'It's a miracle she's here': Brittney Griner makes WNBA return after Russian detainment

LOS ANGELES — Brittney Griner, who less than six months ago was in a Russian prison and fearing she might not ever get home, made her official return to professional basketball Friday night.

Griner, 32, had a team-high 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, six rebounds and four blocks for the Phoenix Mercury in a 94-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on opening night for the WNBA. It was another milestone in her path back from a harrowing ordeal that included almost 10 months of detainment.

“It’s a miracle that she’s here,’’ Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard told reporters before the game.

Shortly before tipoff, Griner exchanged hugs with Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, who were in attendance at Arena. Other notables included Dawn Staley, Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson and former Lakers stars Pau Gasol and Michael Cooper.

The boisterous crowd of 10,396, full of young fans, some wearing “We Are BG’’ pins in honor of Griner, gave her a long and loud standing ovation.

'TOMORROW'S NOT GUARANTEED' Brittney Griner reflects on ordeal in Russia after opener

"It was nice to be back for a real game and everything. The love from the fans when I came out was amazing," Griner said after the game.

Griner, an eight-time All-Star, quickly made her presence felt on the court.

Brittney Griner scored a team-high 18 points in her return to the WNBA.
Brittney Griner scored a team-high 18 points in her return to the WNBA.

After winning the opening tip, Griner dished out an assist on the Mercury’s first possession, grabbed a defensive rebound after racing down the court and moments later drained a 21-foot jumper to put Phoenix up 5-0. It was a surreal sight considering the ordeal that began in February 2022 when she was playing for a pro team in Russia.

Griner was detained at a Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil allegedly were found in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to the drug charges and was sentenced to nine years in prison and moved to a penal colony.

Freed in December as part of a prisoner swap, the 6-foot-9 center took the court to rousing cheers at Arena for a game televised nationally by ESPN.

It had been been 578 days since Griner played in her last WNBA game — Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals — and a chance to hear her name during player introductions created "a swell of emotions."

"Didn’t get to experience that for a while, so just taking it in but staying focused because at the end of the day I’ve got a job to do," Griner said.

It was the first game of a 40-game regular season that will test Griner’s ability to regain her All-Star form. During the 2021 season, the last she played in the WNBA, Griner was an MVP candidate.

The Mercury open at home on Sunday against the Chicago Sky.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner makes WNBA return in front of VP, Dawn Staley, Magic