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'Brittney Griner is so important for the WNBA': Mercury star's return is a moment to celebrate and appreciate

Top-of-mind is taking on a different meaning. Last May, as the 2022 WNBA season tipped off, it was to keep Brittney Griner paramount while she remained wrongfully detained in Russia and awaiting trial. There were “BG 42” decals on every court, a nod to the league’s missing piece. It loomed like a cloud that never dissipated.

Now, it’s for players to be on watch for the 6-foot-9 former MVP candidate ready to stuff them at the rim or nab the rebound. The number 42 is mobile for the Mercury again, making the league whole as its 27th season tips off on Friday. The Los Angeles Sparks host the Mercury in the final game of opening night on ESPN (11 p.m. ET).

More than the super-teams, or the free agency movement, or the star rookies, Griner’s return to the court after 10 months in a Russian prison is the story of the 2023 WNBA season. Her smile in workouts and media availabilities has already overtaken any lingering clouds. It’s a moment those closest to the situation aren’t taking for granted, nor should anyone else.

Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard, who was hired a month before Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport, called it an “absolute miracle” to see Griner introduced to the Mercury fans, called the X-Factor, at Footprint Center ahead of a preseason game on Saturday. She and assistant Nikki Blue had chills, she said.

It’s a feeling certain to happen around the league as Phoenix travels to different arenas this season. The pregame interactions, such as she had with first-year Los Angeles Sparks head coach Curt Miller and Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, will all hold more significance. Even if Griner, as she is apt to do, torches said team after those greetings.

“It is so good to have her back in this league,” Miller said after the Sparks’ 90-71 preseason win. “She is so talented. It doesn’t look like she missed a beat. She can have a heck of a year. She is just so talented. So happy for Phoenix, for the fans of the WNBA, for all of us. Brittney Griner is so important for the WNBA and women’s basketball. It is great to have her back in our league and on the court.”

Brittney Griner returns to the WNBA after being detained in Russia for 10 months last year. (Illustration by Sofia Villar/Yahoo Sports)
Brittney Griner returns to the WNBA after being detained in Russia for 10 months last year. (Illustration by Sofia Villar/Yahoo Sports) (Sofia Villar/Yahoo Sports)

It was three days before tipoff last May that the U.S. government declared Griner “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government. It enabled the White House to actively seek to negotiate her return, rather than leave it to the Russian legal system. Griner was arrested in February 2022 in an airport near Moscow when she was returning to her UMMC Ekaterinburg team out of the international break. She’s one of the WNBA stars who has played at the powerhouse over the decades.

That same day in May, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the decal on the sideline while Mercury executive vice president and general manager Jim Pitman reiterated in a statement the team was keeping her “top-of-mind” during the weekend and beyond.

The Washington Mystics opened the season days later and were the first to issue a team statement from the locker room in support of Griner. “Know that we are watching. We are paying attention. We are BG,” Natasha Cloud read from a sheet of paper. There were warmup T-shirts, pins and tweets around the league.

The visible gear by players for Griner’s return will be minimum, if seen at all, when teams tip off this weekend. But the fanfare in Los Angeles and particularly in Phoenix, where the Mercury open their home schedule against the Chicago Sky on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), is expected to be high. ESPN will air both games.

The cheers for Griner’s first minutes since playing in the 2021 WNBA Finals were still loud, even in a largely empty home preseason game. She said afterward she spent time before tipoff looking around and “zoned out a bit.”

“I didn’t think I would be sitting here and playing basketball this quickly,” Griner, 32, said. “Coming back, I didn’t know how it was going to go, getting back into it. I’m not going to take a day for granted, but it was a lot to take it all in and it was good to get this one out of the way before we go out to LA.”

Griner was named an honorary All-Star in Chicago last summer, her eighth nod since the Mercury drafted her No. 1 in 2013. She was introduced at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, as was everyone else, though she couldn’t walk down the arena steps to the court surrounded by fans wanting high-fives. When the All-Stars came out of the locker rooms for the second half, they were all in new jerseys featuring Griner’s name and number.

“That was our way of honoring her,” said Sue Bird, then the WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) vice president before retiring this offseason. “Hopefully, at some point, she sees a picture or something and letting her know that she is always on our minds and on our hearts.”

At a hearing in Russian court days later, Griner held up a photo of her peers wearing her name and number at the game. Back on U.S. soil last month, she spoke of how those letters from people she knew and those she didn’t helped give her “a spark of life to keep holding on, keep fighting, not give in.”

There’s little to suggest she won’t be at the 2023 All-Star Game in Las Vegas for her eighth game this July. It will be the one-year anniversary of the drug possession trial in which the Russian government eventually convicted her of transporting drugs and sentenced her to 9½ years, nearly the maximum. Customs officials said they found 0.702 grams of cannabis in her luggage, an amount the prosecution alleged was “significant.”

The photos taken at this All-Star and ensuing games down the backend of the season will be far more uplifting than those from Russia. The road to that is still long, as Griner has attested.

She did not pick up a ball nor did conditioning while in prison. Even though her lawyers offered to bring her one, she said it was too painful to think about. Two weeks before the prisoner swap, she cut her trademark dreadlocks because every time she washed it, it would freeze in the Russian winter and she didn’t want to deal with it.

It was a sign she believed she would be in a Russian penal colony for a significant amount of time, if not the full sentence. She reiterated that to more than 500 reporters in a news conference this spring when she turned her focus to the WNBA and basketball. Shortly after arriving in Texas after the swap, she picked up a ball for the first time — she joked about dunking on her wife — and has been working her way back to game play.

Griner said after that first preseason game she had “knocked off some of the cobwebs. I guess there was a few more than I thought.” They’re not, understandably, all out yet after going nearly a year without activity.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner drives during the first half of a WNBA preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 12, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner drives during the first half of a WNBA preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 12, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Honestly, I didn’t guard anybody today,” Griner said. “First game back, preseason game, the first game in LA will be totally different. We’ll be running totally different things. Coach keeps telling me to give myself grace, but that’s hard. I was happy with some of the shots that I took. The defense, I have to be better.”

The tough aspect is Griner was one of the best in the league months before her detainment. She left off playing in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, two wins away from what could have been her second championship in addition to 2014. She averaged 20.5 points, nearly a career high, and 9.5 rebounds, a career high by nearly 2 boards, to finish runner-up in MVP voting behind Jonquel Jones.

A lot has changed since Griner last played. For one, Jones is on a powerhouse in New York rather than Connecticut. For all of the feel-good story pages of the Mercury’s upcoming season, there are also some curious ones. The cloud of Griner’s detainment doesn’t fully explain the issues between Nygaard and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, nor the issues that led to the contract divorce between the franchise and veteran forward Tina Charles midseason.

Griner’s bright personality has the power to bring people together and cover any differences. But if there are underlying problems, it’s bound to come out in a 40-game season in which the Mercury are going to have to fight hard for a good seed. Griner left with her team on top and only recently removed from celebrated Big Three status. Now, the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty own the super-team conversation.

Diggins-Smith is out on maternity leave and there is no word on a return. Shooting guard Sophie Cunningham injured her knee in that preseason contest — she was helped off the court by none other than Griner — and her status is unclear, though she was seen on a team trip to Sedona without a leg sleeve or brace. And then there’s just how healthy Diana Taurasi, 40, can stay throughout the season after missing much of the previous four.

If the monsoon does come to the desert, there’s one major thought to keep top-of-mind. Griner is home, safe, playing basketball again. Smiling, signing autographs, hanging with the next generation of WNBA fans. There was a real chance this day never came.