In Brittney Griner's return, Sparks dominate Mercury in season opener

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) applauds on the court before a WNBA basketball game.

A visiting player received the loudest applause at Arena on Friday. Even Sparks players joined.

After missing last season while being wrongfully detained in Russia, Brittney Griner made her much-anticipated return to the WNBA. The Sparks welcomed the Phoenix center back with a pregame video montage featuring the tagline “basketball is home.”

As fans showered her with extended applause, Griner, seated on the bench before starting lineup announcements, raised her hands and tapped her chest in appreciation. Then she bowed her head. She was ready to play.

Griner finished with 18 points, six rebounds and four blocks, but the Sparks stole the show with a 94-71 win in head coach Curt Miller’s debut.

“An incredible environment and a special night,” said Miller, who called his first game as the Sparks head coach “surreal.” “Not only for the new era of the Sparks and the ‘23 season, but more importantly, big picture-wise, having Brittney Griner back with all of us and how important she is to our league."

While Griner returned, Sparks rookie Zia Cooke announced her arrival with 14 points in the first half and made her first five shots. Miller debuted a dynamic offense that had five double-digit scorers and 20 assists on 29 made field goals. Nneka Ogwumike led the Sparks (1-0) with 17 points and four rebounds.

Before the game, Cooke called it “a dream come true” to be able to make her WNBA debut on such a momentous occasion as Griner’s return.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner warms up before Friday's game.
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner warms up before Friday's game. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Sparks got most of their reunion jitters out in a preseason game in Phoenix on May 12. After WNBA players lobbied for Griner’s safe return by wearing “We Are BG” shirts and sweatshirts before games, tweeting about her every day and playing on courts emblazoned with her initials and jersey number for a whole season, seeing their friend back on American soil was emotional.

The sight of Griner on the court during warmups before the preseason game brought tears to the eyes of Nneka Ogwumike.

“I was like, Nneka, no, get it together. We have a game to play,” Ogwumike’s younger sister Chiney said before the regular-season opener. “It was just amazing to reconnect and see that she is still BG. The BG that we all know and love is someone that’s joyful, that brings a great passion to the game and is just a great human being.”

Griner didn’t take long to show flashes of the eight-time All-Star she was before her 10-month detainment. She assisted on the Mercury’s first basket, rebounded a missed shot on the next possession and then rattled in a midrange jumper for her first WNBA points since 2021. She finished with a game-high 18 points and six rebounds.

Since returning to the United States, Griner’s profile has expanded outside of basketball.

She attended a Martin Luther King Day march in Phoenix, was spotted at the Super Bowl and walked the red carpet at the Met Gala. Vice President Kamala Harris, tennis legend Billie Jean King, Lakers coach Darvin Ham and former Lakers stars Pau Gasol, Michael Cooper and Robert Horry were in attendance.

Amid the fanfare, Griner, who was already an advocate for the WNBA and LGBTQ+ rights, has become a loud voice representing wrongfully detained Americans by partnering with Bring Our Families Home. Her already outsized impact as a basketball player — WNBA champion, two-time league scoring champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist — could soon pale in comparison to her advocacy opportunities.

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike presents Vice President Kamala Harris with a jersey.
Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike presents Vice President Kamala Harris with a jersey before Friday's game between the Sparks and Phoenix Mercury at Arena. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“She stands for so much,” Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “She stands for so many people, so many different kinds of people who can be undervalued in our society and she stands with pride and confidence and has never once shied away from who she is. ... A lot of people would have quit their job in this situation, BG continues to work and also continues to spread her message and try to help other people.”

In April, during her first news conference since returning, Griner was steadfast in her decision to return to basketball so quickly. She was so eager to get back that she got her first shots up while still being treated at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center. Wearing low-top Chuck Taylors, she threw down a dunk. Her ankles weren’t happy, she joked.

Diana Taurasi was the first teammate to see the star center in person after she returned. Taurasi flew to San Antonio to see Griner and knew her teammate would have a long road ahead to return to the league but never doubted Griner would do it.

“I kid, but if there’s one person built for a jail in Russia,” Taurasi said, “it was her.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.