Brittney Griner unofficially returns for Mercury ESPN ESPN

Brittney Griner unofficially returns for Mercury – ESPN – ESPN

Josh WeinfussESPN Staff Writer May 13, 2023 12:16am ET5 minutes read

PHOENIX – Brittney Griner sat on the bench of Phoenix Mercury and looked around.

It was more than an hour before their first competitive game in 572 days – since Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals – was scheduled to begin. The fans started pouring in, with some of their teammates warming up on the pitch. There was excitement at the Footprint Center. All eyes were on Griner.

A few hours later it would all be over. She would have played 17 minutes, scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds on her unofficial return to the WNBA in a 90-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks in Friday night’s preseason finals.

Before that, however, she sat on the sidelines and began to switch off and reflect on the moment.

“I didn’t think I would be sitting here,” Griner said. “I didn’t think I would play basketball so quickly. Even when I came back, I didn’t know what it would be like to start playing basketball again. I mean, I’m definitely grateful to be here. I am.” I won’t take today for granted, but there was a lot to grasp.”

The crowd of 4,563 gave her a standing ovation as she was introduced before the game, and a group of fans near the tunnel gave her a standing ovation as she left the field at half-time. A fan called out, “Nice to have you back!” The courtside fans that Griner had met during her decade in Phoenix came over to speak to her.

“It was just a good moment,” Griner said.

When she emerged from the tunnel about 90 minutes before the accident, Griner was the center of attention. She couldn’t walk the entire square without being stopped, high fives or hugs. Everyone she passed, including the Sparks players and coaches, smiled and said “Hi.”

She conceded that listening to the national anthem before the game “definitely struck a different note” after nearly 10 months in detention in Russia.

On the court, the Mercury wasted no time involving Griner.

After winning the opening tip, the Mercury gave her the post on each of her first three possessions that didn’t result in a turnover. Phoenix made it clear early in the first quarter that his offense was still dominated by the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

Griner continued to work at the post with a series of moves that kept the Sparks defenders on their hips and at times helpless against their size. She seamlessly picked up the two-man game with guard Diana Taurasi and handed the ball off to off-picks, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer — just like they’d done in nine seasons together.

Still, Griner brutally criticized her first game in 19 months.

“S—” she said flatly. “I mean, honestly, I wasn’t guarding anyone today. First second leg, preparatory game. The game in LA (at the season opener on Friday) will be very different. We’re going to do very different things, but train.” (Vanessa Nygaard) keeps telling me to give myself mercy, but it’s hard.

“I was happy with some of my shots, but I had to get better at defending. I had to get a lot better.”

Griner felt that she could “knock some cobwebs away” but was also aware enough to admit that “there are a few more cobwebs than I thought.”

Griner didn’t hesitate to be aggressive on offense and on the offensive side, once notching two offensive rebounds on the same ball possession. She finished the first quarter with seven points, adding just one before halftime.

Griner felt a sense of relief after making her first basket on a post-up move in front of the basket about a minute into the game.

“Felt good,” she said, explaining her feeling as the ball went through the basket: “I was like, ‘Ohh, thank God. All right, let’s go. So I got the first one out of the way. The next pair ‘should be fine.'”

She added another basket on a short baseline jumper in the third quarter and showcased some of the moves that made her one of the most dominant centers of her generation, whether it was her spin move to the rim or a double fake that evokes memories of Hakeem Olajuwon dream shake.

She played the first 5:02 of the game before taking a break. Nygaard said earlier Friday that Griner’s feelings would depend on how much she plays. She started the game as well as the second and third quarters before being finally substituted off in the third quarter with 6:43 to go.

“I think she did well,” Nygaard said. “This is a person who has been absent from here for more than a year and she’s fought and worked very, very hard, but I thought she’s done some really good stuff. You didn’t double them. We’re going to play them in a week, so.” I’m assuming they’re going to double Britney Griner.

“Well, I thought she did great things. She was super engaging and I know it was just a really joyful day for her and her family.”

Before Griner began warming up on the court, about 61 minutes before the opening tip, she chatted with the Sparks’ Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike and snapped a photo with a young fan in Brittney Griner’s #42 black jersey.

At one point, as Griner sat on the Mercury bench during the warm-up, her teammate Sophie Cunningham leaned over and asked if she was excited.

Griner leaned forward, looked at her and nodded.

She was.

While she felt valued on Friday night, she’s glad her first game back — unofficial or not — is over and hopes one day it’s all about basketball.

The Mercury open the regular season Friday in Los Angeles against the same Sparks in a nationally televised game. Two days later, Griner will be back in Phoenix for the team’s home opener, looking forward to the pageantry — and emotion — that will accompany it.

On Friday she was able to experience many premieres: her first game, her first basket, her first emotions on the pitch.

Now she can put it behind her and focus on what’s next: the rest of her return.

“I’m glad I was able to do that before the home opener,” Griner said, “and before we go to LA.”