The two-time Olympic gold medalist wasted no time making an impact, winning the tip-off and contributing four points as the Mercury surged to an early 7-0 lead. The crowd erupted in applause when Griner sank a 17-foot jumper on her first attempt of the contest.
“It felt good,” expressed Griner in an on-court interview after the first quarter. “It felt real good. It felt like the last time I played.”
Despite Griner’s valiant effort of scoring 18 points and securing six rebounds, the Mercury succumbed to a comprehensive 94-71 defeat.
The significance of Griner’s return was not lost on Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello and her teammates. Assistant coach Julie Nygaard highlighted the long-awaited moment: “All last season, I opened every press conference with how many days she is gone. And until the day when we got the news in the morning that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen… It was heavy every day. But it’s great to have this game today. Today it’s a day of joy.”
Among the celebrities in attendance were tennis legend Billie Jean King, Los Angeles Lakers icon Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Lakers head coach Darvin Ham.
Before the game, Vice President Harris personally commended the Phoenix players for their unwavering support of Griner during her ordeal: “Thank you for all that you did for supporting Brittney, because I know that was rough. That was so difficult for you because a team is a team – that’s family.”
The WNBA Players Union Chief and Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike expressed gratitude to Harris and the Biden administration for their efforts in securing Griner’s release: “Tonight is a game, but we’re also celebrating the return of one of our own.”
Griner’s arrest occurred while she was playing for a professional team in Russia during the WNBA off-season. She faced charges of possessing vape cartridges containing a small quantity of cannabis oil and was sentenced to nine years in prison in August. Although she pleaded guilty, Griner maintained that she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
In a momentous turn of events, Griner was eventually released in December as part of a swap that involved notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, infamously known as the “Merchant of Death.”