Brittney Griner makes her WNBA return in Phoenix Mercury’s season-opener five months after release

Brittney Griner is prepared to make her WNBA return for the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night – five months after being released from a Russian penal colony. 

Griner has been free since December when she was part of a high-profile prisoner swap. She hit the court for warmups about 90 minutes before the Mercury’s WNBA season opener against the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday night.

‘Until the day we got the news in the morning that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen,’ Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said. ‘We did our jobs probably with less joy than professional athletes do. It was heavy every day.’

Not anymore.

‘Today is a day of joy,’ Nygaard said. ‘An amazing, amazing thing has happened.’

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) joins a group of girls for a photo on the court

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) gets a hug before Friday's season opener

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) gets a hug before Friday’s season opener 

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, center, talks with teammates before Friday's opener

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, center, talks with teammates before Friday’s opener

Griner scored 10 points in 17 minutes in an exhibition loss to the Sparks last week. It was the 32-year-old center’s first game action since she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February 2022 after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

‘We brought back this Black, gay woman from a Russian jail and America did that because they valued her and she’s a female athlete and they valued her,’ Nygaard said.

‘Just to be part of a group that values people at that level, it makes me very proud to be an American. Maybe there’s other people that that doesn’t make them proud, but for me, I see BG and I see hope and I see the future and I have young children and it makes me really hopeful about our country,’ the coach said.

Since her release, Griner has used her platform to advocate for other Americans being detained abroad. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since publicly coming out in 2013.

‘She stands for so many people, so many different kind of people who can be undervalued in our society,’ Nygaard said. ‘She stands with pride and confidence and has never once has shied away from who she is.’

Griner (42) warms up before a WNBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Sparks

Griner (42) warms up before a WNBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Sparks

Griner announced in April that she is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed last year by the family members of American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas. She said her team has been in contact with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia on espionage charges.

‘She’s an amazing person on and off the court,’ Phoenix guard Moriah Jefferson said. ‘I think her energy just inspires everybody every single day to show up and be the best version of themselves.’

With all that has happened off the court, it’s easy to forget Griner had arguably her best season in 2021. She finished second in the MVP voting after averaging 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game. She was a major reason the Mercury reached the WNBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Sky.

Some fans arriving early to Arena wore T-shirts with Griner’s name and jersey number on them. She is expected to receive a warm reception in Los Angeles and other WNBA arenas across the country this season. She received a standing ovation before the Mercury’s preseason game last week.

According to Griner’s agent – who wrote an Op-Ed in TIME – the 6-foot-9 center has recently had a change of heart after her previous views and accompanying condemnation of what the anthem represented. 

Griner has a newfound level of gratitude for her country. Back in 2020, she went as far as to suggest the WNBA ‘should not play the national anthem during our season’ and would not be on-court for The Star Spangled Banner. She seemed to infer some thankfulness and recognition for the anthem during postgame remarks following a preseason game vs. the LA Sparks on May 12.

‘Hearing the national anthem, it definitely hit different,’ Griner said, presumably alluding to her recently returned freedoms. 

‘It’s like when you go for the Olympics, you’re sitting there, about to get gold put on your neck, the flags are going up, and the anthem is playing, it just hits different. Being here today… it means a lot.’ 

The Mercury star stood for the national anthem before a May 12 preseason game in Phoenix

The Mercury star stood for the national anthem before a May 12 preseason game in Phoenix

Griner was convicted on drug charges in August and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. She was, however, released from a Russian penal colony on December 8 after President Biden sanctioned an exchange, giving convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout back to Russia. 

The former Baylor standout was assigned to a Mordovian penal colony, a region known for its brutal prison system, until the Biden administration made the polarizing trade for her release. She was detained in Russia for 10 months, spending less than a month inside the penal colony. 

Her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas said Griner was only traveling to play in the transcontinental country due to ‘pay inequity rooted in racism, sexism and homophobia.’

Griner echoed a similar rationale albeit without suggesting her black skin or lesbian sexuality were reasons for a pay-gap between NBA and WNBA players. 

‘It’s a shame that we have to leave our families for holidays, you’re missing everything being away. As much as I would love to pay my light bill for the love of the game, I can’t,’ Griner, who will earn $165,100 this season, said. 

The NBA attained a revenue of $10billion through the 2021-22. Naturally, this dwarfs the projected revenue for the WNBA through 2023 — $180-200million. Seventeen of the 20 highest-paid players in the WNBA are of African-American descent.

Griner has been the guest of honor at several high-profile functions since her return, including the the 2023 Met Gala earlier this month.  

Last month, Griner caught a flight to Washington, DC, to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner before landing back in Phoenix around 4am and was up five hours later for the start of training camp.

A national champion at Baylor in 2012 and WNBA champion with the Mercury two years later, Griner had been supplementing her income by playing in the Russian league since 2014. But while returning to the country in February of 2022, the Houston native was arrested at an airport outside Moscow with what Russian security claimed were cartridges of hash oil.

Amid the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine, Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine out of a possible 10 years in a Russian penal colony, where she reported in November. However, she was freed a month later after the US State Department negotiated the prisoner exchange for Bout.

Griner re-signed with team in February and is preparing to earn $165,000 for the upcoming season.

Griner is preparing to release a memoir next year about her 2022 arrest in Moscow, drug trial, and subsequent 10-month detention, the last few weeks of which were spent in a Russian penal colony.

‘That day [in February] was the beginning of an unfathomable period in my life which only now am I ready to share,’ Griner said in a statement released Tuesday by publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

Griner hopes her book will help other Americans detained overseas, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Russia last month and accused of espionage; and Paul Whelan, who is being held on spying charges.

Evan Gershkovich

Paul Whelan

Griner hopes her book will help imprisoned Evan Gershkovich (left) and Paul Whelan (right)

Griner was briefly imprisoned at the IK-2 penal colony in the town of Yavas in Mordovia

Griner was briefly imprisoned at the IK-2 penal colony in the town of Yavas in Mordovia

She was held in a Russian penal colony for 10 months before being released in December

The center, 32, is set to play for the Phoenix Mercury after being held in Russia for 10 months

Griner had been assigned to a penal colony in Mordovia, a region known for its brutal prison system, until the Biden administration was able to secure her release earlier his month.  

‘President Biden, you brought me home and I know you are committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home too,’ she wrote in a statement following her release. ‘I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you. I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.’

The Biden administration negotiated with the Kremlin for months to get Griner and Whelan back from Russia, but only managed to get the WNBA star in exchange for Bout.

In December, Griner and Bout crossed paths on a tarmac in the United Arab Emirates to complete the trade. Bout, referred to by some as the ‘Merchant of Death,’ was arrested on terrorism charges in 2008 and later convicted in the US. 

The deal drew criticism from Republicans, who were upset that the White House failed to get Whelan as well. In response to attacks from the right, White House officials acknowledged prisoner swaps are costly, adding that they felt compelled to bring Griner home while they had the chance.

Griner was facing torturous conditions in a Russian penal colony in Yavas. 

Founded for the Soviet gulag system in 1931, Yavas remains one of the largest hubs in the Russian network of prisons and penal colonies. It currently has three institutions, including a women’s colony, a men’s colony, and a co-ed colony. 

The notorious penal colony is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, some of whom have lost fingers during long hours at their sewing machines. To deal with the rat population, the guards enlisted stray cats, which were later discarded into furnaces to keep their numbers down, according to a 2019.

Veronika Krass, one former IK-14 prisoner, told Radio Free Europe that a sign reading ‘welcome to hell’ greets new inmates at the penal colony.