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Brittney Griner participates in first WNBA preseason game since being detained in Russia

On Friday night, Brittney Griner strolled down the sideline a few hours before the Phoenix Mercury played, offering hugs and high-fiving her teammates, coaches and opposing players.

Then it was a little stretching, a little shooting and a little agility work to prepare for a basketball game.

It was just like old times.

"I'm grateful to be here, that's for sure," Griner said. "I'm not going to take a day for granted."

Griner returned to game action for the first time since a nearly 10-month detainment in Russia on drug-related charges ended with a prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout in December. The seven-time All-Star, who missed the entire 2022 season because of the detainment, finished with 10 points and three rebounds in a WNBA preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks.

The 6-foot-9 Griner looked good, especially considering the long layoff, casually throwing down a one-handed dunk during warmups. She stood with her teammates while the national anthem was played and received a loud ovation from the home crowd when she was introduced before tipoff.

"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."

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said the anthem and introductions were emotional for the entire team.

"We looked at each other and we just had chills," Nygaard said. "We were here last year for all of it. I'm getting emotional about it now. Just to see her back out there — it's an absolute miracle. It was amazing. It's giving me chills again."

Once the game started, the 32-year-old Griner immediately went to work, scoring on a turnaround jumper early in the first quarter. A few minutes later, she was fouled on another turnaround and sank both free throws.

She even had a cameo with the medical staff in the third quarter. Teammate Sophie Cunningham went down with a knee injury and Griner helped carry her off the court so she didn't have to put weight on her leg.

Sparks Mercury Basketball
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner drives against the Los Angeles Sparks during the first half of a WNBA preseason basketball game, Friday, May 12, 2023, in Phoenix. Matt York / AP

"When one of us goes down, we're always right there," Griner said. "That's one thing about this team — we're always there for each other. We've got each others' backs, big time."

Griner's return to the Mercury rekindles hope the franchise can make another run to the WNBA Finals. The former Baylor star helped the franchise win its third title in 2014 and has averaged 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds during her nine-year career. She was runner-up for Most Valuable Player in 2021, when the Mercury also played in the Finals but lost to the Chicago Sky.

Griner said she was more rusty on the court than expected. But given the trials and emotions of the past 18 months, it was a pretty good night.

"Not where I want it to be, but on the right track," Griner said. "We're making the right moves."

Phoenix opens the regular season in Los Angeles next Friday.

The extra exposure from being detained in Russia for having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage has given Griner a platform to advocate for other Americans being detained abroad. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since publicly coming out in 2013 and became the first openly gay athlete to be sponsored by Nike.

During her first press conference since returning to the U.S., Griner said that she will no longer play basketball overseas during the WNBA offseason.

"I can say, for me, I'm never going overseas to play again unless I'm representing my country at the Olympics," Griner told reporters.

Griner noted that the reason she and other WNBA players even play in other countries during the offseason in the first play is the disparity in pay between their league and the WNBA.

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.

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