Celebs, the VP and a road ovation: Brittney Griner, Mercury settle into 'new normal' as WNBA season tips off

LOS ANGELES — Nothing about the 2023 WNBA season opener in Los Angeles was normal. Not the fanfare, the pregame questions, the standing ovation for the visiting team’s entrance, nor the vice president of the United States making an appearance.

“Today, that really wasn’t normal. Yeah. I mean …” Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard trailed off.

“Maybe this is the new normal,” Diana Taurasi quipped after her 19th season officially began. “I don’t know.”

The day began with joy for Nygaard, who spoke glowingly in the hours before the game about Brittney Griner being back home in the United States and playing professional basketball again. It was her first game in the WNBA since the 2021 Finals and her first in any professional basketball environment since being wrongfully detained in Russia in February 2022 and released in a prisoner exchange in December.

But after a 94-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks — themselves in a new normal under first-year head coach Curt Miller — at Arena on WNBA’s opening night, the mood shifted considerably. As soon as the official sent the ball into the air and Griner tipped it to Taurasi, it became business.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner controls the ball against Los Angeles Sparks forward Joyner Holmes during the season opener on Friday at Arena in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

“We’re still a basketball team. We still have a job, which is to represent the city of Phoenix and play great basketball. We’re trying to win these games,” said Nygaard, in her second year as Mercury head coach. “So there are a lot of things that I think are going on that are really positive, but we have to stay within our group and our bubble, and stay focused on what’s the most important, which is getting better and helping the Mercury win.”

Griner scored 18 points shooting 7-of-9 with 6 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 assists over 25 minutes in one of the more normal aspects of the night. The 10th-year center dominated early and laid in buckets with ease. She averaged 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over 32.8 minutes per game during her MVP-worthy season in 2021.

“Not good. Didn’t get a dub. So whatever I did out there, you know …” Griner said of her performance. “It was nice to be back on the court.”

Griner said she felt the love from the fans who came out, and was visibly overcome with emotion when the in-house announcer gave her a “welcome back BG” moment ahead of the game. She said it was a slew of emotions having not heard it in a long time, and she was taking it in, but staying focused.

“At the end of the day, I’m at work. I have a job to do,” Griner said. “I can’t get caught up in the moment. Kind of feel it, but put it to the side for a little bit and feel it later.”

After morning shootaround, she embraced each member of the ESPN crew in town for the broadcast and thanked them for all they did for her. Media packed her corner of the gym to take photos and videos, and reporters not normally on a WNBA beat were there for the night. But after Griner spoke postgame, they mostly cleared out and Nygaard asked, “Where’d everybody go?” as she stepped into the room for her own remarks. Both she and Griner have called on more media coverage beyond the stories that cross into the national conscience.

In one of the most non-normal moments of the evening, the Mercury entered the arena of 10,396 fans to cheers and a standing ovation. When she stepped to the free-throw line for the first time, a group whooped before she even touched the ball.

“I mean, it was great. But like honestly, c’mon now LA. We didn’t sell out the arena for BG? Like, I expected more to be honest,” Nygaard said. “It was great, it was loud. But how was it not a sell out? How was it not a sell out? But it was great. I like when the other team cheers for my players. So I enjoyed that part.”

The attention on Griner took over the day and was the subject of most questions for both the Sparks and the Mercury. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with the teams before the game, and met Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA Players Association president, at halfcourt to accept a Sparks jersey. Her husband, Douglas Emhoff, is a Sparks fan.

Billie Jean King sat courtside and posed for a photo with South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley ahead of the game. Leslie Jones of “Saturday Night Live” fame urged the crowd on and stood to wave a towel. Ex-Lakers greats Pau Gasol and Robert Horry, along with Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, were all in attendance. Magic Johnson, a Sparks team co-owner, was around and featured on the Jumbotron while chatting with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

“It just weighed so heavily all last year I think on every player, certainly on us as a league,” Engelbert said. “I think it’s just so heartening to see the fan reaction.”

The largest reaction will likely be seen on Sunday when the Phoenix X-Factor fandom sees Griner play a regular season game at Footprint Center for the first time in 610 days. The Mercury (0-1) host the Chicago Sky (1-0) in what they’re calling the “Welcome Home Opener.” The contest is scheduled to tip at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN and the fanfare will surely follow.

United States Vice President Kamala Harris laughs while standing with Brittney Griner and other members of the Phoenix Mercury in the locker room before their game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Arena in Los Angeles on May 19, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
United States Vice President Kamala Harris laughs while standing with Brittney Griner and other members of the Phoenix Mercury in the locker room before their game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Arena in Los Angeles on May 19, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“We went around every city we went in last year and BG was a story,” Nygaard said. “It’s a story everywhere we go. So this year it’ll be a story of joy, a story of happiness, a story of welcome back. That positive energy will probably help our team and be less of a distraction.”

Phoenix was without Sophie Cunningham and Megan Gustafson, who were not with the team due to injury, and Skylar Diggins-Smith remains on maternity leave. That impacted their ability to stay in it with Los Angeles, even though the Mercury went up early. Even so, it was clear the weight of the moment has been there for a team that has been weighted down for more than a year now.

Surrounded by media at a table in the corner of the court after shootaround on Friday morning, Taurasi described the emotional toll of last season and how little it had to do with basketball.

“When we get back [to Phoenix], hopefully, things will get back to normal,” Taurasi said after basketball should have become the main focus. “I mean, they’ll never be normal again.”

For now, this is the new normal.