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Brittney Griner makes emotional return to WNBA as Mercury open season vs. Sparks

Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury kicked off the 2023 WNBA season against the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday night

After a tumultuous nearly 600-day absence from the league, Brittney Griner officially returned to the court for the Phoenix Mercury.

Griner and the Mercury kicked off the 2023 WNBA season with their game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Crypto.com Arena on Friday night, which marked Griner’s first real WNBA game since she spent 10 months in a Russian prison.

Naturally, that led to a pretty emotional pregame scene in downtown Los Angeles.

Griner was arrested in February 2022 in a Moscow area airport after officials there allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She spent the next 10 months in Russia, and was classified as “wrongfully detained” by the United States government.

Finally, Griner returned home in December in a prisoner exchange. She vowed to play for the Mercury right away, though ruled out playing internationally again except for Team USA at the Olympics.

Friday’s game won’t be Griner’s first since her release from Russia. She played in the Mercury’s first of two preseason games earlier this month, but was admittedly rusty. Still, just playing in that game was a huge moment for her.

“I didn’t think I would be sitting here and playing basketball this quickly,” Griner said after their preseason game against the Sparks on May 12. “Coming back, I didn’t know how it was going to go, getting back into it. I’m not going to take a day for granted, but it was a lot to take it all in and it was good to get this one out of the way before we go out to LA.”

Griner’s story and return will undoubtedly be one of the biggest throughout the WNBA this summer, regardless of how the rest of the season goes for the Mercury.

But for the first time in almost two years, things appeared normal for Griner once again on Friday night. That’s really all that matters.

The Sparks beat the Mercury 94-71 in the season opener. Griner led Phoenix with 18 points, six rebounds and two assists. She shot 7-of-9 from the field in 25 minutes.

Why Brittney Griner is standing for the anthem now

On Friday morning, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote an article for Time.com in which she announced Griner would be standing for the national anthem this season — something she and plenty of others in the WNBA have stopped doing in recent years.

“Others, including Brittney Griner, plan to stand up — physically, for the anthem itself and symbolically for the rights of their peers to make themselves heard and express dissent loudly and boldly, and in accordance with the proudest traditions of this country, however they see fit,” Kagawa Colas wrote.

Griner did just that on Friday night in Los Angeles.

Most WNBA players and teams opted to remain in the locker room during the national anthem last season. The protest, which has become commonplace throughout the sports world, started with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who first started protesting during the anthem in 2016. That protest essentially led to him being blackballed from the league, and he hasn’t played since. He settled a grievance against the league privately in 2019.

Though Griner’s move on Friday was a change from what she’s done in the past, Kagawa Colas didn’t want it to be misinterpreted “by the same ‘shut-up-and-dribble’ voices that reflexively attack and distort every principled expression of athlete dissent.”

“Having been put in a literal cage, too small for her frame, stripped of her essential American freedoms and deprived of even her most basic rights during a sham trial and unjust sentencing, Brittney, supported by many other players, will make a statement this WNBA season by standing tall for those uniquely American freedoms — the most important of which being the absolute and inviolable and constitutionally protected freedom to stand, sit, kneel, praise, protest, and otherwise make your voice heard," she wrote.

“In their acceptance and celebration of one another’s liberty to choose different ways to express themselves, WNBA athletes are celebrating what it means to be a patriot. They are transforming the sadistic stunt of BG’s detention, intended by [Russian president Vladimir] Putin to serve as a racial and political wedge, into a reminder of the vibrancy, the diversity, and the strength of everything that America’s adversaries hoped to defeat. Not least, every single one of them is standing in unmistakable solidarity with Brittney — even if they happen to be making their stand by taking a knee.”