M.A. Voepel, ESPN.comMay 22, 2023, 12:20 AM ET
- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
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PHOENIX -- Those around her see all the progress each day. The things Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner has done her entire basketball career keep coming back. To the point, she hopes, that as the 2023 WNBA season goes on, it will seem as if she was never gone.
But she was gone, of course. For a heart-wrenching 10 months last year, Griner was imprisoned in Russia, uncertain when she would be able to go home or if she would ever play in the WNBA again. Griner returned to the United States in December and soon said she would return to the WNBA in 2023. From that moment, there was a countdown to seeing her back on the court, especially here in Phoenix, where she has been beloved since being selected No. 1 in the WNBA draft in 2013.
Now, after a weekend in which she received a warm welcome from opposing fans and a visit with Vice President Kamala Harris in the season opener in Los Angeles on Friday, followed by a tears-of-joy embrace by the 14,040 Mercury faithful who filled Footprint Center on Sunday for Phoenix's home opener, Griner and her teammates hope the next steps are more familiar: becoming a better basketball team.
Griner, as she showed Sunday with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in a 75-69 loss to the Chicago Sky, will be a big part of all the Mercury achieves.
"She's a gamer, so that's really going to accelerate now," Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said of Griner's on-court progress. "Some of her trademark moves -- you're seeing those added back in, as she is more comfortable and gets stronger."
Griner said there are still times in certain offensive and defensive sets when she realizes she is in the wrong place. It is her first time playing for Nygaard, who took over the Mercury last year.
"We're all learning," Griner said. "Every day I come to the gym, you've got to lock in. It's gonna be tough.
"As much as we want to have a perfect season and not have any adversity or go through any trials, it happens. Each time, you learn something new about yourself, you learn, 'OK, I can get over that hump. Then when the next thing comes, it's like, 'Oh, I can get over that.'"
Brittney Griner yells 'I'm back!' after draining a big-time 3
Brittney Griner is hype after scoring her 20th point of the game to pull the Mercury within five.
Nothing Griner faces on the basketball court will be harder than what she went through last year. Beginning with her detainment in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February 2022, missing a season that saw the Mercury and the WNBA keep her "present" by saying her name throughout the year, and then returning home after a prisoner exchange, Griner knows her life will never be completely the same as before.
But her hopes and dreams as a player remain. She won a championship with the Mercury in 2014 and reached the WNBA Finals again in 2021. At 32, Griner hopes there is still a lot of fuel in her tank.
Sunday, the Mercury organization and its fan base, known as the X-Factor, symbolically wrapped Griner in a hug, with a pre-game ceremony that she admitted tested her tear ducts (and those of everyone else) with poetry, song, dancing and lighting that was worth the price of admission before the game even started.
Brittney Griner receives standing ovation in Mercury's home opener
Brittney Griner receives a standing ovation in the Phoenix Mercury's first home game of the 2023 season.
It was in keeping with how the Mercury organization and fan base have treated Griner since she arrived in Phoenix 10 years ago: Their support for her has never wavered. Last year, that support helped sustain her wife, Cherelle Griner, as well. Cherelle appeared in a video Sunday that played on the Mercury's message board as she said the X-Factor fans helped her last year at times when she was really struggling with Brittney's absence.
"Anytime that I ever came to the organization ... they never said no," Brittney Griner said of charitable initiatives she has pursued since being here, including a shoe drive for unhoused persons. "It was always, 'OK!' and then full steam ahead.
"When I was gone, I saw it on an even larger scale. And that's why we made Phoenix our home. How can you not, when you have so much love and support from people you know, people I've never met."
Brittney Griner elevates for a massive block
Brittney Griner rises for a filthy block to deny the Sky at the basket.
As Phoenix general manager Jim Pitman said, "It's incredibly gratifying to have her back on the court. Everything that we've done is to try to make sure she has all the support she needs."
Still, the reality is that Griner's return also drew critics nationwide. And at 6-foot-9, she is not someone who can ever be inconspicuous. The Mercury and the league have worked on a security plan to protect her safety, especially involving travel. League commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that strategy would be revisited throughout the season to make sure it was meeting Griner's and the team's needs.
"We have the travel plan set for the 20 away games," Engelbert said. "We have a set security plan now, but obviously we have to be agile with that. It's really important that we evaluate it periodically. The Phoenix Mercury are going to lead on that."
Griner's teammates and fellow WNBA players have welcomed her back, following her lead on keeping things light most of the time. Griner is known for her easy-going friendliness and sense of humor, and Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike said that's how Griner has been in their conversations since she returned.
"It's going to be a lot for her everywhere she goes," Ogwumike said. "I don't want her to get too overwhelmed. I want her to feel the love around the league, but also have her space when she needs it.
"I don't think BG wants all the drama to it. Like anyone, she wants to lean into the good that's happening in her life. I know the other players understand that. I think that helps provide some normalcy for her in the middle of all this: 'I have a whole league of women who really know me.' She's always had an ability to at times not take things too seriously, which allows her to cushion the hard times. And all of the people who care about her go really hard for her; she knows we'll be there for her."
Teammate Brianna Turner said that behind the scenes, Griner is much as she's always been: upbeat and fun-loving. Even after an ordeal unlike she ever could have imagined, Griner still wants to be the same BG.
Admittedly, one with a much greater understanding of and passion for the issue of Americans being detained abroad, and of the value of each moment she gets with her family -- her parents were both in attendance Sunday, along with her wife -- her teammates and her community.
"I think with these first two games out of the way, it's going to settle down a little bit," Turner said. "She's pushed through everything: from the past year, coming back, being involved in the 'Bring Our Families Home' campaign. I'm just continuously proud of her."