After nearly two years, WNBA star Brittney Griner returned to the basketball court with the Phoenix Mercury Saturday and played competitively for the first time since being detained in Russia. She brought with her a newfound appreciation for the national anthem.
The seven-time All-Star said hearing the national anthem before her game on Saturday felt “different” after spending 10 months in a Russian prison. Griner arrived home to the United States in December after the U.S. and Russia agreed to a prisoner swap involving Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, and Griner, per Deseret News.
“Hearing the national anthem, it definitely hit different,” Griner said, per the New York Post. “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.”
“I’m grateful to be here, that’s for sure,” Griner added. “I’m not going to take a day for granted.”
The six-foot-nine basketball star re-signed with the Phoenix Mercury in February for her 10th season in the WNBA. It was an emotional return for Griner and her team.
“We looked at each other, and we just had chills,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said, per the New York Post. “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.”
After missing the entire 2022 season, Griner feels rusty on the court but hopes to hone her skills back to what they once were.
“Not where I want it to be, but on the right track,” Griner said of her playing ability, per the New York Post. “We’re making the right moves.”
Griner protested the national anthem in 2020
Griner’s Saturday remarks stand out from her previous comments on the national anthem.
In July 2020, Griner expressed her belief that the national anthem should not be played before WNBA games. Griner said she would not appear on court while the anthem was played — but that it was not out of “disrespect” for the U.S.
“I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season,” Griner told the Arizona Republic in 2020. “I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country.”
“I’m going to protest regardless,” Griner added. “I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem. If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there. I feel like more are going to probably do the same thing. I can only speak for myself.”
Griner’s decision to protest the national anthem came in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement, according to The Washington Post. Griner wore Taylor’s name on her jersey during the 2020 WNBA season.
“We don’t get asked enough what’s going on in our communities, and I think that’s a shame,” said Griner, per Andscape. “Yeah, we’re here to play basketball. But basketball doesn’t mean anything in a world where we can’t just live. We can’t wake up and do whatever we want to do. Go for a run, go to the store to buy some candy, drive your car without the fear of being wrongfully pulled over.”
Why was Brittney Griner detained in Russia?
Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court after being detained at the airport for having hashish oil in her luggage, as the Deseret News previously reported.
According the Griner’s legal team, she was prescribed the cannabis oil in 2020 to treat injury-related pain and a doctor’s letter was provided as evidence. Griner apologized to the court and pled guilty to the charges.
“My parents taught me two important things: One, take ownership for your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you get. That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges,” Griner said in 2022, per The New York Times.
Griner was considered “wrongfully detained” by the United States State Department.
After 10 months in a Russian prison, Griner safely returned home to the U.S. in December 2022. She was set free in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” per the Deseret News.
“It feels so good to be home!” Griner wrote on Instagram upon her arrival home. “The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn. I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.”