Griner welcomed back to WNBA with VP on hand

    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.

LOS ANGELES — With Vice President Kamala Harris and 10,396 fans in attendance, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was officially welcomed back to the WNBA Friday night at Arena.

Griner was playing in her first official game since returning to the United States after being wrongfully detained for 10 months in Russia last year. As the WNBA started its 27th season Friday, Griner smiled broadly, acknowledging the fans who gave her a standing ovation, the Los Angeles Sparks and her Mercury teammates.

Harris met with both teams in their locker rooms before the game.

“Thank you for all that you did in supporting Brittney,” the vice president told the Mercury. “I know that was rough and so difficult.” Harris also talked about how “team is family” and how important it was that they kept “her story alive” while she was in Russia.

Los Angeles star and WNBA players union executive committee president Nneka Ogwumike presented Harris with a Sparks jersey and thanked her.

“Tonight is a game, but we’re also celebrating the return of one of our own, and what the Biden administration did to make that happen is really important,” Ogwumike said. “We know that wasn’t easy. But we want to say thank you so much for us to be able to play against BG tonight.”

Tennis legend Billie Jean King, Lakers coach Darvin Ham and league commissioner Cathy Engelbert were all on hand for Friday’s game, too.

For Griner, 32, it’s her 10th season in the league and one she may have thought was never going to happen.

Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February 2022 when she was returning to Russia to continue her overseas basketball season there with UMMC Ekaterinburg. Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, which she later acknowledged in court while saying she had no criminal intent and had packed them in haste.

In May 2022, the State Department designated Griner as unlawfully detained. But in August, Griner was sentenced to a nine-year prison term, which her lawyers said was excessive for the offense.

Griner’s only hope of returning home sooner was through a negotiated prisoner exchange between the United States and Russian governments. In December, Griner was returned to the United States while arms dealer Viktor Bout was freed and went back to Russia. The exchange took place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

“Every city we went last year, BG was the story,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “This year, it will be a story of joy, of happiness, of ‘welcome back.’ That positive energy I think will help our team.

“I’m so glad she’s home. It’s a miracle that she’s here. BG stands for so much, so many different kinds of people who can be undervalued in our society. And is even using her platform now to bring others home.”

Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who is playing her 19th season in the WNBA, reflected on how difficult it was for the Mercury to focus on playing during the 2022 season.

“Last year really had nothing to do with the basketball court,” Taurasi said. “We had a sister, a friend in prison in Russia. Emotionally it took a toll on us every day. You really didn’t know what to say on certain days. But it was toughest on BG.”

Griner competed in an exhibition game on May 12 in Phoenix, but Friday marked her first regular-season game. The last official game Griner played before that was Game 4 of the WNBA Finals in October 2021.

“I’m an optimist. So for me it was like, ‘I’m going to see her again,'” Ogwumike said of last season without Griner in the WNBA. “However, I didn’t expect her to want to play so soon. I just want her to be happy and healthy.”

Griner will make her regular-season debut at home in Phoenix on Sunday (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET). Ogwumike said it was special that Griner returned in Los Angeles against the Sparks, one of the original WNBA franchises from 1997 with a fan base that appreciates the league as a whole.

“Our fans are supportive,” Ogwumike said. “It will hopefully create a warm welcome, a warm hug, for her coming into this season. This is also a great place for people to convene to support her, given the diversity of the city, and the history of our franchise. It’s amazing we have the first game with BG back.”

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