But this time was different, even though it was a preseason game, for it marked her first competitive game since she spent nearly 300 days in Russian custody last year. When the announcer called Griner’s name on Friday, the crowd cheered wildly, her Phoenix Mercury teammates joined in the applause and she stood up to chest bump one of them.
Griner scored 10 points and added three rebounds during the game itself but Phoenix fell to a 90-71 preseason loss against the Los Angeles Sparks. The 32-year-old started the game but only played 17 minutes.
“I’m grateful to be here, that’s for sure,” Griner told reporters after the game. “I’m not going to take a day for granted.”
She added that all the pregame festivities “hit different” including the national anthem.
“Hearing the national anthem, it definitely hit different,” Griner said. “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 two-time Olympic medalist was sentenced to nine years in prison under drug-smuggling charges after authorities in Russia found cannabis oil in her luggage. She was released in December last year in a prisoner exchange.
“I didn’t think I would be playing basketball this quickly,” Griner said. “Even coming back, I didn’t know how it was going to go getting back into it.”
But after such a long absence away from the court, Griner was critical of her first performance back though she praised her teammates.
“Not where I want it to be, but on the right track,” she said. “We’re making the right moves.
“When one of us goes down, we’re always right there. That’s one thing about this team — we’re always there for each other. We’ve got each others’ backs, big time.”
The Mercury will open the 2023 WNBA regular season on May 19 against the Sparks in Los Angeles. Griner and the Mercury are scheduled to play their first home game two days later on May 21 when the team hosts the Chicago Sky.