tipoff in 597 days against the Los Angeles Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike, who grew up with Griner in Houston and has played in the same circles as her for two decades. Ogwumike was grateful she and her older sister, Nneka, were able to see Griner first in a preseason game to reconnect and get out their emotions.

“The BG that we all know and love is someone that’s joyful, brings a great passion to the game, and is just a great human being,” Ogwumike said ahead of the Sparks’ win. “And to be able to see that with our own eyes, and then also get some of the jitters out playing, it was a perfect scenario.”

Williams, who signed with the Chicago Sky in free agency, has matched up with Griner since coming into the league and said ahead of their win that lining up against her again was surreal.

“Last year it just didn’t feel right without her, ya know?” Williams said. “And I’m sure we’ll share some words and a hug. It’s just going to feel like such a unique moment. She was over there for so long and I can’t imagine her mental state. I’m happy she’s had so much support overall.”

In Phoenix on Saturday night, a couple in the arts district spoke with a vendor about coming from Chicago to see the Sky for Griner’s first home game. Two women walked around downtown near the arena in search of where to find a new Griner jersey. “We Are BG” shirts and pins were scattered on visitors and home fans around the city. A Nike billboard featured her likeness with the script “Basketball Is Home.”

Brittney Griner looks at the
Brittney Griner looks at the "Bring Our Families Home" mural outside of Footprint Center in Phoenix on April 27, 2023. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Players around the league are becoming household names as WNBA interest and viewership continues to rise. More fans like McDermott and Sarah are looking for autographs at warmups and airports. None have the continuously growing platform of Griner, who WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said was taking selfies with fans at the team hotel ahead of the Sparks game.

“She’s so gracious with all these people, but you also want to make sure she’s secure,” Engelbert told a group of reporters at halftime. “So we worked out a plan with the Phoenix Mercury and our security experts around Brittney specifically, but also all of our players. [We’re] ratcheting up a little bit the travel to and from arenas and to the hotels and things like that. Because players are actually — which is a good thing to be talking about, how recognized they are now. And certainly Brittney is the most recognizable given the ordeal she went through.”

The league, Mercury and players are expecting fanfare for Griner during every road trip, starting with a set of games in Dallas on June 7 and 9. The Baylor women’s basketball team social accounts and head coach Nicki Collen are promoting the first game as a celebration of welcoming Griner back home to Texas. Griner won the 2012 NCAA championship to cap a 40-0 perfect season while playing for former Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey.

Nygaard and the Mercury players are used to the attention. They spent all of last season devoting their time to keeping Griner’s name front and center, which meant answering questions and speaking out on her detainment. Griner, Nygaard noted, had not had that experience. But so far, the star has handled all of the hoopla around her with grace even as she acclimates back to her old life.

“BG’s gone through a lot,” Taurasi said. “I kid, but if there was one person built for jail in Russia, it was her. And the day I saw her come back in San Antonio, I knew she had a long road ahead of her. And you know, she will [get there].”

The playbook for such a significant figure returning to the U.S. amid this much attention is nonexistent. Because of who she is as a person, and what she’s meant to so many groups of people, the joy around her return won’t ease anytime soon.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner laughs as she looks on as players warm up prior to the season-opening game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Arena in Los Angeles on May 19, 2023. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner laughs as she looks on as players warm up prior to the season-opening game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Arena in Los Angeles on May 19, 2023. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

“The other thing about BG is she stands for so much,” Nygaard said. “She stands for so many people, so many different kinds of people who can be undervalued in our society. And she stands with pride and confidence and has never once shied away from who she is, and is even using her platform now for Bring Our Families Home.”

That commitment to BOFH will also continue throughout the season for the Mercury and Griner, both home and away. The money Sharghi received came at the “perfect time,” she said, because they’re planning a mural in Griner’s hometown of Houston. In April, a second mural was unveiled on the west side of Footprint Center and Sharghi met Griner for the first time. Carstens visited the mural during his visit, as did thousands of WNBA and NBA fans who visit the location for games.

In the middle is a woman who is experiencing her role expanding.

“Brittney Griner certainly for us is a symbol of hope,” Sharghi said. “If one, she was able to survive that ordeal, and two, she was brought home, and three, she is back on the court being a successful basketball player doing what she loves to do, then it gives us hope that our family members will survive, they will be brought home, and they will be able to resume their lives as well.”

Just as Griner has returned to the basketball court where the “BG 42” decal used to keep her in the public eye was replaced by the Bring Our Families Home logo. She won’t let anyone be too excited to forget.