Mercury's Brittney Griner doesn't play but gets big greeting from Mystics fans

WASHINGTON — The largest ovation of the night was for a player who didn't even step on the court.

A hip injury suffered in her last game kept Brittney Griner out of Friday night's game, as the Washington Mystics hosted the Phoenix Mercury in what would have been Griner's first game in the nation's capital since her 10-month detainment in Russia ended with her return home in December. Griner was listed as doubtful but ruled out 20 minutes before tipoff.

That didn't stop fans such as Holly Cannon, a Washington native, from showing up with a neon green sign and big black letters that read "Welcome Home BG." Even if Griner were playing, Cannon said she'd still want the Mystics to come out on top, which they ultimately did 88-69 with the Mercury missing Griner and Diana Taurasi.

"I don't want her to win," Cannon told USA TODAY Sports, "but I'm glad she's back."

The same could be said for most in the building.

A fan holds up a sign supporting the Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner.
A fan holds up a sign supporting the Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner.

Between the starting lineups presentation and the ball going up, the public address announcer at Entertainment and Sports Arena implored the crowd to welcome Griner, who walked the length of the floor to the end of the Mercury bench – and signed a t-shirt for someone sitting in the front row along the way – while the announced sellout crowd rose to its feet for a lasting, standing ovation.

It would not be the final time the fans showed Griner love on the team's Pride Night.

During the first television timeout, hardly two minutes into the contest, the Mystics played a video welcoming Griner back to the WNBA. As Griner peered over the Mercury's huddle, fans once again stood to applaud, with the 6-foot-9 center offering a subtle wave.

"It's almost like she never left ... it didn't feel like her spirits were broken," Mercury guard Shey Peddy said.

Again, as the Mercury trailed 54-38 at halftime, fans near the tunnel supplied Griner with another strong pop. The president's special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens – the American official who oversaw her prisoner swap with Russia for arms dealer Viktor Bout – was also at the game and was shown on the video board before the fourth quarter.

After the game, Griner spent time with family members of wrongful detainees in the VIP section of the arena.

"There's a circus swirling around her all the time," said Mystics head coach Eric Thibault, who caught up with Griner before the game. "She's a wonderful human at the center of it."

From 'cloud' to joy, again

Alannah Boyle arrived with her own "Welcome Home BG" sign. She said she's been a fan of Griner since her college days at Baylor and followed her career from there. Working in public advocacy in Washington, Boyle was sure to share the story of Griner's plight with friends and kept circulating her name.

"I thought it was important to increase visibility," Boyle told USA TODAY Sports.

Ahead of the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game, Boyle and her friends made "Free Brittney Griner" pins and handed out more than 500.

"I'm so happy she's back," Boyle said, "and I'm glad she's safe."

During pregame warmups, Griner did not take the floor but posed for pictures with players. A security guard at the arena asked to take a picture of her, and she obliged, arms folded and smile beaming.

"I'm glad to have you home," the employee said. "I was worried about you."

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner walks on the court before the team's game against the Washington Mystics.
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner walks on the court before the team's game against the Washington Mystics.

"Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate that," Griner replied, placing her hand over her heart. "Thank you."

As players and the league rallied to support Griner throughout last year, the fear of the unknown worried many players, including Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

"That was a hard time for all of us," Walker-Kimbrough said. "And just knowing her, just knowing her character, knowing her heart, it was just really tough. It's just an honor and a blessing to see her out, to give her a hug, to talk to her, to hear her voice. And, honestly, she looks great.

"Not only to see her, but she's doing what she loves."

Through eight games this season, Griner is averaging 20.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 rebounds in 28 minutes per contest.

Not only was she missing from the court last season, but her detainment "was a cloud over everything," Mercury coach Vanessa Nygard said. Her return brought back the smiles, the laughs, the component of enjoying every day and the process that comes with the process of playing professional sports.

"It was hard to even feel happy last year. You felt guilty a little bit," Nygard said. "And this year, though we've had our struggles, at least we can lean into the joy of being professional basketball players, the opportunity it presents and the blessing of every day.

"Last year, we were under a circumstance that no team's ever been in, and so outside of basketball it wasn't normal in any way ever, any day. This year, we're trying to win basketball games, and with having BG back, that's been just great every day. We just continue to try to do our jobs."

The team's occupation collided with the political and cultural forces at play in the Dallas International Airport last weekend awaiting a flight, when the Mercury were harassed by an individual promoting a social media channel.

As Friday's game was being played, ESPN reported that Griner had been granted permission to fly charter. The team would not confirm the report.

Hope for other detainees

The commitment from Griner, her wife Cherelle and the WNBA to the plight of other wrongfully detained hostages has struck a chord with those affected most.

And it's a platform they could have never imagined.

"The empathy they have for us when they really don’t need to be doing that, it shows the goodness of their hearts," said Hannah Shargi, whose father, Emad, has been wrongfully detained in Iran for more than five years. "It speaks volumes of who they are."

By continuing to speak up for those held overseas and their families, Griner keeps a certain burden on herself -- while not being forced to do so.

"The fact that she is able to continue to advocate, be a professional athlete, deal with coming home from Russia, she’s an incredible person," Shargi told USA TODAY Sports. "I have nothing but respect for her."

Shargi planned to meet Griner at the conclusion of the game. Meeting someone who has been detained is emotional, said Shargi, an organizer of the "Bring Our Families Home" campaign.

"When I tell him what the Mercury and what BG is doing, it gives him hope to continue on, to keep fighting every single day and have hope that he’ll be back," Shargi said. "Because the worst thing a hostage can feel is forgotten."

As the final buzzer sounded, the crowd gave one final cheer from Griner. She raised her arms in the air, index fingers pointed.

The WNBA community never forgot about Griner. She's not about to do the same to those in the position she once found herself.

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mercury's Brittney Griner gets big greeting from Mystics fans